The Primate Diaries

The Evolution of Morality


Darwin evicts a Social Darwinist and Eugenicist from his house / Northwestern Univ.

Primatologist Frans de Waal, author of such classic works as Chimpanzee Politics, Peacemaking Among Primates, Good Natured: The Origin of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, and Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape is now coming out with his new book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. My review of this work will be out early next week to mark the book’s national release on September 22. Today and in the next few days I will be reposting pieces I’ve written over the years on the topics that de Waal has emphasized in his own work. To begin with I wanted to post one of my earliest pieces which frames some of the major themes that de Waal seeks to address.

Morality is the final domain that theists cling to in order to justify the existence of God. They argue that, without a supernatural deity (or deities), there would be no reason for people to be kind with one another and we would be constantly at each other’s throats. The view of Darwinian evolution as “nature, red in tooth and claw” is pervasive and theists perceive that the absence of God is the absence of moral sense. However, this façade is cracking around its very foundation as a steady flow of observational evidence reveals it to be one more bit of fallacious reasoning.

Moral behavior is little more than behaving in ways that are beneficial to the group rather than merely to yourself. Group-living animals, and primates in particular, can teach us a great deal about how such behaviors could be selected for and evolve without requiring a moral puppetmaster in the sky. In many primate societies close social bonds formed by individuals serve to regulate social behavior. These social bonds are strengthened through grooming, food sharing and reconciliation behavior after a conflict. While competition and conflict are a normal part of group living it is often surprising to learn how rare it is, especially considering the amount of attention such conflict receives in the academic and popular press.

Fedigan (1993) found in one study that white-faced capuchins (the cute New World monkeys who carried the deadly virus in the movie Outbreak) displayed 1,078 cooperative behaviors and only 136 aggressive ones. Likewise, Sussman et al. (2003) found that ring-tailed lemurs spent about twenty-five minutes per day in direct cooperation and less than one minute in aggression. Sussman and Garber (2004) followed up on these findings by analyzing seventy-eight studies covering twenty-five genera and forty-nine species of non-human primates. They determined that prosimians, monkeys and apes would spend the vast majority of their social lives in cooperative interactions. The study also showed that the amount of social aggression was statistically insignificant. The levels of aggression ranged from zero in colobus monkeys to a high of 0.92% in spider monkeys (a species that spent 22.0% of their time in cooperation). Sussman and Garber concluded by stating:

“We hypothesize that affiliation is the major governing principle of primate sociality and that aggression and competition represent important but secondary features of daily primate social interaction.” (Sussman and Garber 2004:178)

How then can theists justify that nature is cruel and immoral necessitating a moral force from beyond the natural world? If you remove the mental blinders for a second it makes perfect sense that group living animals would cooperate more than they’d compete. Group living is a way of gaining protection from predators. If too many individuals destabilize the group by behaving selfishly everyone in the group suffers as a result. The individuals involved wouldn’t have to understand this concept, it would emerge because those populations that didn’t follow this “moral law” wouldn’t survive. While there will always be a tendency to maximize individual benefit, the most stable groups will always be those that maximize the benefit of the most individuals at the same time (i.e. mutualism). The theistic argument for a supernatural force is as baseless for morality as it has been shown to be for love, abstract reasoning or any other domain thought exclusive to humans.

As is often the case in these discussions, Darwin said it best in one of his less quoted statements that we would be wise to recover from the shadows. Speaking about how ethical behavior could develop based on nothing but the laws of natural selection he wrote:

“Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.” (Darwin 1871:163)

References:

Darwin C. (1871). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: Random House, 1936.

Fedigan L. (1993). Sex differences and intersexual relations in adult white-faced capuchins. International Journal of Primatology 14: 853-77.

Sussman RW and Chapman AR (2004). The nature and evolution of sociality: Introduction. In: The Origins and Nature of Sociality. Ed. by RW Sussman and AR Chapman. Aldine De Gruyter: New York, pp. 3-19.

Sussman RW, Andrianasolondraibe O, Soma T, Ichino S. (2003). Social behavior and aggression among ringtailed lemurs. Folia Primatologica 74: 168-72.

Comments

  1. #1 Anida Adler
    September 17, 2009

    I’m no scientist, so I open my mouth at risk of sounding like a complete idiot – but do I understand correctly that communities or societies as a whole could be seen as organisms, which evolve behaviours beneficial for the community/society as a whole, even if it is sometimes at the expense of a few individuals? Philantrophy, self-sacrifice: if you really just think about it, it seems possible that this is merely an evolutionary trait.

