Ben Lipscomb

Moral Minds

A second look at a controversial evolutionary psychologist.

icon1 of 3view all

The past weeks have witnessed the unhappy spectacle of an academic star fallen into disgrace. Marc Hauser was placed on a one-year leave by Harvard, after a three-year internal investigation into scientific misconduct. Further sanctions are pending. Harvard officials are giving out few details, but the testimony of a former research assistant has leaked to The Chronicle of Higher Education, giving a sense of the character and magnitude of the misconduct. In short, Hauser claimed to have seen things (hypothesis-confirming things) in video footage of his experimental subjects (cotton-top tamarins) that his assistants repeatedly failed to see. And he insisted on publishing based on what he alone saw (or "saw").

Hauser's field is evolutionary psychology—in particular, the evolutionary roots of moral psychology. This is a field that sometimes provokes controversy, and Hauser has established himself as a gifted controversialist. He is—or has been—a widely and eagerly sought lecturer and interview subject. One can't say for sure what motivated the dishonesty, but it is tempting to guess that Hauser became too enamored of stirring the pot.

What eats at us when we hear of a case like Hauser's—one reason scientific misconduct is so severely stigmatized—is that it leaves us wondering if some other study (by the same author, or by another) is similarly tainted. Science is a self-correcting practice, over time. But Hauser's entire body of work is, for the moment, under suspicion. Which is too bad, because much of it is probably fine. A distinctive mark of Hauser's career has been his yen toward collaboration across sub-disciplinary and even disciplinary lines. And whatever pressure he applied to his assistants, he wouldn't have been able to apply that kind of pressure to peers.

It's not a bad moment, actually, to look again at Hauser's best-known work, with our guard up but also with the expectation that the ideas are worth considering. Such guarded optimism may, indeed, be the best frame of mind in which to consider works of popular science—as against the "gosh, professor, is it really so?" abjection with which such works are often received.

Hauser is represented by John Brockman, agent to many scientists in the public eye (including Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins, among others) and the founder of Some have complained about Brockman books that they are produced too quickly, under pressure from the trade publisher who has often handed over a massive advance for a sure-thing nonfiction bestseller. Hauser's Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong seems to confirm that misgiving.

Hauser doesn't have a book's worth of original research and argument, and so, a third of the way in, with his own ideas and research contributions before the reader, he turns to a critical summary of recent research by neuroscientists and other evolutionary psychologists: Antonio Damasio, Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt, and others. The remaining chapters read like—and, I strongly suspect, are—polished lecture notes from a (terrific) course: full of interesting content, frequently digressive, and without any big conclusions, or even any discernible movement toward such conclusions. (Who could expect a big conclusion, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning?) These chapters are also festooned with pop-culture references and Bartleby (and Dave Barry) quotes, of varying relevance, an instructional gimmick that transfers gratingly to the printed page.

The ideas, however—Hauser's own, in particular—are fascinating. For several years now, Hauser and his students have been conducting surveys of people from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, asking them to pronounce on what are known, in moral philosophy, as "Trolley Cases." In such cases, as the late R. M. Hare wrote, "trolleys hurtling down the line out of control have to be shunted into various alternative groups of unfortunate people." The purpose of such cases, first in philosophical reflection and now in human-subjects research, is to draw out people's intuitions—with nice, clean (necessarily contrived) cases—about whether to sacrifice a few for the sake of many, and whether or not it matters how such a sacrifice is effected. In one standard case, one must decide whether to redirect a runaway trolley from a track where it will kill five people to a track where it will kill one. In another, there is no opportunity to redirect, but one is asked to consider flinging a victim—standardly, cruelly, the victim is obese—onto the track, where he or she would supposedly interrupt the trolley. About such cases, Hare wrote, "I have myself, when helping to build a railway, seen trolleys run out of control, and therefore find the unrealism of the examples very obvious." But their attractions for laboratory psychologists are likewise obvious. And if it turns out that there are pronounced, cross-cultural convergences in people's judgments about such cases, well: that is interesting.

icon1 of 3view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide