Babies and Morality

In the Times Science section today, Natalie Angier discusses a fascinating-sounding new book, by the primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. The book, "Mothers and Others," argues that humans evolved a powerful set of moral instincts - a set of instincts that far exceed those of our primate relatives - because we depend on others to help us rear our helpless infants:

As Dr. Hrdy argues in her latest book, "Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding," which will be published by Harvard University Press in April, human babies are so outrageously dependent on their elders for such a long time that humanity would never have made it without a break from the great ape model of child-rearing. Chimpanzee and gorilla mothers are capable of rearing their offspring pretty much through their own powers, but human mothers are not.

Human beings evolved as cooperative breeders, says Dr. Hrdy, a reproductive strategy in which mothers are assisted by as-if mothers, or "allomothers," individuals of either sex who help care for and feed the young. Most biologists would concur that humans have evolved the need for shared child care, but Dr. Hrdy takes it a step further, arguing that our status as cooperative breeders, rather than our exceptionally complex brains, helps explain many aspects of our temperament. Our relative pacifism, for example, or the expectation that we can fly from New York to Los Angeles without fear of personal dismemberment. Chimpanzees are pretty smart, but were you to board an airplane filled with chimpanzees, you "would be lucky to disembark with all 10 fingers and toes still attached," Dr. Hrdy writes.

While stories of Darwinian evolution often stress the amorality of natural selectionâ¯we are all Hobbesian brutes, driven to survive by selfish genesâ¯our psychological reality is much less bleak. We aren't fallen angels, but we also aren't depraved hominids. (In my book, I look at what happens when these moral instincts are defective: you get a psychopath.) I'm just so charmed by the hypothesis that human morality - this system of behaviors so often attributed to the Ten Commandments, Kant, etc. - might actually be rooted in the cries and smiles of infants. Babies, in this sense, are the glue that keeps us together - they are so charming that we're nice to each other (or at least we don't hurt each other) for their sake. Religion may have helped codify morality - and one shouldn't underestimate the importance of turning our vague instincts into an explicit set of laws - but our moral emotions existed long before Moses got those stone tablets on Mt. Sinai.


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Great Blog Mr. Lehrer,

I recently heard your interview on "Fresh Air." Insightful and refreshing. As a manager, your blog help me understand how folks think. I found 'Microexpressions' and 'The Color of Creativity' most useful.


Jonah - It's undoubtedly true that what you call our "moral emotions" have been around a lot longer than any "codification" of rules. But those emotions only became "moral" when they were placed under the critical gaze of reason. Automatic and autonomic behaviors can have "outcomes" that are indistinguishable -- only the latter express moral agency. In other words, morality isn't just a matter of what we do. It's also a matter of what reasons we have (or not) for doing what we do.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

i find these investigations and theories enlightening, and believe they are incredibly useful for humanity. what i get frustrated with, though, is the constant urge that some scientists have to see such new information or understanding as a contradiction or refutation of religious belief. i have no doubt that evolutionary processes have played an important role in developing human morality, but this is not an either/or reality. science and religion can and should be united to create a deep and nuanced understanding of our human existence, in order to improve life for every member of the human family. when we set them up in opposition--and many religions and religious thinkers are just as guilty of this--we do more harm than good.

further, your cute closing sentence about moses and the tablets is perhaps a bit insulting for those of us who believe that the history of religion stretches back far beyond moses, and that we've been receiving god's teachings for as long as humanity has existed.

i offer these quotes from the baha'i writings for another perspective:

"Religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism." ('Abdul-Baha)

"Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science we either lack knowledge of true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason and must bear its test." ('Abdul-Baha)

Also Jonah, I have just recently been watching a talk in which you mention a study about a Buddhist monk solving word problems, in which he can't solve them at first, but then works it out and acts like an "insight machine." You did say the authors names but it was so quick that I couldn't hear them. Any chance of emailing me the title or paper?

Tom :o)

for Tom (comment #5:
the article that you want is the "Eureka Hunt" from the New Yorker. In it Jonah refers to a Zen practioner who hired the scientist to test him, as I recall; this was not part of a study. If you are interest in testing yourself, the word Jumble in your daily paper comes close. You can either come up with the word(s) instantaneously by insight or you have to laboriously rearrange the letters til you get the right combination.

