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Evolution Of Morality


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Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

By NICHOLAS WADE

 

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

 

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.

 

Moral philosophers do not take very seriously the biologists’ bid to annex their subject, but they find much of interest in what the biologists say and have started an academic conversation with them.

 

The original call to battle was sounded by the biologist Edward O. Wilson more than 30 years ago, when he suggested in his 1975 book “Sociobiology” that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” He may have jumped the gun about the time having come, but in the intervening decades biologists have made considerable progress.

 

Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book “Moral Minds” that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language. In another recent book, “Primates and Philosophers,” the primatologist Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes.

 

Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.

 

Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.

 

Dr. de Waal’s views are based on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He noticed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser. But he was waylaid in battles with psychologists over imputing emotional states to animals, and it took him 20 years to come back to the subject.

 

He found that consolation was universal among the great apes but generally absent from monkeys — among macaques, mothers will not even reassure an injured infant. To console another, Dr. de Waal argues, requires empathy and a level of self-awareness that only apes and humans seem to possess. And consideration of empathy quickly led him to explore the conditions for morality.

 

Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates.

 

Social living requires empathy, which is especially evident in chimpanzees, as well as ways of bringing internal hostilities to an end. Every species of ape and monkey has its own protocol for reconciliation after fights, Dr. de Waal has found. If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands.

 

Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.

 

Macaques and chimpanzees have a sense of social order and rules of expected behavior, mostly to do with the hierarchical natures of their societies, in which each member knows its own place. Young rhesus monkeys learn quickly how to behave, and occasionally get a finger or toe bitten off as punishment. Other primates also have a sense of reciprocity and fairness. They remember who did them favors and who did them wrong. Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them. Capuchin monkeys show their displeasure if given a smaller reward than a partner receives for performing the same task, like a piece of cucumber instead of a grape.

 

These four kinds of behavior — empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking — are the basis of sociality.

 

Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals.

 

Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal’s view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. “I look at religions as recent additions,” he said. “Their function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do.”

 

As Dr. de Waal sees it, human morality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries, with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. “The profound irony is that our noblest achievement — morality — has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior — warfare,” he writes. “The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter.”

 

Dr. de Waal has faced down many critics in evolutionary biology and psychology in developing his views. The evolutionary biologist George Williams dismissed morality as merely an accidental byproduct of evolution, and psychologists objected to attributing any emotional state to animals. Dr. de Waal convinced his colleagues over many years that the ban on inferring emotional states was an unreasonable restriction, given the expected evolutionary continuity between humans and other primates.

 

His latest audience is moral philosophers, many of whom are interested in his work and that of other biologists. “In departments of philosophy, an increasing number of people are influenced by what they have to say,” said Gilbert Harman, a Princeton University philosopher.

 

Dr. Philip Kitcher, a philosopher at Columbia University, likes Dr. de Waal’s empirical approach. “I have no doubt there are patterns of behavior we share with our primate relatives that are relevant to our ethical decisions,” he said. “Philosophers have always been beguiled by the dream of a system of ethics which is complete and finished, like mathematics. I don’t think it’s like that at all.”

 

But human ethics are considerably more complicated than the sympathy Dr. de Waal has described in chimps. “Sympathy is the raw material out of which a more complicated set of ethics may get fashioned,” he said. “In the actual world, we are confronted with different people who might be targets of our sympathy. And the business of ethics is deciding who to help and why and when.”

 

Many philosophers believe that conscious reasoning plays a large part in governing human ethical behavior and are therefore unwilling to let everything proceed from emotions, like sympathy, which may be evident in chimpanzees. The impartial element of morality comes from a capacity to reason, writes Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton, in “Primates and Philosophers.” He says, “Reason is like an escalator — once we step on it, we cannot get off until we have gone where it takes us.”

 

That was the view of Immanuel Kant, Dr. Singer noted, who believed morality must be based on reason, whereas the Scottish philosopher David Hume, followed by Dr. de Waal, argued that moral judgments proceed from the emotions.

 

But biologists like Dr. de Waal believe reason is generally brought to bear only after a moral decision has been reached. They argue that morality evolved at a time when people lived in small foraging societies and often had to make instant life-or-death decisions, with no time for conscious evaluation of moral choices. The reasoning came afterward as a post hoc justification. “Human behavior derives above all from fast, automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes,” Dr. de Waal writes.

