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Morality: A Darwinian Perspective Andrew McClure Biology 306 October 25 , 2012


Human morality is a perplexing topic that is usually left to philosophers and theologians. For science to intrude on such issues is regarded by many as a repulsive violation. Even in academia, strong barriers have been erected against such thinking. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker discusses this roiling debate in his deeply interesting book, How The Mind Works. According to him, the Standard Social Science Model endeavors to split biology and culture, thereby avoiding the uncomfortable problem of having to explain the human mind in evolutionary terms. This, he believes, is a mistake that stems from an unfounded fear that well somehow sink into moral depravity if we approach such issues from an evolutionary perspective (Pinker 1997). Perhaps the ultimate taboo in science is explaining morality in Darwinian terms, and this undertaking has not been met without hostility. The sociobiologist E.O Wilson was once drenched with a pitcher of frigid water at a science convention for asserting his ideas on evolutionary psychology (Pinker 1997), and in the years since, the bitterness over this issue doesnt seem to have died down much. I propose that these fears of moral nihilism with regards to evolutionary psychology are indeed unfounded, and that we do need a vision of human morality that ignores political correctness. Despite the Standard Social Science Model, there are many good reasons to believe that human morality is a biologically adaptive trait, since quid pro quo teamwork leads to higher biological fitness than an egocentric approach, and it is my intention to provide evidence in favor of this hypothesis. Lets begin with a thought experiment. Imagine youre an early human hunting in the Pleistocene savannahs, and youve managed to kill a large animal. You have one of two optionsyou can eat your fill and let the rest of the animal decay into a rancid lump, complete with whirling flies. Or, you can give whats left of the animal to your friends, who will hopefully return this favor at a later time. In the latter scenario, the animal is not wasted, but rather it becomes part of a sort of economic transaction. Since it is blatantly obvious that the 1

latter scenario confers higher biological fitness to all parties, it makes sense that natural selection would have favored this behavior in early humans. And it also makes sense that we would have evolved a feeling of bliss to encourage us to keep performing this behavior. Thought experiments, of course, arent enough to form justifiable conclusions. We must look at hard data to find concrete reasons to accept the hypothesis. In The Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer points out that we observe altruistic sentiments in nonhuman species. For example, vampire bats are well known for their altruistic behaviorafter blood meals, the ones that have obtained an abundance of blood are known to regurgitate it and give it to less successful individuals. Dolphins have been known to assist wounded companions, nudging them to the surface of the water so that they can breathe. Whales often come to the aid of wounded friends, a phenomenon which whale hunters cruelly exploit. Shermer relates some research performed by Frans de Waal in which chimpanzees engage in complex reciprocal altruism through food sharing. He notes that there are literally hundreds of other examples of this sort of phenomenon within the scientific literature. Therefore, Shermer concludes that this sort of cooperation is an efficient survival strategy which ultimately forms the basis of human morality (Shermer 2004). In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker notes that humans have developed complex mental adaptations which cause us to condemn others who violate the laws of society. From a Darwinian standpoint, it makes sense for us to punish detrimental behavior since it deters others from performing the behavior, thereby reducing the biological fitness of the community as a whole. This sense of hatred towards wrongdoers, Pinker claims, is literally wired into our neural circuitry, and has been molded by natural selection. He points out that, like our other cognitive faculties, our moral sense comes equipped with flaws (Pinker 2002). These bugs in the software, if you will, are exactly what we should expect from the unintelligent design of natural selection, and I think that this is the point Pinker is making. He relates research 2