  2. #2 Roland Branconnier
    September 17, 2009

    A nice succinct summary of the work of Marc Hauser and Josuha Greene on the evolutionary origins of morality can be found at:

    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2007/05/are_our_brains_.html

  3. #3 Colugo
    September 17, 2009

    That cartoon is as oversimplifying as a cartoon of Darwin in bed with figures labeled “Laissez faire” and “Eugenics.”

    Darwin, letter, 1872

    “I much wish that you would sometimes take occasion to discuss an allied point, if it holds good on the continent,—namely the rule insisted on by all our Trades-Unions, that all workmen,—the good and bad, the strong and weak,—sh[oul]d all work for the same number of hours and receive the same wages. The unions are also opposed to piece-work,—in short to all competition. I fear that Cooperative Societies, which many look at as the main hope for the future, likewise exclude competition. This seems to me a great evil for the future progress of mankind.”

    Do a keyword search on http://darwin-online.org.uk/ if you doubt the authenticity of the above.

    As for eugenics, not only did Darwin lay out the theoretical foundation for the alleged dysgenic effect of civilization – which is the impetus behind modern eugenics, rather than animal breeding – he largely accepted Galton’s views on dysgenics. However, because he was so laisseze-faire – and humanitarian – he did not endorse state intervention in reproduction, so he was not, strictly speaking, a eugenicist. But it would be false to claim that Darwin wholly rejected the theoretical premises on which eugenics policy is founded.

    As for Darwin’s quote about sympathetic members of a society, this is in context of Darwin’s longer discussion in The Descent of Man about the role of group selection in human evolution. Intra-group amity goes hand in hand with inter-group enmity. One mechanism of differential group survival is genocide. That’s the dark side of group selection.

    To be fair, Darwin was much more humanitarian and progressive than many of his colleagues and followers. But there is now a widespread overcorrection to creationist claims about Darwin and evolutionary biology, and it consists in making Darwin into an antiracist, anti-laissez-faire modern progressive who never gave a thought to dysgenics and genocide except to condemn anyone who would pervert his ideas. Sorry. Intellectual history is more complicated than that.

  4. #4 Arv Edgeworth
    September 18, 2009

    I just want to point out the difference between science and scientific naturalism. Science is neutral when it comes to religion. Scientific naturalism is a philosophical worldview, it is not science. It goes way beyond the limits of science. Creationism is a worldview as well.

    A creationist usually starts out with the assumption that the Bible is true. Scientific naturalists usually start out with the assumption that the Bible is false. Starting with different assumptions always results in different conclusions. Both believe the evidence fits their worldview better. Sometimes we are guilty of looking at the evidence through our worldview, then using our interpretation as evidence to support our worldview.

    It is not an easy thing sometimes, separating what we know, from what we just believe. Two basic worldviews, and only one of them is correct. Some try to combine the two, but the attempts usually fall into the category of scientific naturalism as well.

    Science cannot prove the supernatural, but should it be trying to disprove it?

  5. #5 xpst
    September 18, 2009

    This article confuses three distinct concepts:

    ‘Ethics’, which are rules we like. I don’t like to be shot at, so I support rules against shooting people. Ants have ethics.

    ‘Morality’, which is the concept that there are right and wrong acts of intent. Morality requires logic and reason. Religion is not required.

    ‘Valid moral imperatives’, which are specific moral directives that are true. Religions typically assert many moral imperatives, but do not provide validation.

    The confusion in the article is captured succinctly here: “The theistic argument for a supernatural force is as baseless for morality as it has been shown to be for love, abstract reasoning or any other domain thought exclusive to humans.”

    Clearly nonsense that is a result of confusing ethics, morality, and valid moral imperatives.

  6. #6 Zetetic
    September 18, 2009

    @ Colugo:
    An interesting quote. Having read the letter in question. It seems to me that Darwin was voicing his objection to the specific policies of the labor unions, not to the unions themselves. He seems to be mainly concerned that such polices would result in lower productivity. At least that is how individual letter reads to me, maybe there are others?

    Regardless, the attempt to demonize Darwin by the creationists (I’m not grouping you with them, Colugo) still is irrelevant to the evolution’s accuracy.

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    @ Arv Edgeworth:
    I find it amusing that creationists inevitably try to bolster their own dogma, by trying to drag science down to their level.