 

However much we may celebrate rationality, emotions are our compass, probably because they have been shaped by evolution, in Dr. de Waal’s view. For example, he says: “People object to moral solutions that involve hands-on harm to one another. This may be because hands-on violence has been subject to natural selection whereas utilitarian deliberations have not.”

 

Philosophers have another reason biologists cannot, in their view, reach to the heart of morality, and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong. “You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it,” said Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University. “That’s not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant, too.”

 

Biologists are allowed an even smaller piece of the action by Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina. He believes morality developed after human evolution was finished and that moral sentiments are shaped by culture, not genetics. “It would be a fallacy to assume a single true morality could be identified by what we do instinctively, rather than by what we ought to do,” he said. “One of the principles that might guide a single true morality might be recognition of equal dignity for all human beings, and that seems to be unprecedented in the animal world.”

 

Dr. de Waal does not accept the philosophers’ view that biologists cannot step from “is” to “ought.” “I’m not sure how realistic the distinction is,” he said. “Animals do have ‘oughts.’ If a juvenile is in a fight, the mother must get up and defend her. Or in food sharing, animals do put pressure on each other, which is the first kind of ‘ought’ situation.”

 

Dr. de Waal’s definition of morality is more down to earth than Dr. Prinz’s. Morality, he writes, is “a sense of right and wrong that is born out of groupwide systems of conflict management based on shared values.” The building blocks of morality are not nice or good behaviors but rather mental and social capacities for constructing societies “in which shared values constrain individual behavior through a system of approval and disapproval.” By this definition chimpanzees in his view do possess some of the behavioral capacities built in our moral systems.

 

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured.” Biologists ignored this possibility for many years, believing that because natural selection was cruel and pitiless it could only produce people with the same qualities. But this is a fallacy, in Dr. de Waal’s view. Natural selection favors organisms that survive and reproduce, by whatever means. And it has provided people, he writes in “Primates and Philosophers,” with “a compass for life’s choices that takes the interests of the entire community into account, which is the essence of human morality.”

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I think we can learn about the basis for our morality through biology, but it is not entirely biological. In fact, I would argue that many of its precepts are cultural. Sure, thought is neurobiology. However, it is natural for men to want to dominate women but it is not moral. It's a fallacy to believe that just because something is natural it is right. I think philosophers (not theologians) are better able to search for the ideal moral code, while neurobiology is able to figure out what moral code we actually follow.

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Using computers as an analogy:

Even though operating systems are designed around hardware platforms, and vice-versa, I wouldn't trust a microprocessor engineer to dispense advice about an operating system issue as much as I would trust advice from and OS developer.

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I find the trend of this poll, small as it is fascinating. I sort of expected that this would be skewed towards the agree side of the equation. Of course the 6 answers so far may be mostly from theists and so understandable.

 

Using computers as an analogy:

Even though operating systems are designed around hardware platforms, and vice-versa, I wouldn't trust a microprocessor engineer to dispense advice about an operating system issue as much as I would trust advice from and OS developer.

 

I'm not sure that the analogy holds very well. What ever the OS developer develops, she needs to consider the properties that the the engineer built into the system, or the OS will be trash. It seems self evident that the philosophers and theologians have made a mess of their OS's at least 'til now. Perhaps this is because they have taken wild ass guess concerning the engineering of the system.

 

Another problem with the analogy is that both the biologist and the philosopher are the system and not external to the system. Therefore, all other things being equal, both can comment with authority on how it works and how it should work. It would seem to me that a biologist such as Waal has a better handle on the engineering of the system than say Descartes, Kant, or Calvin and therefore has a better chance of writing a philosophy that actually works.

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de Waal's a primatologist, while Chimps and Bonobos are similar to humans, they are not us. I like him, he's a good writer and he can show how parts of our moral sense have come to be, but he's not dedicated to philosophy. If he wants to philosophize, he's allowed to but I do think there is a place in this world for dedicated philosophers.

 

I'm an atheist, by the way. Not sure about all the other voters.

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I'm with Callyn. Our morality is certainly based in our development as social creatures, but reason and "higher" thought have given us the ability to extend it beyond that.

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I'm with Callyn. Our morality is certainly based in our development as social creatures, but reason and "higher" thought have given us the ability to extend it beyond that.

 

Very true, and I like HuaiDan's analogy very much.

 

Biologists have as their primary function the study of biology, not philosophy. Philosophers are better suited to the task of philosophy, which of course includes treatises on morality, though philosophers should bear in mind anything relevant that biologists discover, much as OS manufacturers need to bear in mind anything relevant that microporcessor engineers discover.