performed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who asked subjects to respond to certain moral scenarios, one of which was, A familys dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dogs body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. The very notion is repulsive, but when subjects are asked why it is so disgusting, they cannot give a justifiable moral reason. Pinker concludes that these gut reactions, which cannot be rationalized, demonstrate that our moral sense is not necessarily based upon the minimization of suffering. Rather, it is based upon what was best for the survival of our ancestors (Pinker 2002). In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, which excited biologists around the world. This book primarily centers around the evolution of altruism, contrary to some of the criticisms that it has received. At one point, he discusses the Prisoners Dilemma, a more sophisticated version of our thought experiment. The Prisoners Dilemma involved four options, laid out on a grid. In the first option, you perform a kind act, and someone else does the same thing in return. In the second option, you pay to perform a kind act for someone else, although that person does nothing for you in return. In the third option, someone performs an act of altruism toward you, but you do nothing in return. In the fourth option, nobody performs any kind acts, so nobody gets rewarded. Dawkins relates some technical research in game theory that was performed, and he showed that the best strategy for this scenario is one called Tit for Tat, which was first suggested by the psychologist Anatol Rapoport. This strategy entails performing a cooperative first move, then afterword, mimicking the moves of the opponent. The researchers found that this cooperative approach, when set within the framework of game theory, turned out to be most successful. By looking at the problem of altruism though the lens of mathematics and computer programming, the researchers found that cooperation was the best tactic to increase fitness, and presumably the one that nature would have selected for (Dawkins 1976). 3

In an article of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, Francisco Ayala makes the case in his article, The difference of being human: Morality, that human morality is an exaptation. That is, it wasnt directly selected for, but rather it was a by-product of other traits that did have an adaptive value. Therefore, if Ayala is correct, then my previous assertions that morality is adaptive might not have been precisely accurate. In terms of the framing of my argument, Im not entirely sure what to make of this distinction between adaptation and exaptation, but the point is still valid; on both of these views, altruistic tendencies are the product of biology, not some vague cultural entity. Ayala argues that ethics exists because of three traits that are determined by our biology: foresight, the capacity to form value judgments, and the ability to look at different routes of action and choose the best one. He argues in his paper that these mental adaptations were directly adaptive, and that morality came about as a by-product of them (Ayala 2010). In another article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled Altruism: Its Characteristics and Evolution, P.J Darlington makes the point that although groups of individuals exhibit altruistic tendencies, the individuals themselves are, at bottom, selfish. This is a point that Dawkins makes at length in The Selfish Gene, and it is worth expounding upon since it puts our hypothesis on a firmer evolutionary foundation. Darlington says that it would be impossible for any gene to persist if it had purely altruistic properties; it first needs to work for the benefit of that individual organism, and through a complex economic process of reciprocal altruism and kin selection, individuals will eventually form the capacity to feel good when they perform altruistic acts. On this view, individuals are altruistic only for fundamentally selfish reasons. Here we see an example of a biologist putting forth a complex genetic model of the evolution of morality (Darlington 1978). In Selfishness as Second Order Altruism, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Omar Eldakar and David Wilson mathematically vindicate 4

Steven Pinkers idea that in order to maintain altruism within a group, nature has selected upon a tendency to punish defectors. After a complicated mathematical analysis, they conclude that a punishment of selfish behavior, which they refer to as second order altruism, is needed in order to maintain a healthy equilibrium between altruistic and blatantly selfish individuals. Therefore, we find more evidence that natural selection will not only favor altruistic behaviors, but it will favor behaviors that punish selfish individuals (Eldakar 2008). In an article published in EMBO, The Basis of Morality, Philip Hunter relates research performed on chimpanzees, where if one is experiencing extreme distress for whatever reason, another chimpanzee will spontaneously attempt to comfort that individual with a kiss or a pat. Hunter makes the case that the phenomenon of mirror self-recognition is deeply linked to the presence of empathy and altruistic behavior, in that it is a cognitive trait that has enabled such behaviors. He notes that in human babies, mirror self-recognition emerges at the exact same time as empathetic behavior. Although mirror-self recognition is not adaptive in itself, Hunter says that the capacity to recognize oneself in a mirror is linked to cognitive abilities that allow animals to navigate their own social world. Hunter notes that animals who pass the mirror recognition test, first developed by Gordon Gallup, also seem to have evolved complex social interactions. He shows that most of these species who share these traits also share spindle neurons, structures which biologists believe are connected to altruistic behavior. Therefore, we learn from this that there is a connection between the biology and behavior (Hunter 2010). In The Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer provides in the appendix, a list of human universals, originally collected by the anthropologist Donald E. Brown. That is, these are traits that have been observed in literally all of the worlds known societies, and are hence presumed to have a biological basis rather than a cultural one. Throughout the list, Shermer notes those traits that he believes, as a psychologist, are closely intertwined with morality. Among these are emotion, empathy, both of which are needed for a moral sense. 5

