Scientific Monkey Business: a Case of Academic Fraud

Are monkeys morally accountable?

Last month Harvard University revealed that one of it’s famed professors, Dr. Marc Hauser, an evolutionary psychologist, was under investigation for scientific misconduct.  Dr. Hauser studies the cognitive of abilities of monkeys in an effort to develop a “science of morality” and free morality from the domain of religion and philosophy.  His work has been celebrated in his field of evolutionary psychology, the chief project of which is to explain altruistic human morality in evolutionary terms.  In other words, evolutionary psychologists have sought to demonstrate how moral values such as kindness, empathy, and self-sacrifice have given humans an evolutionary advantage and are thus traits that have endured through the process of natural selection.  Dr. Hauser was regarded as one of their brightest minds and his experimental research has been used to justify many of their theories.

The details of his misconduct have not been disclosed, but the main allegations are that he fabricated data and suppressed critical dissent among his graduate students over inconsistencies in data collection and analysis.  The immediate consequences of the investigation are the retraction of an influential 2002 paper and doubts about the validity of a 2007 Science publication (perhaps the most prestigious scientific journal).  The long-term consequences may be to discredit the entire field of evolutionary psychology itself.  One of Dr. Hauser’s colleagues bemoans, “the hubris and selfishness of one person can do more in the form of damage than an entire productive career can do in the way of building our collective credibility.”  Another decries the scandal as “disastrous.”

None of us should lament the decline of evolutionary psychology’s intellectual respectability.  This field arose to fill what may be the greatest gap in evolutionary theory:  in a world of tooth and claw survival of the fittest, how does one account for the evolution of selfless behavior.  Morality and ethics have long been understood in spiritual and philosophical categories and religious justifications for morality have long held sway in our culture.  By rescuing morality from religion and securing it in the realm of science, evolutionary psychology has sought to further undermine religious interpretations of the human experience.  To distinguish itself from religious approaches to understanding morality, evolutionary psychology has sought to posture itself as a serious scientific field.  But as psychologist Christopher Ryan cautions, “Many of the most prominent voices in the field are less scientists than political philosophers.” Chuck Colson categorizes the field succinctly as “a philosophy in search of data.”

The philosophical and spiritual dimensions of morality are indeed inescapable.  To say that morality ought to belong to science, and ought not to be merely a religious or philosophical matter is itself a philosophical claim, not one that is deduced from scientific data.  Furthermore, to dismiss religion and philosophy as valid sources of knowledge, and to trust only in knowledge claims that are scientifically verifiable, is self-contradictory.  For to claim that only scientific methods provide us with valid knowledge  is itself a knowledge claim that is not derived from scientific methods.

What the philosophy of evolutionary psychology fails to recognize is that knowledge claims about nature are fundamentally different in kind from knowledge claims about morality.  The former are descriptive and impersonal, while the latter are prescriptive and personal.   C.S. Lewis illustrates this important distinction by contrasting the descriptive observation that rocks fall to the ground with the observation that people kill other people.  He points out that while no one would say “rocks ought not to fall,” almost everyone would say “people ought not to kill.”  We do not make prescriptive judgments about the law of nature for such laws describe what is not what ought to be.  To judge what ought to be requires moral law which has its source in personhood not the impersonal laws of gravity, motion, electricity, etc.

Thus, the Christian faith, and other religions, look to an ultimate personal being, i.e. God, as the source and justification for moral knowledge.  The moral law, which calls us to identify our interests with the interests of others and thus sacrifice for the common good, which calls us to take courageous risks to save human life, and which calls us to lifetime fidelity toward our wives and children, is wholly incongruous with the “law of the jungle” which places our individual survival and happiness as the chief aim in life.  This moral law does not have its origins in natural process, but in the conscience of God who created human beings also with consciences that testify to our hearts and minds of this law.

Incidents like these of scientific fraud should not make Christians anti-scientific.  Rather the pursuit of knowledge of nature is a sacred calling that glorifies God and promotes human flourishing.  However, Christians should discern and oppose man-centered, godless philosophies masquerading as objective science.


One comment on “Scientific Monkey Business: a Case of Academic Fraud

  1. 泳鏡 says:

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