Descriptive evolutionary ethics consists of biological approaches to ethics (morality) based on the role of evolution in shaping human psychology and behavior. Such approaches may be based in scientific fields such as evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, or ethology with a focus on understanding and explaining observed ethical preferences or choices and their origins.
On the other hand, normative evolutionary ethics may represent a more independent attempt to use evolution, alone or partially, to justify an ethical system. This project has not, according to one view, been especially successful; for example, Richard Dawkins describes how we must rise above our selfish genes to behave morally (that is, evolution has endowed us with various instincts, but we need some other moral system to decide which ones to empower or control). Dawkins has since expressed interest in what Sam Harris calls a science of morality, which starts with the assumption that “morality” refers to “facts about the flourishing of conscious creatures”.
Descriptive evolutionary ethics is empirical research into moral attitudes and beliefs (humans) or moral behaviour (animals) in an evolutionary framework. Examples can be found in the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain major features of psychology in terms of species-wide evolved (via natural selection) predispositions. Ethical topics addressed include altruistic behaviors, deceptive or harmful behaviors, an innate sense of fairness or unfairness, feelings of kindness or love, self-sacrifice, feelings related to competitiveness and moral punishment or retribution, moral “cheating” or hypocrisy, and inclinations for a wide variety of actions judged morally good or bad by (at least some within) a given society.
A key issue of evolutionary psychology has been how altruistic feelings and behaviors could have evolved when the process of natural selection is based on the multiplication over time only of those genes that adapt better to changes in the environment of the species. Theories addressing this have included kin selection and reciprocal altruism (both direct and indirect, and on a society-wide scale). Group selection theories have also been advanced.
Hence, evolutionary psychology’s primary focus is to derive, especially through the deep analysis of hunter-gatherer culture and primate models, what is the most accurate description of general human predispositions (i.e. our innate “hard-wiring”). And as this understanding grows, it will become more and more feasible to redesign culture itself to be more “user friendly” to its human members, according to some standard . After all, in the ultimate sense, culture (like a computer) is a tool to serve its users. Noted primatologist Frans De Waal asserts, “In the words of Edward Wilson, biology holds us “on a leash” and will let us stray only so far from who we are. We can design our life any way we want, but whether we will thrive depends on how well the life fits human predispositions” Thus, the goals of evolutionary psychology overlap with the science of morality.