Now,I know not to get on a plane with a bunch of chimpanzees! This is an interesting study and supports the old saying "it takes a village to raise a child". Btw, I enjoyed your interview on Fresh Air yesterday. I'm happy I found your blog.

Bob Koepp - Jonah didn't say that "moral emotions" were the whole substance of "morality" - just that "human morality... might actually be rooted in the cries and smiles of infants". In other words, the raw material, the soil from which morality developed. If I read you correctly, I think you read too much into what he stated.

RVR - I don't see this sort of research as a "contradiction or refutation of religious belief" - but I don't see where religion is necessary to explain or explore morality. What does it add?

Firstly, thank you for addressing the topic of biologically-rooted moral sensibilities withOUT launching a full-frontal attack on religion. In my humble opinion, the screeching voices of Sam Harris and company have actually *hurt* both the credibility and stature of science in the mainstream of U.S. society by going completely ape-sh*t in their frustrated diatribes.

Secondly, in light of the observation that human beings NEED communal support to raise young, I'm wondering what readers think about the argument about eusociality, i.e., whether or not human beings qualify as eusocial organims. (Wikipedia gives a good primer on the debate: )

Ray Ingles - The point isn't that emotions aren't the whole substance of morality. It's that there's not much reason to call them "moral" emotions. Of course, there's a whole "school" of ethics called 'Emotivism' whose adherents would beg to differ with me. But what do they know?

By bob koepp (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

before we go claiming to be morally superior to chimps, does anyone know what percentage of humans are killed violently by other humans vs. what percentage of chimps are killed by the hands of other chimps? our "relative pacifism" has allowed us to pool our resources and cooperate in large scale warfare chimps may never even dream of. all thanks to smiling babies.

Jonah. I'd be interested in hearing your further thoughts on this topic, especially given your chapter on Whitman in Proust Was a Neuroscientist. I read the book straight through, twice, and have since read various chapters and passages on an almost daily basis. Also, there was a recent (Feb 27) related post on the Not Exactly Rocket Science Blog:…

This posting, entitled "A bad taste in your mouth - moral outrage has origins in physical disgust", discusses research from Hanah Chapman. Her research found that both physical and moral disgust cause the levator labii muscles, which run from your eyes to your mouth, to contract. What was more thought-provoking was that only the emotion associated specifically with disgust, and not anger, fear, sadness, etc., was associated with the physical reaction in the person's body.

By Shaun Sperl (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

It's true--I speak from personal experience that human mothers really can't properly tend their infants on their own. And yet, at least in this country, we expect them to. Most mothers I speak with confess they feel they've been a failure if they ask for help, notwithstanding Hillary's admonition that it "takes a village." Institutional support is minimal; somehow we cling to an imagined past in which extended families lived nearby and were able and willing to assist with raising the youngest generation.

On this topic of the cause/origins of human morality, may I offer an additional proposition augmentiing, not competing with, the child-rearing theory? It's the notion that living in a lethally cold environment (like here in Maine in wintertime) demands trust and cooperation with others.

In such a frigid environment, a thousand years ago or today, no child or adult could survive--eat, stay warm and sheltered, and raise offspring --without cooperating with, and benefiting from, the cooperation of others. And others won't be very interested in helping out some amoral jerk who's been nothing but a liability to all his neighbors.

To find supporting evidence for this proposition, compare the degree of trust and co-dependence that exists today in northern temperate zones, like northern U.S. and Canada, with that in warm tropical and sub-tropical climates in central and south america.

It seems to me that infants have a social function independent of their dependency.
They manifest innocence on behalf of the community. [The young manifest beauty.] This is like an echo, at the social level, of "the recapitulation of phylogeny by ontogeny" at the developmental biological level. It is like a reminder. It confronts us. It presents an opportunity to practice altruism and appreciation. The morality is in the relationship. Not everyone takes the reminder. Children, and even infants, are often exploited rather than revered.