We also see things like the interpreting of behavior, the concept of intention within others, mental imagery, as well as likes and dislikes. These sorts of cognitive traits are necessary for moral reasoning. More direct moral sentiments are also noted to be present within human universals, such as cooperation, pride, shame, law, and government (Shermer 2004). In my view, these facts provide a very clear hint that moral sentiments are being selected for on a biological level, and dont just come from some vague outside source that we define as culture. What would be the chances of every human society on Earth independently forming these concepts on their own? Not very likely. There has to be something deeper occurring, some genetically programmed quality that most of us possess as humans. I say most of us because, occasionally, we observe instances of psychopathic individuals who have no sense of right and wrong, a topic to which I will now turn. It may seem odd to provide evidence in favor my hypothesis by examining immorality; however, as we will soon see, humans have the potential for both good and evil. They are both inextricably intertwined. In Donald E. Browns list of human universals that we looked at earlier, we find many examples of a basis for moral sentiments. But we also see strong evidence that immoral sentiments are just as dominant. Among the list we find conflict, submission to authority, in-group biases, rape, territoriality, and weapons (Shermer 2004). These facts seem to suggest that immorality, like morality, is biologically wired into us. As an example of this, obedience to authority can drive people to horrible acts, and this phenomenon was quantitatively demonstrated by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s in his famous experiment. This experiment showed that perfectly normal people could be coaxed into delivering a lethal burst of electricity into the body of a learner, simply by being told by a researcher that it was okay (Shermer 2004).We also see examples of this throughout history; its a fair bet that officials in Nazi Germany would have lived perfectly normal lives had World War II never happened. In fact, Dr. Shermer relates research that seems to back me up on this. A prison psychiatrist named 6

Douglas Kelley, who performed psychiatric evaluations of Nazi leaders, found them to fit the personality types of everyday people. Dr. Shermer goes on the make the chilling case that such atrocities were not the result of warped minds; they were the result of perfectly ordinary minds that found themselves in the wrong historical era (Shermer 2004). I bring all this up because it seems to me that morality and immorality are deeply connected. In fact, I would argue that they have evolved alongside each other. It makes sense in terms of Darwinian evolution that individuals would need to harbor both the capacity to be altruistic and competitive based upon their circumstances. Throughout our evolutionary analysis of morality we have looked at evidence, provided by some of the worlds leading scientists, that morality is wired into us through Darwinian evolution. We have seen that rudimentary altruistic sentiments are present in many species other than humans, that the mind inherently harbors punishment mechanisms against defectors, and that studies in game theory indicate that cooperation is the best survival strategy. We have also seen that morality may be an exaptation rather than an adaptation, and we have looked a list of human universals which strongly suggest that morality is innately programmed in us. Given these facts, I feel that there is a good chance that morality does have a biological basis. These facts demonstrate that this sort of Darwinian outlook with regards to morality should be taken into serious consideration by biologists, and not just swept under the rug due to political correctness or fears of moral nihilism. In my view, studying the mind from a Darwinian perspective is one of the next great conceptual leaps that science has to offer; much as Darwins revolution shook the foundations of biology, I believe that evolutionary psychology has the potential to revolutionize the way that we look at our own thinking and behaviors. Not only that, but when we can obtain a better understanding of what drives people to be both altruistic and malicious, this will have far reaching consequences that will have the potential to make the world a better and safer place. 7

Bibliography Ayala, Francisco. The difference of being human: Morality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.2 (2010): 9015-9022. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. Darlington, P.J. Altruism: Its characteristics and evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 75.1 (1978): 385-389. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford, 1976. Print.

Eldakar, Omar, and David Sloan Wilson. Selfishness as second-order altruism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105.19 (2008): 6982-6986. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

Hunter, Philip. The basis of morality. European Molecular Biology Organization Vol. 13 (2010): 166-169. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

Pinker, Steven. How The Mind Works. New York: Norton, 1997. Print.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Shermer, Michael. The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Holt, 2004. Print.