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Theory Biosci. 2008 Aug;127(3):229-40. doi: 10.1007/s12064-008-0027-y. Epub 2008 Mar 21.

Ethics, evolution and culture.

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  • 1Centre for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia, 227-6356 Agricultural Rd., Vancouver V6T 1Z2, BC, Canada.


Recent work in the fields of evolutionary ethics and moral psychology appears to be converging on a single empirically- and evolutionary-based science of morality or ethics. To date, however, these fields have failed to provide an adequate conceptualisation of how culture affects the content and distribution of moral norms. This is particularly important for a large class of moral norms relating to rapidly changing technological or social environments, such as norms regarding the acceptability of genetically modified organisms. Here we suggest that a science of morality/ethics can benefit from adopting a cultural evolution or gene-culture coevolution approach, which treats culture as a second, separate evolutionary system that acts in parallel to biological/genetic evolution. This cultural evolution approach brings with it a set of established theoretical concepts (e.g. different cultural transmission mechanisms) and empirical methods (e.g. evolutionary game theory) that can significantly improve our understanding of human morality.

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