Morality Check: When Fad Science Is Bad Science

Harvard University announced last Friday that its Standing Committee on Professional Conduct had found Marc Hauser, one of the school’s most prominent scholars, guilty of multiple counts of “scientific misconduct.” The revelation came after a three-year inquiry into allegations that the professor had fudged data in his research on monkey cognition. Since the studies were funded, in part, by government grants, the university has sent the evidence to the Feds.

The professor has not admitted wrongdoing, but he did issue a statement apologizing for making “significant mistakes.” And beyond his own immediate career difficulties, Mr. Hauser’s difficulties spell trouble for one of the trendiest fields in academia—evolutionary psychology.

Mr. Hauser has been at the forefront of a movement to show that our morals are survival instincts evolved over the millennia. When Mr. Hauser’s 2006 book “Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong” was published, evolutionary psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker proclaimed that his Harvard colleague was engaged in “one of the hottest new topics in intellectual life: The psychology and biology of morals.”

The cotton-top tamarin.

Not so long ago, the initial bloom already was off evolutionary psychology. The field earned a bad name by appearing to justify all sorts of nasty, rapacious behaviors, including rape, as successful strategies for Darwinian competition. But the second wave of the discipline solved that PR problem by discovering that evolution favored those with a more progressive outlook. Mr. Hauser has been among those positing that our ancestors survived not by being ruthlessly selfish, but by cooperating, a legacy ingrained in our moral intuitions.

This progressive sort of evolutionary psychology is often in the news. NPR offered an example this week with a story titled “Teary-Eyed Evolution: Crying Serves a Purpose.” According to NPR, “Scientists who study evolution say crying probably conferred some benefit and did something to advance our species.”

What that “something” “probably” is no one seems to know, but that doesn’t dent the enthusiasm for trendy speculation. Crying signals empathy, one academic suggested, And as NPR explained, “our early ancestors who were most empathic probably thrived because it helped them build strong communities, which in turn gave them protection and support.” Note the word “probably,” which means the claim is nothing but a guess.

Christopher Ryan is co-author of the recent book “Sex at Dawn,” itself an exercise in plumbing our prehistoric survival strategies for explanations of the modern human condition. But he is well aware of the limits of evolutionary psychology. “Many of the most prominent voices in the field are less scientists than political philosophers,” he cautioned last summer at the website of the magazine Psychology Today.

Evolutionary psychologists tell elaborate stories explaining modern life based on the conditions and circumstances of our prehistoric ancestors—even though we know very little about those factors. “Often, the fact that their story seems to make sense is the only evidence they offer,” Mr. Ryan wrote. “For them, it may be enough, but it isn’t enough if you’re aspiring to be taken seriously as a science.”

That’s where Mr. Hauser’s work comes in. We may not be able to access the minds or proto-societies of Homo habilis, but we can look at how the minds of modern apes and monkeys work, and extrapolate. Unlike the speculative tales that had become the hallmark of evolutionary psychology, primate research has promised to deliver hard science, the testing of hypotheses through experiments.

Mr. Hauser’s particular specialty has been in studying the cognitive abilities of New World monkeys such as the cotton-top tamarins of South America. He has cranked out a prodigious body of work, and bragged that his field enjoyed “exciting new discoveries uncovered every month, and rich prospects on the horizon,” He and his colleagues, Mr. Hauser proclaimed, were developing a new “science of morality.” Now his science is suspect.

As rumors swirled that Harvard was about to ding Mr. Hauser for scientific misconduct, prominent researchers in the field worried they would be tarnished by association. The science magazine Nature asked Frans de Waal—a primatologist at Emory University and author, most recently, of the widely read book “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society”—about what Mr. Hauser’s predicament meant for his discipline. He was blunt: “It is disastrous.”

Mr. Hauser had boldly declared that through his application of science, not only could morality be stripped of any religious hocus-pocus, but philosophy would have to step aside as well: “Inquiry into our moral nature will no longer be the proprietary province of the humanities and social sciences,” he wrote. Would it be such a bad thing if Hausergate resulted in some intellectual humility among the new scientists of morality?

It’s important to note that the Hauser affair also represents the best in science. When lowly graduate students suspected their famous boss was cooking his data, they risked their careers and reputations to blow the whistle on him. They are the scientists to celebrate.

Though there is no doubt plenty to learn from the evolutionary psychologists, when an intellectual fashion becomes a full-blown fad, it’s time to give it the gimlet eye.

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal


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