    Science is based on the principle of “methodological naturalism” not “Scientific naturalism” (whatever you may to mean by that). All that methodological naturalism means is that science doesn’t assume the supernatural when it looks for explanations of natural phenomena. Science starts with the evidence, and what we know so far, and then it tries to draw it’s conclusions from what we know, regardless of where it leads. That is most definitely not the same thing as trying to disprove the “supernatural”, as you stated.

    Rather you seem to be confusing the methodological naturalism of science (and by extension, evolution) with what is referred to as “Philosophical Naturalism“. Philosophical naturalism does assume that there is no “supernatural” entities or forces at all, but while some scientists may personally hold that position (just as others are religious) it is not a part of scientific investigation and is not a part of the modern theory of evolution, nor is it part of any other scientific contradictions of the various religious dogmas.

    Your statement….

    A creationist usually starts out with the assumption that the Bible is true. Scientific naturalists usually start out with the assumption that the Bible is false. Starting with different assumptions always results in different conclusions. Both believe the evidence fits their worldview better. Sometimes we are guilty of looking at the evidence through our worldview, then using our interpretation as evidence to support our worldview

    Is a propaganda lie made by the creationists in an attempt to make an argument from false equivalency. The only accurate part in it is that the creationists start with the assumption that the Bible is true. Everything else you stated was wrong.

    First of all, scientists don’t start out with the assumption that the bible is false, they don’t consider the Bible in their work one way or another. If a result happens to contradict a particular religious dogma, then so be it. Any religious beliefs (either for or against the supernatural) are personal and should be kept out of the research. When a scientist does let the Bible get in the way of his/her thinking objectively, is when that person stops doing science. So far there has been zero/none/zilch scientific progress derived from the assumption that the Bible is true. There has been much progress though, from those that don’t take the Bible into consideration in their work, even if they personally do hold a deep religious conviction.

    Secondly, creationists don’t view the same evidence at all (as you falsely stated) since they just arbitrarily pick and choose what they believe supports their interpretation of scripture. They then ignore/reject all of the remaining evidence (regardless of how well supported it is) that doesn’t support the predetermined conclusion. Unlike scientists they also don’t increase human knowledge, nor to they make any falsifiable predictions to test their dogmatic beliefs.

    —————————————————————————————————————————————————

    Some people still believe that the Earth is flat because of their personal interpretation of scripture. Does that make showing that the Earth is round an attempt to disprove the “supernatural”? Should we “teach the controversy” that some people believe that the Earth is flat, or is the center of the solar system?

    If not, why then should we regard any other facts (and scientifically derived theories) that also happen to contradict a person’s particular religious interpretation, as an attempt to “disprove the supernatural”? Just because you personally (from what you’ve typed so far) find that in this particular situation, that science contradicts your personal religious dogma? Have you ever stopped to consider that it’s just your particular dogma that is wrong? Others have their religious beliefs and see no attempts to disprove the “supernatural” in evolutionary science. They simply let go of the dogma (assuming that they held one in the first place) and re-examine their beliefs to correspond to the scientific evidence. Try reading some of Ken Miller’s work for a perspective from a person that is both religious and a respected scientist in biological circles.

  7. #7 toto
    September 19, 2009

    “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.” (Darwin 1871:163)

    This argument only works if you can explain how the system would not be taken over by “freeloaders”. For humans, the answers are probably reciprocal altruism and some degree of kin selection. And the fact that we are smart enough to identify said cheaters – sometimes.

  8. #8 Joel Bergsman
    September 20, 2009

    It’s very clear that humans have a genetic capability and tendency to form moral (=ethical) rules, and that this sense, together with many of such rules that are common among most or all societies, are consistent with Darwinian principles of evolution, i.e. they survive because they work. Whether any of the specicific moral rules might have a genetic basis is less clear; these rules are obviously mostly societal, learned, memes if you don’t mind that word, but arguments can be made that suggest that some of them might have some biologically innate bases as well.

    See for example Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, MIT Press 2007.

