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Rachell Powell (Boston): “Social Norms and Superorganisms: A Case for Deep Convergence”

15 June 2021, 12:00 pm1:30 pm

This event will take place online via Zoom. 

Everyone is welcome to join using a computer with access to the internet and Zoom. To take part just follow these instructions:

Please note that these events are routinely recorded, with the edited footage being made publicly available on our website and YouTube channel. We will only record the audio, the slides and the speaker and will not include the Q&A section. However, any question asked during the talk itself will feature in the final edit.


Abstract: Normativity is inherent to the adaptive organization of life, underlying everything from the goal-directed behavior of living things, to the orchestrated unfolding of development from embryo to adult, to the exquisite match between the traits of organisms and the ecological design problems they need to solve. The bourgeoning interdisciplinary literature on the evolution of normativity operates on a much narrower view of its subject: it treats normativity as a cognition-driven phenomenon, and a particularly demanding one at that. Human-style capacities for evaluative judgments and the cultural acquisition of social norms are the gold standards against which putative cases of normativity in nonhuman animals are measured. Few if any nonhuman animals are likely to meet these demanding requirements or even watered-down versions of them. The upshot of viewing normativity through the prism of human morality is that it leaves humans more or less alone in the normative project. In this talk, I will propose a very different perspective on social norms—one that allows us to venture beyond the historically contingent terrain of human evolution to draw deeper lessons about the role of sociality in the origins of individuality, and vice versa.

The talk will have four parts. In Part I, I will discuss prevailing scientific approaches to normativity and what I see as their explanatory limitations. Then, in Part II, I will offer an alternative view according to which social norms are functional structures, realized by radically different cognitive mechanisms, that regulate social behavior in the service of reducing conflicts between levels of selection that arise during (partial) transitions to higher-level evolutionary individuals. In Part III, I will argue that given this account, the best current contender for social norms outside of the human context is eusocial insect societies. Convergence on social norms across the vast phylogenetic and developmental gulf between vertebrates and arthropods provides strong evidence for their law-like replicability—evidence that cannot be obtained by ‘trophy hunting’ for social norms in primate, mammalian, or even more distant vertebrate species. The fact that social norms arose convergently in two of the three lineages in which psychologies independently arose is a testament to their deep evolutionary replicability. In Part IV, I will conjure up and attempt to diffuse several potential objections to this proposal. Finally, in an Epilogue, I will enter even more iconoclastic territory to suggest that normative minds arose in the individual rather than social context, where they emerged with ego-centered agency that would eventually be extended to the social realm. On this picture, human-style morality is just a special case of social normativity, which in turn is a type of psychological normativity that itself originated within but became decoupled from the biological normativity that underpins the organization of life itself.


Rachell Powell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Boston University. Her research interests include philosophy of biology, philosophy of medicine, bioethics, philosophy of psychology, and legal and political philosophy.


15 June 2021
12:00 pm – 1:30 pm
Event Category:




Online via Zoom