David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, wrote this last month about the “moral naturalists,” a group of evolutionary psychologists who argue that we’ve evolved an innate moral grammar, rather like Chomsky’s innate linguistic grammar.

He features the work of Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser:

… Hauser … began his career studying primates, and for moral naturalists the story of our morality begins back in the evolutionary past. It begins with the way insects, rats and monkeys learned to cooperate. By the time humans came around, evolution had forged a pretty firm foundation for a moral sense.

Yet now, with a heavy-handed irony that seems more the realm of fiction than real life, Hauser’s own morality is in serious question. He has taken leave from Harvard as a major investigation into his possible research fraud continues.

As far back as fifteen years ago, Hauser’s methods and results were being seriously challenged. He routinely seems to make claims about primate behavior unsupported by evidence, and has already retracted one influential paper.

“If scientists can’t trust published papers,” comments a fellow researcher, “the whole process breaks down.’’


The subtitle of Hauser’s forthcoming book deepens the irony: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.


UPDATE: Interesting to see that, back in ’06, Richard Rorty sensed some bullshit at work here.

The exuberant triumphalism of the prologue to “Moral Minds” leads the reader to expect that Hauser will lay out criteria for distinguishing parochial moral codes from universal principles, and will offer at least a tentative list of those principles. These expectations are not fulfilled. The vast bulk of “Moral Minds” consists of reports of experimental results, but Hauser does very little to make clear how these results bear on his claim that there is a “moral voice of our species.”

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4 Responses to ““[I]t’s nice to see people investigating morality in ways that are concrete and empirical.””

  1. Bill Gleason Says:

    Speaking of morality, Stanley Fish is at it again:

    Stanley Fish: “Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal” http://nyti.ms/bdz1t4 The man certainly knows how to stir up a discussion… #UMN

  2. University Diaries » University Diaries Welcomes… Says:

    […] If you’ve come here to scan UD’s comments on the Marc Hauser story, here they are. […]

  3. University Diaries » Three years ago… Says:

    […] Background here. […]

  4. University Diaries » Harvard, Hauser, and Moral Hazard Says:

    […] after years, said something official about the Marc Hauser scientific research scandal. Yes, he committed fraud in eight articles, three of which were published, and they’re being retracted as we speak. […]

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