The Evolution of Disgust: From Oral to Moral
January 4-7, 2012
ZiF Center for Interdisciplinary Research (Bielefeld, Germany)

Long overlooked, disgust has recently received increasing attention from a wide variety of disciplines, indicating that it plays an important role in many areas where its influence had not previously been considered, such as various forms of psychopathology, morality, intergroup emotions, and socio-political concerns. Disgust studies also promise to illuminate some general questions in emotion theory, such as what constitutes a ‘basic emotion’, and the relationship between basic emotions and more complex human emotions. Central to much recent discussion of disgust are questions about its evolution. The role of disgust in phobias is often explained in terms of ‘evolutionary preparedness’ to develop emotional responses to recurrent environmental threats (such as spiders). The role of disgust in moral and social judgments is often explained in terms of the evolutionary benefits that it conferred in historical environments, for example, avoiding incest, punishing or expelling social parasites, and protecting in-group members from exposure to novel pathogens carried by out-group members. Disgust in these more complex domains is often seen as emerging by Darwinian and cultural evolution from its simpler roots in parasite and pathogen avoidance. This conference will explore a wide variety of research on disgust, seen through the lens of evolution, and with an eye towards its theoretical and practical implications for emotion theory, psychiatry, morality and intergroup relations.

Invited Participants: Adam Keith Anderson, Robert Aunger, Jason Clark, Sylvia Cremer, Valerie Curtis, Michael de Barra, Andreas De Block, Peter J. de Jong, Daniel M.T. Fessler, Diana Santos Fleischman, Roger Giner-Sorolla, Dan Kelly, Jan-Peter Lamke, Andrew D. Lawrence, Debra Lieberman, Bunmi O. Olatunji, Linda Parker, Edward Royzman, Rudolf Stark, Joshua M. Tybur,
Sarah-Jane Vick, Henrik Walter.

The following are three core clusters of questions that will be the focus of the conference:

(1)   What are the evolutionary functions and history of ‘core’ or ‘basic’ disgust? Does core disgust occur in other animals, and if so, in what forms? What do the evolutionary functions of disgust tell us about how to categorize disgust sub-types of basic disgust?

(2)   What is the role of disgust in social dynamics and moral judgments? How and why is disgust used to define in- and out-group membership? What are the advantages and downfalls of such disgust-based self-definition? Is socio-moral disgust a form of ’embodied wisdom’, an extraneous factor that interferes with good moral judgment, or both?

(3)   What is the relationship between ‘basic’ or ‘core’ disgust and ‘higher cognitive’ or ‘socio-moral’ forms of disgust? Do higher cognitive forms of disgust emerge from basic forms of disgust through Darwinian or cultural evolution, or are they essentially separate constructs sharing a common name? Are the functions of socio-moral disgust systematically related to those of basic or core disgust?

Further details – including a call for poster presentations and information on how to register – can be found on the conference web site.


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