Years ago, when the Trophy Wife™ was a psychology grad student, she participated in research on what babies think. It was interesting stuff because it was methodologically tricky — they can’t talk, they barely respond in comprehensible way to the world, but as it turns out you can get surprisingly consistent, robust results from techniques like tracking their gaze, observing how long they stare at something, or even the rate at which they suck on a pacifier (Maggie, on The Simpsons, is known to communicate quite a bit with simple pauses in sucking.)
There is a fascinating article in the NY Time magazine on infant morality. Set babies to watching puppet shows with nonverbal moral messages acted out, and their responses afterward indicate a preference for helpful agents and an avoidance of hindering agents, and they can express surprise and puzzlement when puppet actors make bad or unexpected choices. There are rudiments of moral foundations churning about in infant brains, things like empathy and likes and dislikes, and they acquire these abilities untaught.
This, of course, plays into a common argument from morality for religion. It’s unfortunate that the article cites deranged dullard Dinesh D’Souza as a source — is there no more credible proponent of this idea? That would say volumes right there — but at least the author is tearing him down.
A few years ago, in his book “What’s So Great About Christianity,” the social and cultural critic Dinesh D’Souza revived this argument [that a godly force must intervene to create morality]. He conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”
The evolutionary psychologist has a quick response to this: To say that a biological trait evolves for a purpose doesn’t mean that it always functions, in the here and now, for that purpose. Sexual arousal, for instance, presumably evolved because of its connection to making babies; but of course we can get aroused in all sorts of situations in which baby-making just isn’t an option — for instance, while looking at pornography. Similarly, our impulse to help others has likely evolved because of the reproductive benefit that it gives us in certain contexts — and it’s not a problem for this argument that some acts of niceness that people perform don’t provide this sort of benefit. (And for what it’s worth, giving up a bus seat for an old lady, although the motives might be psychologically pure, turns out to be a coldbloodedly smart move from a Darwinian standpoint, an easy way to show off yourself as an attractively good person.)
So far, so good. I think this next bit gives far too much credit to Alfred Russel Wallace and D’Souza, though, but don’t worry — he’ll eventually get around to showing how they’re wrong again.
The general argument that critics like Wallace and D’Souza put forward, however, still needs to be taken seriously. The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes to the extent that we give up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in. It makes sense then to marvel at the extent of our moral insight and to reject the notion that it can be explained in the language of natural selection. If this higher morality or higher altruism were found in babies, the case for divine creation would get just a bit stronger.
No, I disagree with the rationale here. It is not a problem for evolution at all to find that humans exhibit an excessive altruism. Chance plays a role; our ancestors did not necessarily get a choice of a fine-tuned altruism that works exclusively to the benefit of our kin — we may well have acquired a sloppy and indiscriminate innate tendency towards altruism because that’s all chance variation in a protein or two can give us. There’s no reason to suppose that a mutation could even exist that would enable us to feel empathy for cousins but completely abolish empathy by Americans for Lithuanians, for instance, or that is neatly coupled to kin recognition modules in the brain. It could be that a broad genetic predisposition to be nice to fellow human beings could have been good enough to favored by selection, even if its execution caused benefits to splash onto other individuals who did not contribute to the well-being of the possessor.
But that idea may be entirely moot, because there is some evidence that babies are born (or soon become) bigoted little bastards who do quickly cobble up a kind of biased preferential morality. Evolution has granted us a general “Be nice!” brain, and also that we acquire capacities that put up boundaries and foster a kind of primitive tribalism.
But it is not present in babies. In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.
That’s kind of cool, if horrifying. It also, though, points out that you can’t separate culture from biological predispositions. Babies can’t learn who their own kind is without some kind of socialization first, so part of this is all about learned identity. And also, we can understand why people become vegetarians as adults, or join the Peace Corps to help strangers in far away lands — it’s because human beings have a capacity for rational thought that they can use to override the more selfish, piggy biases of our infancy.
Again, no gods or spirits or souls are required to understand how any of this works.
Although, if they did a study in which babies were given crackers and the little Catholic babies all made the sign of the cross before eating them, while all the little Lutheran babies would crawl off to make coffee and babble about the weather, then I might reconsider whether we’re born religious. I don’t expect that result, though.