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Explaining Human Nature. Empirical and Ideological Dimensions

Applicant Hufendiek Rebekka
Number 186936
Funding scheme Eccellenza
Research institution Institut für Philosophie Universität Bern
Institution of higher education University of Berne - BE
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.10.2020 - 30.09.2025
Approved amount 1'705'052.00
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All Disciplines (3)

Anthropology, Primatology

Keywords (6)

human nature; evolution of social and moral emotions; explanations; evolution of morality; philosophy of science; ideology

Lay Summary (German)

In den letzten Jahren erfreuen sich Theorien, die sich mit der Evolution menschlicher Merkmale wie beschäftigen, wachsender Beliebtheit. Das Projekt setzt sich kritisch mit den empirischen Grundlagen, den gewählten Erklärungsformen und den ideologischen Vorannahmen dieser Theorien auseinander.
Lay summary
In den relevanten Forschungsarbeiten zur Evolution menschlicher kognitiver und behavioraler Merkmale finden sich Thesen darüber, was der entscheidende Entwicklungsschritt in der Menschwerdung war, welche Relevanz Kooperationsfähigkeit, Emotionen wie Stolz und Scham oder auch bestimmte Strafpraktiken in der menschlichen Entwicklungsgeschichte gespielt haben.
Dabei finden sich durchaus unterschiedliche und nicht unbedingt kompatible Positionen. So besagt eine These, dass Menschen sich in der globalisierten Welt nicht gut zurecht finden, da menschliche Fähigkeiten auf Kooperation in Kleingruppen ausgelegt sind. Eine andere These besagt hingegen, dass es die Evolution des Menschen gerade auszeichnet, dass Hierarchien im Zusammenleben stetig an Relevanz verlieren und stabile Kooperation auch in stetig wachsenden Gruppen möglich geworden ist.
Solch widerstreitende Thesen sollen in diesem Projekt kritisch daraufhin befragt werden, inwiefern sie sich aus empirischer Evidenz, gewählter Erklärungsform oder eben auch aus Vorannahmen bezüglich eines bestimmten Menschenbildes ergeben. Die Diskussion der empirischen Daten und der Erklärungen wird mit den Mitteln der Wissenschaftstheorie betrieben. Die Diskussion des jeweils vorausgesetzten Menschenbildes mit den Mitteln der Ideologiekritik.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 26.11.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



There is a growing amount of research on the evolution of human features, and of popular and philosophical books that discuss its implications. Claims to be found concern assumed “key steps” in the evolution of the human species, central differences to closely related ancestors, or evolutionarily based differences among the sexes. Some authors argue that human beings have trouble living up to moral standards in a globalized world, “because our brains were designed for tribal life,” i.e. for getting along with our peer-group, while fighting everybody else (Greene 2013). Another position on offer is that the most significant difference between our ancestors and the early homo is the shrinking relevance of hierarchical structures, caused by a “selection against bullies” (Tomasello 2016), and the stabilization of egalitarian structures (Boehm 2012). While many authors take altruism, cooperation, or egalitarian structures to be crucial steps in the evolution of human morality (Kitcher 2011), others object that moral anger, disgust, and contempt are just as relevant (Prinz 2007, Haidt 2012).All these accounts draw on various sources of empirical evidence, construct a complex historical narrative, and make use of different kinds of explanations ranging from causal-historical, to functional, and how-possibly explanations. Furthermore, the authors make certain conceptual presuppositions, for example regarding what abilities we need to have to be moral. The aim of this project is to investigate the role and legitimacy of these presuppositions and how-possibly scenarios in theories about the evolution of human features. It will be demonstrated that they often lack a solid backing in empirical research. Instead, they tend to function as hypotheses and inspirations for future research, and as aides to our self-understanding. In doing so, these presuppositions and how-possibly scenarios often contain substantial and controversial ideological assumptions about issues like the function of cooperation, the moral relevance of emotions such as shame and disgust, or the nature of hierarchical structures. By uncovering the explanatory structures that enter into our theories of human development, we gain a better understanding of which aspects of our theories are well justified, and which ones are merely good stories. This is of particular relevance since explanations of human features tend to have strong practical implications.The proposed Eccellenza project will explore the complex relations of empirical evidence, scientific explanations, ideological assumptions, and practical implications to be found in research on the evolution of human features. The research will be conducted by the applicant, a postdoc and a PhD-student, it is structured into three subprojects and two applications: Subproject A: The Concept of Human Nature draws on discussions within philosophy of science to establish the theoretical background. Subproject B: Explaining Human Evolution explores the different kinds of explanations used in constructing narratives of our past. It thereby develops the methodological tools to evaluate and compare research on human features with regard to empirical adequacy and explanatory power. Subproject C: Facts, Values, and Ideology draws on existing debates on facts and values within philosophy of science and on discussions on ideology within political philosophy. The aim is to develop the methodological tools to evaluate research on human features with regard to ideological presuppositions and their normative-instrumental implications. The two applications will concern The Evolution of Morality (Application I), and The Evolution of Social and Moral Emotions (Application II).