David: Can I ask you about this wonderful phrase, ‘nice nihilism’. What do you mean by ‘nice nihilism’? What is it?

AR: Nihilism is the thesis which you forced me to admit to embracing: that there are no fundamental moral values. But the nihilism which I embrace, or endorse, is nice in the sense of how it is that we human beings could have evolved to be cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures.

In fact, we would never have survived having been thrown out of the rainforest into the African savanna, on the bottom of the food chain. We never would have survived, let alone moved ourselves right up to the top of the food chain in only a matter of a couple of hundred thousand years, if we hadn’t had certain features: the tendency to cooperate with one another that’s required by the division of labour and by the coordination of activities of people with one another.

And those behavioural dispositions are so deeply written into our evolutionary history that now we are all, except for the small number of psychopaths among us, pretty nice people, easy to get along with. We can be trusted – even us nihilists can be trusted with the family silverware – to take care of the children if there are other adults gone and not to cut moral corners, because we are driven, like everybody else, by the same emotions of guilt and shame and anger and fear, which make us all pretty decent, moral people.

Ard: So, do you think…?

AR: That’s the nice part.

Ard: That’s the nice part. So do you think cooperation is part of the evolutionary story?

AR: Absolutely. It had to have been.

Ard: We interviewed Martin Nowak who was very excited about cooperation coming out of game theory. Do you have any thoughts on those things?

AR: I think that one of the great advances in evolutionary anthropology and experimental economics that has enabled us to understand human origins is what we now know about various kinds of cooperative and zero-sum games. Inevitably it turns out that people’s behaviours are not narrowly short term, economically self-interested, rational: they’re always cooperative.

We are playing games, and game theory is probably the worst name for the most important theory in social science. We’re playing games. We’re engaged in strategic interaction all the time, and the optimal ones are the ones that produce niceness in us.

Ard: What you also say is one of the ways that it does this, that we feel shame and other…

AR: Guilt.

Ard: Guilt, which prevents us from behaving in ways that people might call immoral.

AR: Mm-hm.

Ard: But don’t you worry that once you’ve explained this away, that people will think…?

AR: No, no. So the difference between shame and guilt. We know the difference between shame and guilt?

Ard: Yes.

AR: Shame is when you’re caught, and guilt is when you’re not caught.

Ard: Yes.

AR: And these are so hard-wired into our psychological make-up that even knowing that they are evolutionary…

Ard: Tricks?

AR: …adaptations, has no tendency to weaken their hold on us. Learning that pulling your hand away from a fire because of the pain is an evolutionary adaptation, isn’t the slightest reason to stop doing it.

Ard: It’s easy to think, well, we’re all nice and we’re cooperating, but when you’re in a difficult situation, where life is a lot harder and the payoff that you get by cheating is a lot bigger…

AR: Of course there will be circumstances, environments, in which today’s adaptations become tomorrow’s mal-adaptations. Are we likely to face such circumstances? We certainly have in the past. I think that the explanation, the adaptational explanation for these moral norms, helps us unravel them and reduce their grip on us, given the actual environment that we’re in, which is so different from the environment in which they evolved.

Ard: But it…

AR: And, of course, I’ll have to be honest in answer to your question. If the environment changes over the long haul in such a way as to make cooperative, altruistic, empathetic motivated behaviour mal-adaptive, it’s going to disappear, of course.