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Honors Class Focuses on Biological, Evolutionary Aspects of Morality

"Biology and the Evolution of Morality" combines neuroscience, psychology, and neuroethics to explore the origins of morals.
Honors Class Focuses on Biological, Evolutionary Aspects of Morality

Dr. John Protevi, Professor of French Studies at LSU, teaches Honors students about the biological origins of morality in his HNRS 2013 class.

So why does everyone love the Tigers?

According to Dr. John Protevi, it’s a product of synchronized behaviors causing subconscious physical entrainment, a phenomenon deeply rooted in evolutionary history and resulting in resonance.

Unless you’re an Honors student taking Protevi’s class, that explanation probably doesn’t make much sense. But connecting with others on a physiological and emotional level to form values, such as love for a football team, is a great way to explain moral psychology. 

“In Tiger Stadium, you’re in rhythm with people around you, doing chants and singing songs together,” said Protevi. “When the Tigers score, you’re literally shaking with the same rhythm and frequency as all the people around you. Bodily attachment produces these emotional connections deeper than language … that’s why you can’t teach someone to love the Tigers.”

“Biology and the Evolution of Morality,” one of the many Honors classes being offered this semester, focuses on the current research on the origins of morality. Moving away from rational models of moral judgment, the course covers three subfields: affective neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and neuroethics.

Protevi, a French Studies professor with a Ph.D. from Loyola University in Chicago, has been teaching the class for the past three years.

“I love it,” he said. “I’ve been teaching Honors classes for fifteen years … I really like the idea of fifteen or sixteen students, and the fact that it’s elective.”

Protevi said he leaves the classroom for ten minutes each day to let his students explore issues in small groups in order to spark discussions about the material.

“I try to measure what they can do and not just what they know,” he said.

The course focuses on the biological roots and evolutionary origins of morality and focuses on the theory that humans are primed to absorb moral values subconsciously.

“We’re not mental machines,” he said. “We’re social animals. Babies are not blank slates, nor are they little monsters who have to be tamed. They have pro-social tendencies, meaning they’re going to absorb the values of the culture they are raised in.”

Representing the crossroads of psychology, philosophy, and biology, these current theories of morality suggest that human beings are neither genetically programmed nor shaped purely by their environment.

“When our basic emotions of rage and fear and happiness and sadness are triggered strongly, … it’s not something you can willpower your way out of,” said Protevi. “But on the other hand, even if there are basic patterns we have evolved, the triggers … are due to our experiences.”

An easy way to understand this is by thinking about crawfish.

“If you grew up in Louisiana, you like to eat crawfish because you associate it with a nice time  — crawfish boils, Grandma and Grandpa’s house, that sort of thing,” said Protevi. “But if you grew up in another place, you might find them disgusting. So disgust patterns are evolutionary, but what we get disgusted by is cultural.”

As a result of our morals and values being linked to basic emotions such as disgust, it’s extremely difficult to talk people out of their moral convictions, said Protevi.

“It’s possible that people change over long-term,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone can be convinced by words. Values aren’t amenable to words — they’re not stored in your brain, they’re stored in your body where your fear, pain and happiness are stored.”

Protevi also emphasized the importance of individual experience.

“Because of different experiences, we’re all going to have different traits, even though we share the same basic patterns,” he said. “There’s a lot of individual variation. So part of the course is trying to get people to get out of the habit of thinking in terms of the ‘average’ person.”

Another fascinating aspect of the class is its perspective on the topics of love and bereavement. According to Protevi, the capacity to fall in love results from chemicals like Oxytocin that bind the experience of pleasure to a particular person, a phenomenon which likely evolved to bond parents to their children.

“(Love) changes the nervous, emotional, (and) chemical patterns of your whole body,” said Protevi. “So bereavement (is) a physical, painful experience … it’s clear that you can’t be talked out of it.”

While viewing morality and love as things beyond our control might seem to have unnerving implications, Kristi Lavigne doesn’t see it that way. The psychology senior, who took Protevi’s class last year, said it’s possible to change moral beliefs through emotional experiences combined with reason.

“I thought it was really interesting to see that we make moral decisions immediately based on emotion, and we reason afterwards,” she said, “But your feelings are a combination of emotions and thoughts. (Although) we have emotions as our natural reactions … we can still reason independently and change our feelings, which are not automatic.”

Lavigne, an Honors college student, was drawn to the class for its integrative approach and its emphasis on psychology.

“I’m interested in what’s happening in the individual's mind during social interactions,” she said.  “Psychology tends to neglect other fields … this class provided an anthropological, philosophical, and scientific approach so that you get the whole picture.”



Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College

For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831