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Evolution, Science and Morality (Level 6)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor and tutor: Professor Robert Northcott
  • Assessment: a 1500-word essay (40%) and 2000-word essay (60%)

Module description

In this module we consider the philosophical implications of empirical evidence of an evolutionary origin for our moral intuitions and inclinations. Evolutionary theory is often taken to paint a rather bleak picture of nature, depicting it as an aggressively competitive arena, 'red in tooth and claw', in which organisms are pitted against each other in a struggle for survival. Morality, on the other hand, seems centred on benevolence, co-operation and other kinds of altruistic behaviour. This generates a puzzle: where does morality, with its emphasis on helping those less fit, belong in the seemingly amoral economy of a world hospitable only to the more fit?

We will consider approaches to these topics within both the philosophy of science and moral philosophy. We will begin by outlining the basics of evolutionary science, and how to understand nature versus nurture. We will ask how we can assess and test evolutionary claims about human psychology. We will then move on specifically to evolutionary accounts of altruism, in both human and other animals, and of morality. We will examine the political implications of these evolutionary accounts, such as for fairness or for power relations between the sexes. And we will examine the meta-ethical implications too: for the role in morality of reason versus intuition, and also whether evolutionary accounts ultimately undermine or ‘debunk’ morality altogether.

Indicative syllabus

  • The design argument
  • Nature versus nurture
  • The epistemology of evolutionary psychology
  • Evolution of altruism in animals and humans
  • Political implications: cooperation, competition and society
  • Moral epistemology: reason, intuition, or both?
  • Is evolved morality universal or relative?
  • Does evolution debunk morality?

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • understand different approaches to evolution within the philosophy of science and moral philosophy, as well as their interrelationships with other approaches in philosophy and science
  • understand different ideas, contexts and frameworks deployed by contributors to debates over nature vs nurture, evolutionary psychology and the political implications of evolutionary arguments, and recognise some of their strengths and weaknesses
  • undertake thorough critical analyses of different philosophical theories of evolutionary science and evolutionary psychology and their implications for questions around fairness, power relations and the authority of morality itself, and evaluate the outcomes
  • critically challenge philosophical accounts of evolutionary fitness and altruism, the morality of reason vs intuition and the validity of evolutionary debunking arguments.