“The Evolution towards the Blank Slate” is an essay where I summarize the evolutive theory of both human cooperation and the emergence of culture as a behavioral control system. While the paper is mostly an interpretation of the humanization process, it also works as a literature review about the emergence of moral behavior and human culture. As such I consider it an introduction to the positive science of the emergence of moral behavior especially useful for moral philosophers

Arturo Macías

The Evolution towards the Blank Slate (March 28, 2024). 

Available at SSRN:  https://ssrn.com/abstract=4777057 


Section 1 discuss the difference between the noumenal moral philosophy and the positive/phenomenal evolutionary anthropology of human cooperation and culture. In section 2 the executive summary of “The Evolution towards the Blank Slate” is presented.

Moral Philosophy and the evolution of morality

The basis of philosophical modernity is the recognition of the fractured nature of reality, divided between the automatic, irrational and mathematically predictable matter (res extensa), and the conscious mind (res cogitans). Epiphenomenalism bridged the gap by postulating the autonomy and causal priority of matter, while not disputing the ontological primacy of mind.

Every cosmovision has its epistemological consequences. The division of reality between the material phenomenal reality and the conscious subject divides our sciences also between those describing the mind (Linguistics, Mathematics, and Philosophy and Psychology when their focus is the description of the self-reported states of conscience) and the phenomenal natural/social science.

This division is especially relevant for moral philosophy. On one hand moral behavior is a natural phenomenon that exists because of biological evolution and that is studied by Sociobiology and Cultural Anthropology with the help of the Game Theory formalism. On the other hand, moral action is observed by the conscious subject as a personal decision. Moral philosophy belongs to the noumenal side of reality and mostly answers the following question posed by a conscious subject: beyond personal preferences, what obligations shall I honor, and why?

Now, analytical moral philosophy has given a disproportionate weight to individual choice in ideal situations (vg. the trolley problems) while human action occurs in a network of social and institutional relations. The institutional blindness of contemporary utilitarianism (see here an exception) is especially related to the cult of “impartiality” as a supreme value. In a frictionless world where social relations are analogous to those between helium atoms, all hominids are equal, and the President of the United States in the 1940s should have considered Japanese or German casualties with the same regret as those of the soldiers he commanded. But it turns out that existing hominids are more like water molecules (attracted by the powerful van der Waals forces of strong reciprocity) than the quasi-ideal gas helium atoms of abstract philosophy. The moralization of human existence has occurred through the creation of incentive schemes generating social surplus and distributing it in such a way that the social organization itself was reinforced in the process.

The moral philosopher must avoid both the naturalistic fallacy of identifying evolutive fitness (either genetic or cultural) with the greater good, and the moralistic fallacy of ignoring strategic behavior in name of moral schemes that treat individuals as pieces of an alienating welfare machinery. 

Evolution towards the Blank Slate

This article surveys the evolutionary and game theoretical literature and suggests a new synthesis in the nature-nurture controversy. Gintian strong reciprocity is proposed as the main synthetic theory for evolutionary anthropology, and the thesis here defended is that the humanization process has been mainly one of “de-instinctivation”, that is, the substitution of hardwired behavior by the capabilities to handle cultural objects. 

In the history of Western thought, one of the most contentious points is the so-called “nature-nurture” debate: what is the degree of genetic determination of human behavior. Traditionally, conservative positions have been linked to a more rigid view of human nature, while progressivism has had human behavioral flexibility as its fundamental dogma. It is the possibility of changing ideas and for ideas to change social behavior that generates the degrees of freedom on which emancipatory politics is based. 

Our position is that, while an obvious exaggeration in its most extreme versions, the “Blank Slate” approach to human behavior has merit: the degree of cross- cultural plasticity of individual behavior is observationally high in the anthropological record and this article summarizes the evolutionary mechanisms behind the Cambrian explosion of social diversity that characterizes modern humans. The dynamics of cultural transmission is largely orthogonal to genetic needs, and although people have innate inclinations (vg. food, sex, status and after a birth, the care of children), the core of the human nature is being a “Cultural Turing machine”, making the machine's tape immensely powerful. Evolution has not slowed because of the emergence of human social intelligence: it has forked into that of genes (mainly for social cognitive capabilities) and that of memeplexes (for socio-political supremacy).

Strong reciprocity suggests a modification to standard utilitarianism: applied ethics needs to have an institutional and evolutionary perspective. It is not about choosing punctually and uncoordinatedly what is impartially best in each case. It is about altering the memetic pool of the different societies to optimize them, but not seeking an instantaneous optimum but rather an evolutionarily stable one. 

The moralization of human existence in the last tens of thousands of years has fundamentally occurred because of an expansion of reciprocal support schemes. In our view, utilitarian inspired groups must focus on deepening and expanding this well-tested process of moralization. An emphasis in “giving” forgets that “open loop” charity is (ceteris paribus) far less effective (by being less sustainable) than reciprocal (close loop) mutual support schemes.

Consequently, we suggest that the concept of utilitarian impartiality must be replaced by that of “inclusive reciprocity”. Considering the well-being of everyone equally, making no difference between those who belong to a reciprocity scheme and those who do not is non-sustainable. On the other hand, the universalism of utilitarian ethics can be maintained by keeping reciprocity schemes open to all. A human group with a pledge for mutual support and open to those who are willing to assume those obligations regardless of their origin could be sustainable and even could be close to be the social version of a Darwinian optimal replicator.

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