Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 127, Issue 3, pp 229–240 | Cite as

Ethics, evolution and culture

  • Alex MesoudiEmail author
  • Peter Danielson
Original Paper


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.


Cultural evolution Cultural transmission Evolutionary ethics Evolutionary game theory Moral norms Moral philosophy Moral psychology 



We thank Roger Stanev and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. This work was partly funded by Genome Canada through the offices of Genome British Columbia.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Applied EthicsUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Department of Social and Developmental PsychologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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