Rebecca MacIntosh 2017-09-13T12:23:11+00:00

Project Description


  • Evolutionary Game Theory

  • Philosophy of Biology



Doctoral Student;
Department of Philosophy, Western University

Rebecca MacIntosh is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Western University. Her philosophical interests center around the intersection of evolutionary biology and ethics, and in particular how human beings have come to follow norms. To answer questions about the evolutionary story behind human morality, Rebecca’s work has addressed the differences between biological tendencies and social learning, the evolutionary strength of cooperative behaviours, and the relationship between emotions and moral judgements. The end goal of Rebecca’s work is a theory of morality that connects evolutionary biology – a combination of history and science – and our beliefs about right and wrong. She believes that a satisfying theory of morality can be created by looking to the way things are rather than how we think things ought to be.

Descriptive rather than normative

Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution

It has been assumed for centuries that human cooperation is a triumph of rationality–understanding that cooperating is good for us allowed humans to escape the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ pre-societal life described by Thomas Hobbes. Recent studies in sociology, psychology, and evolutionary game theory are telling us that this picture of human cooperation is fundamentally mistaken.

My project can be divided into two main areas of research. The first of these deals with the naturalization of ethics; its central question asks whether or not we can create a descriptive theory of human morality that is intuitively satisfying. A great deal of evidence is amassing that suggests that humans are disposed to cooperate. That is to say that studies often show us that humans often prefer to cooperate and feel very strongly about adherence to existing sets of social norms. I believe that this type of descriptive evidence is the proper foundation for an ethical theory. Since descriptive theories such as the one I am proposing are often criticized for distancing what we do and why it’s right or wrong to do certain things, a large portion of this first project will be aimed at generating the compelling attitudes associated with normative theories of ethics.

The second of these projects is a discussion of our existing evolutionary models and their explanatory capacity. While Darwinian evolution is responsible for many ‘pre-programmed’ behaviours in non-human animals, the advanced cognitive and communicative capacities of human beings complicates the Darwinian model. In its place, I present Lamarckian evolution as the correct model of learned human social behaviours. The difficulties involved in this second project include describing the combined effects of Darwinian evolution and Lamarckian evolution on the expression of human behaviours, with particular emphasis on the evolutionary development of coordinated and cooperative human behaviours. The end goal of this inquiry is the construction of a theory of social evolution capable of standing apart from the Darwinian evolutionary processes responsible for physical and behavioural traits. Consequently, human ‘social evolution’ could then be studied as an additional evolutionary mechanism affecting the development of Homo sapiens.

MA Thesis:

“Origins of the Social Contract and Principled Norms”
supervisor: Dr. Bill Harper

Conference Presentations:

“Rationally Compelling Reasons to Act Irrationally,” Rational Choice Contractarianism 25 Years After Morals by Agreement, York University, Toronto, 15 May 2011.

“Social Culture and Individual Niche Construction,” Atlantic Regional Philosophical Association (ARPA), King’s College, Halifax, 16 October 2010.

“The Internal Character of Social Norms: Gauthier’s Normative Failure,” Canadian Association of Reductionist Philosophers (CARP), Saint Mary’s University, 17 October 2010.

“Niche Construction and Social Behaviours,” Canadian Philosophical Association (CPA),Concordia, Montreal, 31 May 2010.

Project Title: Coordination vs. Cooperation – Can Evolutionary Biology Naturalize Ethics?

Role: Primary Investigator

Brief Description: This project – the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation – explores whether evolutionary biology can provide us with a descriptive theory of ethics that satisfies our desire that a moral theory offer us compelling reasons to act morally. It will examine the nature of ethical judgements and emotions, and whether our attitudes toward particular judgements is what makes them moral. Furthermore, it will propose an account of moral sentiments that has mutually beneficial, coordinated behaviour as necessary precursors to meaningful moral judgements.

Winter, 2011, Logic, University of Western Ontario [TA]

Fall, 2010, Logic, University of Western Ontario [TA]

Winter, 2010, Questions of the Day, University of Western Ontario [TA]

Fall, 2009, Business Ethics, University of Western Ontario [TA]