Humans, the Norm-Breakers [Book Review]

Biology and Philosophy 38 (5):1-13 (2023)
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What is it to be a better ape? This is the question Victor Kumar and Richmond Campbell ask in their book on the evolution of the moral mind, an ambitious story that starts with the common ancestor of the modern apes—humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. Of all of us, it’s the humans who remain in the running for being a better ape, because we’re the ones who have all the necessary ingredients: the binding emotions of sympathy and loyalty which we share with our nonhuman cousins, but also the collaborative emotions of trust and respect and the reactive emotions of guilt and resentment. Importantly, only humans are thought to have norms, and to be biologically prepared to learn norms. For Kumar and Campbell, the co-evolution of emotions and norms is what set humans on this path so we can become a better ape. The story they tell is artfully woven from major theories in psychology and anthropology, and those of us who have pre-existing opinions about these theories have points where we can quibble regarding the nature of the emotions–whether only humans imitate, what norms of fairness amount to, or whether any other species are generalists who can survive in a wide range of habitats. Rather than focusing on these, I want to turn to an exciting hypothesis Kumar and Campbell propose about the evolution and function of norms. While it is most common to think that norms helped our ancestors solve the collective action problems that emerged when larger groups of individuals started living together, Kumar and Campbell suggest a different, though complementary, function for norms. They propose that norms provide a more precise and flexible means for coordinating behavior in quickly changing societies. On their view, it isn’t the size of community that is the most significant variable, but rather the speed at which culture evolves. That norms are a human universal is indubitable. Our contemporary human societies are rife with rules constraining our behaviors, governing aspects of our lives from birth to death, prescribing practices about what to wear, how to work, what to eat, when and how to sleep as well as rules about rare practices that are proscribed. However, Kumar and Campbell also presume that norms are human unique. Here I have more than a quibble, given the burgeoning empirical and theoretical literature on the question of animal normativity (Andrews 2020; Danón 2019; Fitzpatrick 2020; de Waal 2014; von Rohr et al. 2011; Rohr et al. 2015; Whiten et al. 2005; Westra et al., in prep)...

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Kristin Andrews
York University


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