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I answered Mmmeh because I also think that it is both biology and philosophy.

 

This behavior is also seen with other animals, not just the greater apes. Bats will share their food with the ones that didn't get any that night, but it is usually with the ones that have shared with them before. They are thinking in order to be able to understand cooperation. The bats that never share, will not be shared with in return.

 

I like the term sociobiology...a combination.

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Morality grew out from evolution, but a scientist in the field of evolution will and can only study the process which made and makes morality work, but the field to study the implications of morality and the memes that comes with it probably fits better with a different kind of scientists (like philosophers, psychologists or whatever).

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That was the view of Immanuel Kant, Dr. Singer noted, who believed morality must be based on reason, whereas the Scottish philosopher David Hume, followed by Dr. de Waal, argued that moral judgments proceed from the emotions.
I think this is a good picture of what I see as the "problem" here, de Waal, following Kant, Hume, etc, view this as an either/or problem. Either it is reason, or it is emotion. Either it is biology, or it is philosophy. Since when are biology and philosophy totally separated? Philosophy gives the biology a soul, if you will, it gives us the "what does it mean to us"ness that pure biology doesn't really give.

I vote mmmeh because it should be a combined effort, not a sturggle between the two.

 

Perhaps this is because they have taken wild ass guess concerning the engineering of the system.
The only guess they could give was blind, although they probably didn't believe it was because they were working with what they had (which was, in hindsight, basically nothing).
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I'm with Callyn. Our morality is certainly based in our development as social creatures, but reason and "higher" thought have given us the ability to extend it beyond that.

 

:scratch: What is a "higher thought"?

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Literally, it's an egotistical construct and a term humans like to bandy around to make us feel better about ourselves. :P

 

A better term for it would probably be cognitive thought, but now I think about it cognitive thought seems fairly qualified as a prerequisite for reason, so I probably would have been more accurate and concise to have left the second term out.

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Biologists have as their primary function the study of biology, not philosophy. Philosophers are better suited to the task of philosophy, which of course includes treatises on morality, though philosophers should bear in mind anything relevant that biologists discover, much as OS manufacturers need to bear in mind anything relevant that microporcessor engineers discover.

 

Did you know that the PhD degree given earned by scientists of all stripes (except medicine) means Doctor of Philosophy?

 

My point is that why should we suppose that folks that base their philosophical systems on wild ass guesses as to the nature of the world and the nature of humans are better at framing morality than someone that wants to know what really happens.

 

Take Descartes for example. His wild ass guess is "I think therefore I am", so he bases his philosophy on that. I think that science has pretty definitivly shown that Descartes guess was ass-backwards from what is real, "I am, therefore I think." What philosophers do you know of that actually incorporate what is known about human nature via moderan cognitive and behavioral sceinces into their philosophy and moral speculations? There are some: Frans Waal; Daniel Dennit; Patricia Churchland; George Lakoff; Antonio Damasio that I can think of off the top of my head.

 

I think that until we start basing moral explanation and reasoning on what actually happens, moral systems will continue to be largely dysfunctional. The idea the ought cannot be derived from is has to be just plain non-sense, if materialism is true. Why? Because there is nowhere else for ought to come from.

 

A guy like Waal comes along and points out that other primates exhibit moral behavior that very much resembles our own. So, now we know that our morality is not something special like we like to think it is.

 

One consequence of this is, that if rational thought is confined to humans, then rational thought is not the source of morals like we have supposed for who knows how many centuries. Then as an example the wide spread attempt to divide moral and immoral behavior between the intellect and the passions has to be a dysfunction.

 

The attempt to make this division can be seen in the conflict between the subjectivists on one side, and the objectivists on the other. Neither are correct.

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If morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.

 

I can't vote on that one because I feel so strongly that morality did NOT get shaped by behavioural rules. I believe that it is innate knowledge for humans. Instinct...call it what you will. Social animals demonstrate similar morality. That is why we as humans identify so strongly with animals like dogs or horses, to name the most favourite pets. Cats are not social animals and don't seem to demonstrate too much emotional connection. Without emotions, humans have no conscience or morals. Dogs and horses demonstrate emotional attachment and they also demonstrate a certain level of morality.

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Take Descartes for example. His wild ass guess is "I think therefore I am", so he bases his philosophy on that. I think that science has pretty definitivly shown that Descartes guess was ass-backwards from what is real, "I am, therefore I think." What philosophers do you know of that actually incorporate what is known about human nature via moderan cognitive and behavioral sceinces into their philosophy and moral speculations?

