Lecture Series: QUESTIONING ORIGINS. The Role of Ideological Assumptions in Evolutionary Explanations of Human Nature

There is a growing amount of research on the evolution of human features and of popular and philosophical books that discuss its implications. Claims to be found concern assumed “key steps” in the evolution of the human species (Tomasello et al. 2012), central differences to closely related ancestors, or evolutionarily based differences among the sexes. Some authors argue that human beings have trouble living up to moral standards in a globalized world, “because our brains were designed for tribal life,” i.e. for getting along with our peer-group, while fighting everybody else (Greene 2013). Another position on offer is that the most significant difference between our ancestors and the early homo is the shrinking relevance of hierarchical structures, caused by a “selection against bullies” and the stabilization of egalitarian structures (Boehm 1999, Tomasello 2016). While many authors take altruism, cooperation, or egalitarian structures to be crucial steps in the evolution of human morality (Kitcher 2011), others object that moral anger, disgust, and contempt are just as relevant (Prinz 2007, Haidt 2012).

The differences in the resulting accounts of what human beings are, what they are capable of and what our core moral values consist in raise many interesting questions: To what extent are the most central assumptions about human nature supported by empirical evidence? To what extent do they challenge ideological presuppositions made in prior accounts? And to what extent do we need to make such presuppositions to be able to construct evolutionary narratives at all? If we make conceptual presuppositions about our explananda, are these necessarily value-laden or ideological? And lastly, if such presuppositions cannot be avoided is there a virtuous way of making them explicit in one’s own research?

We invite authors, who have recently developed an account of how certain human cognitive or behavioral features evolved, to present their work in a lecture to an international audience online. Each lecture will be followed by a comment offering reflections on the question of which concept of human nature, which value assumptions or potential biases the account challenges or might even presuppose. The goal of the lecture series is to stimulate a cooperative exchange among researchers concerned with the evolution of human features. We will reflect and discuss value assumptions, ideological biases and their respective positive and negative effects. The talks will be recorded and made available on our homepage. 


April 14 2021, 15:30 (CET): Michael Tomasello

May 12 2021, 15:30 (CET): Cecilia Heyes

October 6 2021, 15:30 (CET): Judith Burkart

November 17 2021, 15:30 (CET): Richard Moore