Evo-devo-wise, I expect some finding that the sense of justice is like the neural taste for intelligibility. In the same way that the slot machine is a crime against intelligibility, injustice is sensed as a violation of moral intelligibilty--something about which we know even less.

By Patrick McDermott (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

@rvr #3:

what i get frustrated with, though, is the constant urge that some scientists have to see such new information or understanding as a contradiction or refutation of religious belief.

I think you'll continue to see this, though -- the possible sources of morality were mysterious for so long that it's going to take a very long time before it's common knowledge that morals don't require any supernatural provenance.

Science and religion don't have to conflict, but when religion makes claims about reality (and all of the common incarnations do), then it's valid to investigate their sources of information. For example, if you say that "we've been receiving god's teachings for as long as humanity has existed", that's a claim on reality -- that a supernatural entity exists and magically transmits teachings into human brains. Agreed, the source of morality doesn't have to be an "either/or" situation, but why is there any reason to believe in these supernaturally-transmitted moral concepts when there are explanations that fit the messy reality of human morals far better, and don't require any magic? This is the conflict, and it's unavoidable.

Regarding the baha'i quotations -- I hear that a lot, that science only offers data about reality, and religion is required for deeper wisdom and to avoid materialistic despair. I absolutely agree that straight science is not enough, but the other wing is *philosophy*. Supernatural belief only serves to confuse -- why not investigate moral issues, questions of happiness & fulfillment, etc. directly?

The second quote I find a bit baffling, because the baha'i faith in general certainly makes claims about the supernatural with no scientific support. It may just be that sort of thing was easier to proclaim a century ago.

Mr. Koepp - So, if we can't call them "moral emotions", what should they be called? "Emotions that have the effect of helping people tend to behave in a manner that we've since termed 'morally'"?

There's also the fact that these aren't just "emotions" per se - they also involve intuitions and such. We have not just friendly sentiments, but whole cognitive systems devoted to analyzing situations from the perspective of fairness and reciprocity. What to call these, if not a "moral sense"? Would you be okay with "proto-moral sense"?

I just cannot say how much I respect your views on religion expressed in this post. Religion is NOT anti-science. It is a deep rooted part of us and science needs to see it as a piece of the puzzle. Thank you for your wise words.

By Chanda Walker (not verified) on 04 Mar 2009 #permalink

Mr ingles - Moral agency seems to arise precisely when creatures invent "cognitive systems devoted to analyzing situations from the perspective of fairness and reciprocity." So, absent that piece of the puzzle of morality, emotions aren't particularly "moral".

Perhaps my point would clearer if I pose a question...
When, say, a female dog doesn't behave in a typically canine "maternal fashion", and fails to protect or nurture her pups, is this a moral failure? I don't know anybody who think this. But if this behavior isn't immoral, then the emotions (or whatever) that undergird the normal, nurturing behavior shouldn't be tagged as "moral" either.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 04 Mar 2009 #permalink

You said "- but our moral emotions existed long before Moses got those stone tablets on Mt. Sinai."

Totally agree with you Mr.Lehrer. There is something decent at the core of each human being that enables us to behave well, to take care of and to nurture whatever that is entrusted to us.

I should, in fact, point out that this religious codification, as it where, happened before Judaism was birthed and, as far as anyone can determine, arose independently in the human condition time-and-time again. And, yet, ironically, so many religions have borrowed in part, or in whole, from other religions it ends in a tangled mess that's virtually impossible to separate.

And thank you for the post. Your blog is, and remains, wonderful.

"Babies, in this sense, are the glue that keeps us together - they are so charming that we're nice to each other (or at least we don't hurt each other) for their sake."

I wonder then, whether this glue will lose its stickiness with the rising trend of not having as many, or any, children. Less people are experiencing raising children-- so does that mean our morality is lessened as well? And oh my, how does it affect the one-child policy in China?

All life with the exception of humans is innately moral. It operates instinctively with its own neutral (natural) logic and âjust isâ. Any attempt to infer moral behavior arising in other than humans is a projection of the beliefs of the inferrer. The moral imperative is exclusively a human contrivance and codified in religious dogma.