    In any case, the combined forces of biological (genetic) evolution and social learning (mimetic evolution if you will) are more than sufficient to explain the basics and even the detailed twists of human morality. There may be a god out there, he might even have white hair and a long beard and not want us to eat pork, but his existence is not necessary to explain the existence of either the human moral sense, or the particular values we adopt. We don’t know for sure, but the story about how the kinds of rules embodied in the last five of The Ten Commandments may have evolved and gotten propogated by Darwinian processes is common-sensical, in accord with all existing data, and doesn’t require any recourse to supernatural phenomena. Seems more likely that the last five of those commandments existed before some wise-ass priests invented a god to increase the force of already-extant sensible rulesand, incidentally, provide an easy living for the priests.

    Anybody who wants to believe otherwise is welcome to do it, but I doubt s/he has any data to support those beliefs.

  9. #9 Edward I. Pollak, Ph.D.
    September 21, 2009

    Anida Adler wrote “……. do I understand correctly that communities or societies as a whole could be seen as organisms, which evolve behaviours beneficial for the community/society as a whole, even if it is sometimes at the expense of a few individuals? Philantrophy, self-sacrifice: if you really just think about it, it seems possible that this is merely an evolutionary trait.”

    The notion that a group can be the unit of selection is a controversial one. The more traditional theorist would phrase it differntly. For example, “The INDIVIDUALS in less aggressive, more cooperative societies, would have greater reproductive success than would the INDIVIDUALS in more aggressive and less cooperative societies.” It is true that in a cooperative society, individual cheaters would be favored but so would individuals who are better at detecting and punishing cheating. And cheaters would not have an advantage if cheaters became too numerous in the society (i.e., there would be only frequency-dependent selection for cheating). As for altruism being “merely an evolutionary trait,” there’s nothing “mere” about it!

  10. #10 Arv Edgeworth
    October 9, 2009

    Try looking up the definitions of “scientific naturalism,” or “naturalism,” or “scientism,” or “philosophical naturalism,” or “secular humanism,” and you will find they all rule out the possibility of the supernatural.

    Methodological naturalism insists only on purely natural explanations for everything, which rules out a supernatural explanation for anything.

    If supernatural explanations should not be accepted for natural phenomena, why should natural explanations be given for things that are supernatural in nature? If the origin of the universe and of life are said to be supernatural, why do scientists try to prove they were only natural events? Why should origins even be considered in science?

    If evidence seemed to indicate design and purpose, real science would not forbid the conversation in the classroom or the laboratory. If you think otherwise you are in denial of historical science and functioning only according to your philosophical worldview.

  11. #11 acı çehre
    October 10, 2009

    If evidence seemed to indicate design and purpose, real science would not forbid the conversation in the classroom or the laboratory.

  12. #12 Shotgun
    October 27, 2009

    The author of this blog begins by unfairly stating the Christian’s case:

    Morality is the final domain that theists cling to in order to justify the existence of God. They argue that, without a supernatural deity (or deities), there would be no reason for people to be kind with one another and we would be constantly at each other’s throats.

    Maybe Bill Mahr, who seemingly worked hard to find the most uneducated Christians for display in his movie “Religulous”, could help the author find a Christian willing to make the above argument? So stated, it isn’t an argument a trained theologian would present. Nor is it (certainly) the “final domain” that we Christians “cling to” in order to “justify” God’s existence. (I wonder at the presumptuous tone of the author. Has he really investigated all Christian claims and considered all arguments? I’d love to read his critique of Van Til’s transcendentalism.)

    The historic Protestant position is that…due to God’s common grace, no fallen man is as terrible as he possibly could be. Therefore, even pagan societies in the heart of Africa (who are without knowledge of systematic Christian ethics) aren’t as terrible as they could be.

    The traditional moral argument is better stated thus: Given an ideaological commitment to utilitarianism or other subjective ethical systems…there is no objective grounding for ethical statements and in such systems…were they adhered to consistently, one ethical position would be just as valid as another (the only commanding factor being the strength and ability to implitment the desired action.)

    Thus, no atheist would be able to justify (in principal) any law…other than by an appeal to arbitrary emotional dispositions…dispositions like: “Well, I feel we should only allow actions that benefit society.” If they are strong enough to impliment such emotional dispositions, then great.

    The author of the blog arrogantly presupposes this definition of morality, without interacting with the history of philosophical speculation surrounding the position. He says this:

    Moral behavior is little more than behaving in ways that are beneficial to the group rather than merely to yourself.

    Says who? The author wants to arbitrarily stamp the term “moral” on actions that make him feel good…or align with an ethical philosophy he has arbitrarily chosen.

    This is a subjective definition, dressed in objective clothing, and the discerning Christian will not let him get away with it.

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