An analysis of human morality through the lens of modern evolutionary science.
Debut author and retired surgeon Moseley introduces his book with an ambitious aim: to mine the “surging tide of research” in various sciences to pinpoint the origins of morality, its evolution over time, and its conceptual character. (Along the way, he even proposes a theory regarding the origin of life itself, which, he says, “seems to have been an inevitable outcome of the state of matter in the universe.”) He asserts that the notion of morality was originally a product of self-preservation, as the increasing complexity of consciousness and social arrangement necessitated a more sophisticated form of governance. From this, a grander desire for social development grew, and systems of morality helped to balance individual self-interest and the needs of communal life. The author explores an impressively broad swath of intellectual territory over the course of his book, as he looks at how neuroscience, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, among other disciplines, made contributions to moral theory. He begins the study with a brief, if somewhat vague, synopsis of philosophical and religious history—he explains Judaism in just two paragraphs—and considers issues such as free will, the nexus of nature and nurture, and the genetic conditions of moral consciousness. Moseley notes that he considers himself a “philosophical pragmatist,” or, alternately, a “utilitarian pragmatist,” in search of a natural, empirical understanding of moral life. But although he does his best to avoid offering a “trivial, mechanistic interpretation of the highest aspirations of humankind,” he still glosses over the possibility that the exercise of morality may require one to transcend pragmatic concerns. Nonetheless, he does give readers an accessible entry to how scientific advances brought a measure of clarity to moral discourse. Overall, Moseley’s work is lucid, sensible, and ultimately a worthwhile read, despite its occasional limitations.
A thoughtful and readable introduction to a complex subject.