"I am, therefore I think" is necessarily true, being in the first person. A non-thinking entity would be unable to formulate the thought "I am". Change the person of the subject, and you change the veracity of the statement. "It is, therefore it thinks" isn't necessarily true. A box of crackers is, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't think.

On the other hand, "It thinks, therefore it is" is necessarily true because thinking entities "are". So Descartes' thinking wasn't necessarily backwards.

 

A guy like Waal comes along and points out that other primates exhibit moral behavior that very much resembles our own. So, now we know that our morality is not something special like we like to think it is.

Primates aren't the only ones. If you value a good work ethic, you could say that ants display morality in their self-sacrificing life of hard labor dedicated to the colony. So we have two examples of something we could potentially call morality: primates, which might very well be capable of rational thought, and ants, which in all probability don't think in any way we could describe as rational thought.

 

Could it be morality arises from an altruism that is hard coded in DNA, the end result of which is instinctive morality, a tendency within the population? And rationality develops later, a side effect of which is the rationalization of one's instinctive moral behavior?

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"I am, therefore I think" is necessarily true, being in the first person. A non-thinking entity would be unable to formulate the thought "I am". Change the person of the subject, and you change the veracity of the statement. "It is, therefore it thinks" isn't necessarily true. A box of crackers is, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't think.

On the other hand, "It thinks, therefore it is" is necessarily true because thinking entities "are". So Descartes' thinking wasn't necessarily backwards.

 

On the surface you have a point.

 

When I used this illustration I was asumming a knowledge of Descartes from the reader. For Descartes the thinking bit was something else (soul) than the physical body. The thinking bit had no extention (physical nature) and had an existence apart from the body and the material world. For Descartes a thought does not imply a body. That is neither of these constructions would be true: thought = body; body = thought.

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Philosophy 101 was many years ago, my friend. What does Descartes have to say about the metaphysical? That which is aware, and more specifically self-aware, corporeal or not, is still existent, according to Descartes. Or he contradicts himself.

 

Could it be morality arises from an altruism that is hard coded in DNA, the end result of which is instinctive morality, a tendency within the population? And rationality develops later, a side effect of which is the rationalization of one's instinctive moral behavior?

I want to add to this by saying that a tendency for biological morality could arise in the population because it benefits the survivability over many generations for that population. However bizarre or unexpected a behavior is observed, it must necessarily have some positive effect, otherwise the trait would disappear. On the other hand, Such observed moral behavior could actually be a detriment , one of the greater majority of mutations that do no benefit or actually harm the population and gradually fades from the population over time.

In the former, the unexpectedly observed means (moral behavior) is justified by the end (survivability, existence )

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I hadn't thought of it that way. You make an excellent point.

 

Another bit of thought for you:

 

Darwin insisted that his theory explained not just the complexity of an animal's body but the complexity of its mind. "Psychology will be based on a new foundation, " he famously predicted at the end of
the Origin of Species.
But Darwin's prophecy has not het been fulfilled. More than a century after he wrote those words, the study of the mind is still mostly Darwin-free, often defiantly so. Evolution is said to be irrelevant, sinful, or fit only for speculation over a beer at the end of the day. The allergy to evolution in the social and cognitive sciences has been, I think, a barrier to understanding. The mind is an exquisitely organized system that accomplishes remarkable feats no engineer can duplicate. How could the forces that shaped that system, and the purposes for which it was designed be irrelevant to understand it? Evolutionary thinking is indispensable, not in the form that many people think of -- dreaming up missing links or narrating stories about the stages of Man -- but in the form of careful reversed-engineering. without reverse-engineering we are like the singer in Tom Paxton's "the Marvelous Toy," reminiscing about a childhood present: "It went zip! when it moved, and pop! when it stopped, and Whirrrr! when it stood still; I never know just what it was, and I guess I never will."

Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works pp 22,23

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Wow, I must say that some of the things you guys are talking about (including the article) is going over my head. :scratch: However, It is very interesting to read and I wonder what sociology experts have to say about this research.

 

Does anyone know if this kind of behavior is found in dolphins?

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Morality hasn't improved, only the legal and police systems have.

The same percentage of the people that were sadistic back then still applies to today but much fewer will risk commiting these acts for fear of the consequences. If you want to see sadism today, see the AIDS trial in Lybia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benghazi_six ), pay special attention to the torture part and also take a delve into the Iranian punishment system (hands and feet are still severed for relatively minor crimes).

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