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Using Infanticide to Teach Evolution

John on December 22, 2005 at 11:04 am

I read about this publication in which David Sloan Wilson uses infanticide as a way to connect students to the power of evolutionary theory [HT: Grey Thoughts] Here I present my own series of questions and thoughts as a stand in for one of his students:

Is infanticide right or wrong?

For a specific topic such as infanticide, it all boils down to an empirical question: Do people commit infanticide under the same environmental conditions as other species?

Well, I’d say yes, I suppose. Mice are known to eat their young to avoid interrupting their sophmore year at college. Sea slugs are notorious practitioners of infanticide to avoid having to shop at Costco or other “warehouse style” shopping outlets. So yes, we’re pretty much the same. No big deal, really.

In the case of infanticide, evolutionary theory doesn’t say that it’s right—it is used to make an informed guess about when it occurs…The picture that emerges makes sense of cases of infanticide that appear periodically in the news (typically young women with few resources and under the influence of a male partner who is not the father) and that previously seemed inexplicable.

So evolution explains dumpster babies, but that doesn’t mean it’s right? I’m confused. Um…how is it not right, exactly?

If behaviors regarded as immoral in human terms are adaptive and “natural,” then aren’t all the fears about evolution justified? No—because behaviors that are regarded as moral in human terms are also adaptive and “natural” under the right circumstances

Oh! Dumpster babies are natural but so are loving moms, therefore everything’s okay. What a relief. For a moment there I thought you were going to say there was no upside to this.

The important point is that evolutionary theory can potentially explain the evolution of behaviors associated with morality and immorality. This is vastly different than the usual portrayal of evolution as a theory that explains immorality but leaves morality unaccounted for.

Okay, I got it. Evolution produces “good” and “bad.” So, um, if evolution produces both why do we call loving moms good and dumpster babies bad? Aren’t both things simply “natural?” Doesn’t this suggest that dumpster babies aren’t really wrong, just unpopular among the population of loving moms?

These issues are discussed in more detail later in the course.

No, I think I get it. What we mean by morality is really popularity. So if dumpster babies become more common than loving moms, that would make dumpster babies what we call “right” and loving moms what we call “wrong?”

Virtually all students respond to the class because they cease to be threatened by evolutionary theory and begin to perceive it as a powerful way to understand and improve the world.

Thanks for explaining that. Morality makes a lot more sense now.

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