The Biology of Moral Systems (Foundations of Human Behavior)

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Despite wide acceptance that the attributes of living creatures have appeared through a cumulative evolutionary process guided chiefly by natural selection, many human activities have seemed analytically inaccessible through such an approach. Prominent evolutionary biologists, for example, have described morality as contrary to the direction of biological evolution, and moral philosophers rarely regard evolution as relevant to their discussions. The Biology of Moral Systems adopts the position that moral questions arise out of conflicts of interest, and that moral systems are ways of using confluences of interest at lower levels of social organization to deal with conflicts of interest at higher levels. Moral systems are described as systems of indirect reciprocity: humans gain and lose socially and reproductively not only by direct transactions, but also by the reputations they gain from the everyday flow of social interactions. The author develops a general theory of human interests, using senescence and effort theory from biology, to help analyze the patterning of human lifetimes. He argues that the ultimate interests of humans are reproductive, and that the concept of morality has arisen within groups because of its contribution to unity in the context, ultimately, of success in intergroup competition. He contends that morality is not easily relatable to universals, and he carries this argument into a discussion of what he calls the greatest of all moral problems, the nuclear arms race. "Crammed with sage observations on moral dilemmas and many reasons why an understanding of evolution based on natural selection will advance thinking in finding practical solutions to our most difficult social problems." û Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences Richard D. Alexander is Donald Ward Tinkle Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Department of Biology, and Curator of Insects, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan. A recipient of numerous awards, Dr. Alexander is the author of Darwinism and Human Affairs.

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“Alexander is an evolutionary biologist with a mission. . . . Alexander does a nice job explicating the core notion of sociobiology: that human behavior must be seen from the perspective of the long-term reproductive consequences of that behavior. He gives useful explications both of the relationship between reproduction and senescence in understanding the human lifespan and of the ways in which cooperation and altruism can advance rather than hinder individual reproductive success. He also gives a good overview of the various positions biologists and moral philosophers have taken about the relevance of the work of the former to the theoretical efforts of the latter.”

—Arthur L. Caplan, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

“Alexander’s thoughtful essay, with applications to pressing modern dilemmas, like the rights of embryos and the arms race, deserve a reflective reading.”

—Jerome Kagan, American Scientist

“Alexander’s originality and breadth of thinking make for interesting, sometimes fascinating reading on a series of topics that will concern all anthropologists.”

—Christopher Boehm, American Anthropologist

“Anyone who is interested in seeing a naturalistic, gene-oriented version of evolutionary theory applied to human beings in great detail and the systems of morality constructed in the absence of such a perspective dismantled with single-minded ruthlessness will want to read Alexander’s book.”

—David L. Hull, The Quarterly Review of Biology

“Sociologists are likely to suggest that Émile Durkheim was interested in societies as moral systems and would want to bring his work into the discussion. Alexander has presented us with a rich context for such dialogue.”

—Kenneth Bock, American Journal of Sociology

“There are a great many arguments and hypotheses in Alexander’s book.”

—Andrew Oldenquist, Mind

“However much social scientists might disagree with Alexander, they can ignore him only at their own peril. The picture he draws of us is none to flattering, but it seems a good likeness, on the whole.”

—Pierre L. van den Berghe, Contemporary Sociology

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