Animals operate instinctively with no sense of right and wrong except as projected by humans. They may respond to experiential conditioning and have a sense memory of associations that we may construe as positive or less so on a continuum, but that is a survival mechanism without moral value judgment.

All morality is basically the value judgment of right (good) and wrong (bad) actions (adjectively it can apply to abstracts, conditions and objects.) These valuations are part of the larger set of polar or opposite principles / duality that seem to be fundamental in physical reality e.g., True/False, Positive/Negative, Yes/No, Love/Hate, God/Devil, Black/White, Straight/Gay, Male/Female, Rich/Poor, Sick/Well, Something/Nothing, 0/1, Wave/Particle, etc. These pairs are intrinsically neutral and it is only our value judgments that charge them either way. Shakespeare as Hamlet knew that âthere is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.â

Morality (rules/ethics) was created by people for the putative protection of social order (control of others) and inculcated by oneâs parents, extended family, elders, teachers, clergy, etc. who have their own beliefs/prejudices as to how you and humanity at large should behave. For a child, this information is usually necessary for physical survival and must be handed down from parent to child in order to protect it from dangers that are obvious to the adult (beliefs which are the parentâs/adultâs concept of the nature (and perils) of existence.)

Mr. Lehrerâs (any relation to Tom?) contention that lack of moral instinct creates psychopaths is a value judgment which may or not be the correct. In any case it is his mental construct and those who subscribe to that view. I maintain it is a over active sense of self preservation due to fearfulness that creates actions that would be considered psychopathic by some consensus (it is consensus that decides that which is acceptable behavior and is not and such opinion is highly plastic dependent on the consensusâ beliefs.)

Trying to claim an evolutionary basis (in the natural selection sense â where the selected throve due to superior survival tactics which is ideological rather than genetic) to explain behavioral constructs that are accepted by the majority due to lack of examination is a violation of the Principle of Parsimony and another âJust So Storyâ a la Creation Theory.

....yes, but they did not exist before God, who is the
origin of morality.

@Burt: interesting argument. A plausible case *might* be made that psychopathy is a social construct, but I think calling morality a social construct based on behaviours "the majority" decides are good or bad is insufficient. The natural next level question is, "Hmm, I wonder *why* the majority has decided that X is good/bad?"

You contend that the moral boundaries are shifting, and they certainly are, but that's a long way from establishing that they lack any substantive core. I would submit that morality really ain't all that complex at its root: "What is done by others of my kind which promotes my thriving and the thriving of those I care about is good. What diminishes our thriving is bad." I further contend that the reason morality has shifted through historical time is because "those I care about" has shifted, roughly, to encompass larger and larger circles of concern (pace Singer).

Now, if morality can be boiled down to intra-species behaviours which promote or demote thriving between concerned groups (e.g. kin-groups, prides), then we're heading toward a realm which leaves "just so" stories behind and offers opportunities for testable hypotheses (chimps on a jumbo) and reductive explanations (shame, guilt, disgust).

As for me, I think I'd take my chances on a jumbo full of chimps ahead of a conference room full of pomo sociologists. :)

By Epictetus (not verified) on 05 Mar 2009 #permalink

@Epictetus: (nice handle BTW) Morality is both a social (consensual) construct (e.g., ethics or religious proscriptions which consist mostly of shalt nots from a sectarian subset of societal consensus) and a personal ethos both of which are refined (as you say shifting) by conscious and unconscious choices and trial and error conditioned response.

The question of âWhy X is good or badâ as determined by a person or group is moot in most situations as the answer is a function of either mass or personal beliefs (prejudice) as to the nature of X which IMO for the most part is so deeply ingrained in oneâs worldview that it is accepted without question or examination. If one is honest and looks deeply enough (via Socratic Method) as to why one believes X is not neutral, the reasons pro or con boil down to trivialities.

I believe certain tenets (you could call them moral â I call them ideals) have substance which is universal as to the general well being of all that exists. These constitute sort of a meta morality that would apply in all cases. Your statement:

"What is done by others of my kind which promotes my thriving and the thriving of those I care about is good. What diminishes our thriving is bad."

is the reasoning underlying most peopleâs fear based morality and has resulted in all the violence and less than ideal behavior known throughout human history. The widening circles of call it asymptotic altruism will obviate the moral imperative as they approach total encompassment.

