Short review: Shaun Nichols, ,,On the Genealogy of Norms: A Case for the Role of Emotion in Cultural Evolution”, Philosophy of Science, 69 (2002), pp. 234-255.

Shaun Nichols, ,,On the Genealogy of Norms: A Case for the Role of Emotion in Cultural Evolution”, Philosophy of Science, 69 (2002), pp. 234-255.

I. Summary

(1) Theses:

(a)    Normative prohibitions against action X will be more likely to survive if action X elicits (or is easily led to elicit) negative affect.

(b)    Norms prohibiting ‘core-disgusting’ actions (i.e., actions that are likely to elicit core disgust) will enjoy greater cultural fitness than norms prohibiting actions that are unlikely to elicit core disgust (or other emotions).

(2) Abstract:

The author supports epidemiological approach to cultural evolution. On this account, one investigates cultural evolution by considering what makes certain cultural items more likely to prevail. Furthermore, the epidemiological approach maintains that the characteristics of human psychology will play an enormous role in determining which items are likely to survive. There is a large amount of data from psychology that supports the thesis that if a representation has an emotional component, this component enhances the chances of retention of such representations. Because, on a popular account, norms are considered to be representations, it follows that if norms elicit emotional responses there is a greater probability of their retention in comparison with norms that do not elicit such responses. Using this data, the author proceeds to investigate whether norms governing manners that elicit core-disgust (which is considered as a basic emotion) had greater chance of survival than norms governing manners that were affectively neutral. Testing of the above-mentioned thesis consisted in comparison of the etiquette norms from the most important manners book in history, Erasmus’ On Good Manners for Boys, with contemporary etiquette. The results showed that, out of 57 investigated norms from Erasmus’ book, over 90% that elicited core-disgust were part of contemporary manners and only around 30% of norms that did not elicit such response are regarded as a part of contemporary etiquette. These findings support the thesis (b). What is especially interesting, is that the author states that some of the moral norms, e.g. norms against harming others, prohibit actions that are likely to elicit negative affect. Because these moral norms ‘possess’ such emotional component, it shows why they ended up being so successful.


(1) The article presents a very interesting and promising approach to the issue of the genealogy of norms. Traditional approaches to this issue (e.g. Nietsche’s account, evolutionary account) focus on the origin of norms (especially moral norms). The main problem with these approaches is that there is a lot of different ‘origin stories’ which seem to be equally plausible. The epidemiological account offers a more modest solution: we investigate what makes cultural items more likely to prevail.

(2) Because the main thesis states that norms which elicit emotional response are more likely to prevail, the familiar question about moral norms comes to mind: is an action wrong because we disapprove of it, or do we disapprove of it because it’s wrong?

(3) There is no doubt (the author agrees with that) that societal factors play an enormous role in determining which norms survive. If so, then perhaps societal factors play a more significant role in the survival of moral norms than in the  survival of manner norms. Therefore, moral norms require a similar investigation to the one carried out on manner norms before  we can plausibly extrapolate thesis (a) on moral norms.


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