School of History, Philosophy and Culture

  • Research: Evolutionary Ethics banner
  • Evolution, ethics, and human origins

    A deep-time perspective on human morality

    Human morality has unique features: we care about fairness, we are compassionate, and we cooperate in ways that go further than the altruistic behaviours of other primates. Such behaviours are regulated by moral norms, which are shared and enforced by communities. The evolution of human morality is an enduring question in ethics and moral psychology. This project will examine the evolutionary origins of morality by including a crucial piece of evidence that has been neglected in the literature: archaeological evidence for care and cooperation among human ancestors. We will combine this line of inquiry with findings from developmental psychology and studies of cooperation in non-western cultures and in primates.

    We will address 3 central questions:

    1. How did human morality evolve? We will investigate the archaeological evidence for hominin cooperation, such as care for disabled individuals, collaborative hunting and gathering, and childcare. We hypothesize that human-specific morality evolved in a mosaic fashion as a result of selective pressures specific to hominin social life. We will write a monograph, a paper, and hold a series of public lectures.
    2. Can there be objective moral norms in the light of evolution? We will explore the hypothesis that moral claims (in particular, pertaining to human cooperation) can be true in a realist sense, whereas others are likely not. Outputs will be a paper, a panel session, a conference and an edited volume on moral realism.
    3. Are the theological notions of original sin and the Fall compatible with evolution? Drawing on the theology of Irenaeus and Schleiermacher, we propose they are. We outline a mechanism for this in a monograph and paper, and will organize a conference on the topic. We expect our project will change how scholars engage in evolutionary ethics. It will demonstrate that the details of how human morality evolved matter, and that they can help decide between philosophical and theological positions.

    Funding: This project is funded by the John Templeton Foundation

    Project duration: December 2017 – August 2020

  • People on the project

    Principal Investigator and co-investigator

    • Helen De Cruz
    • Johan De Smedt

    Invited speakers

    • Penny Spikins 
    • Neil Levy 
    • Michael Ruse 

    Scientific advisors

    • Emily Burdett
    • Richard Rowland
  • Events

  • Project outputs