I think you are projecting a human construct when you postulate morality as survival mechanism in intra-species kin groups. Frans de Waal is on that slippery slope as are many who seek to ascribe human behavior to animals via evolutionary inheritance, it would seem to be the other way round i.e., to explain our âanimalisticâ nature.

I doubt that the âJust Soâ explanations will be squelched by hard science any time soon as there are just 2.5 camps as to why things are the way they are: Evolution, Creation and their new bastard Intelligent Design. Each is thoroughly vested in their own preconceptions and ignore contravening opinions and evidence and the current lens of science has done little to reduce the myopia.

The testable hypotheses you adduce as possibly forthcoming e.g., âchimps on a planeâ tautologically reduces to how we expect chimps to act on a plane and unless they act as civil hominids (even the human type are challenged to be civil) one getâs what one expects.

The emotive (shame, guilt, disgust) ascriptions are again projections of ourselves (anthropomorphism) vis-à-vis humanity at large and sociology is not science even though it projects the veneer of quasi-scientific method so Iâm with you on that account.

While I found the Times article pleasant and certainly plausible enough to deserve study, I couldn't help but think of a sci-fi story I read recently called "Three Worlds Collide". The story features the same idea - that child rearing is key to the development of hypersociality - in an alien context. The aliens in question began collectively rearing their children when they were relatively unintelligent, but they started as r-strategy reproducers (think salmon, mice, bacteria - organisms that product many offspring with a low individual survival chance). Limited resources forced them to adopt a k-strategy, but there was no advantage in limiting reproduction, so instead... they ate each other's babies. They concurrently evolved a morality based on babyeating as their intelligence increased, to enforce fairness - in fact, their word for "good" means "to eat babies".

I suppose my point is that our psychological reality isn't bleak because it's our psyche, whereas if we had some other psychological reality, even one repugnant to our actual selves, we would not find that bleak either.


The first chapter has the evo-psych theory that I paraphrased above.

By Nathan Cook (not verified) on 08 Mar 2009 #permalink

I detected a slight jab at the selfish gene theory, but I don't recall selfish gene theory saying that the products of selfish genes are "Hobbesian brutes" at all.

Please don't conflate Dawkins' selfish genes with selfish organisms.

This is an interesting post, which presents the idea of morality as something not derived from our complex brains, but rather as a result of the evolution of humans as âcooperative breeders.â This, like another blog entry found on PsychCentral [], presents a new way of looking at human morality, which goes against the previous notion that morality and ethics are learned from experience from a caregiver or society. Dr. Hrdy argues in the article that the ability âto cooperate in groups, to empathize with others and to wonder what others are thinking and feelingâ arose in response to the âselective pressures of being in a cooperatively breeding social group.â While I agree that on some level, this does make sense, but is this purely speculation on Dr. Hrdyâs part or does she have empirical evidence to back up this assertion? Furthermore, I am not so sure that the article you are citing truly allows you to dismiss the notion that human morality is a system of behaviors âattributed to the Ten Commandments, Kant, etc.â

I personally feel that human morality and ethics span far wider than our dealings with babies, and it is constantly shifting to keep up with the changing times. While in some aspects, I can identify with some of what Dr. Hrdy believes is true, it simply does not account for a myriad of other daily human interactions, and thus is inadequate for explaining morality as a whole. Also, just because I can see how it might be true, doesnât mean that it is the best explanation for how the world works. In conclusion, the article unfairly assumes that humankind is wholly altruistic and uses this idea as a basis for morality, but this is a hasty assumption that, while new and different, is unproven. Until I am given any sort of empirical evidence to believe otherwise, the article and your post isnât much more than an interesting, thought-provoking idea.

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efore we go claiming to be morally superior to chimps, does anyone know what percentage of humans are killed violently by other humans vs. what percentage of chimps are killed by the hands of other chimps? our "relative pacifism" has allowed us to pool our resources and cooperate in large scale warfare chimps may never even dream of. all thanks to smiling babies.