Irony and Stupidity

Marc Hauser is an evolutionary biologist on the faculty of Harvard College, which is (of course) a part of Harvard University. His research blends evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, and one of his areas of interest is the evolutionary origins of morality. In 2006, he wrote a book called Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, and in it he argues that millions of years of natural selection have produced what he calls a “moral grammar.” Essentially, this moral grammar is a set of principles that are based on the causes of actions and their resulting consequences, and it allows us to build moral systems without reference to religion.

If you follow the news of science at all, you know that Marc Hauser took a leave of absence from Harvard, because the university began an investigation that eventually led to a declaration that Hauser was guilty of eight instances of scientific misconduct. While Harvard has yet to reveal the exact nature of the misconduct involved, it is related to both published and unpublished studies. One paper co-authored by Hauser has already been retracted, and there are widespread concerns about several other papers. According to the journal Science,

Hauser is the only author common to all of them.1

This, of course, is the “irony” referenced in the title. An expert in the evolution of morality has been found guilty of scientific misconduct, which (of course) is not exactly moral.

Now before I move on to the “stupidity” referenced in the title, let me make it clear that I did not discuss Hauser’s scientific misconduct when the story broke simply because I did’t see it as anything other than an example of irony. I don’t think it is any more relevant to a discussion about morality than are the stories of Protestant ministers who have been caught in immoral situations or the stories of Catholic priests who have been convicted of child abuse.

Hauser’s situation is not illustrative of the idea that a devotion to evolution leads to immoral behavior. Indeed, I don’t even think that idea is correct. I know a lot of atheist evolutionists, and some of them are among the most moral individuals I know. In the same way, I know a lot of conservative Christians, and some of them are among the most immoral people I know. Also, one needs only a passing familiarity with the writings of atheist philosophers to understand that there are strong atheistic moral codes that exist. And, of course, evolution is not an idea held only by atheists. There are those who are devoutly Christian and also believe in evolution. Thus, the idea that evolution leads to immorality is simply not supported by the facts as we know them.

So while I find Hauser’s situation saddening, I find it less saddening than evangelist/preacher Tony Alamo’s recent conviction of sexual misconduct with underage girls or the Catholic church’s need to do “damage control” regarding priests who raped and molested children. Indeed, while all of these situations are saddening, the two not involving Hauser are the ones that are downright evil.

Now please don’t get me wrong here. I am not trying to say that Christians are, on average, less moral than atheists. What I am saying is that Hauser’s ethical problems are no more illustrative of those who believe in evolution than the various scandals involving Protestant ministers and Catholic priests are illustrative of those who believe in Christianity. In the end, there are immoral people in this world, and they do immoral things. In my experience immoral people can be found in most (if not all) philosophies, from the deeply religious to the aggressively antireligious. In the same way, moral people can be found in most (if not all) philosophies, from the deeply religious to the aggressively antireligious.

So…with that out of the way, to what does the “stupid” in the title refer? It refers to a quote I read in the Science article I mentioned above. After detailing what is known regarding Hauser’s misconduct, the article quotes a former lab as saying,

I fully believe the allegations…That said, I consider him the best adviser that I’ve ever had. He is a creative, energetic, and charismatic person.2

Now think about that quote for a moment. Here is an scientist who has been convicted of eight counts of scientific misconduct. He might be “creative, energetic, and charismatic,” but a scientific adviser is supposed to advise you about how to do science. If he is committing scientific misconduct, he is not a good adviser, period.

When future scientists say stupid things like this, it causes me great concern for the future of science! Hopefully, the opinion expressed by that quote is not held by most of those who were advised by Dr. Hauser.

REFERENCES

1. Greg Miller, “Investigation Leaves Field in the Dark About a Colleague’s Work,” Science 329:890-891, 2010.
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2. Ibid., p. 890
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