Why does morality exist? Is this evidence of a metaphysical realm, or can it be explained as an evolutionary adaptation? Recently I’ve read a couple of books that argue that morality is a product of natural selection.
The Science of Good and Evil (2004) is by Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine. He begins by providing an evolutionary explanation for morality, which I found very plausible. Shermer claims that all moral attributes can be explained by natural selection over the millions of years of human evolution: groups in which members cooperated and could trust each other did better than groups that had a lot of infighting and deceit.
In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (2011), author Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of the evolution of morality parallels The Science of Good and Evil.
In particular, Rosenberg identifies a core morality, which includes cooperation, fairness/equality, and trustworthiness, which is recognized by all human societies. He has an interesting discussion about how different societies interpret this core morality differently due to their different beliefs. For example, all societies think caring for your children is moral, but some Islamic cultures believe that includes genital mutilation of their girls: if you didn’t do this no man would marry her. This doesn’t mean they don’t share the core moral value that caring for children is good, they just filter that through beliefs that we in the West would call mistaken.
American culture has been under the sway of Social Darwinism for over a hundred years now. We mistakenly believe Darwin’s theory of natural selection means competition is the natural way to behave and thrive. Our version of capitalism is dependent on ruthless cutthroat competition. Supposedly capitalism works so well because it is the system that most closely follows the natural law of selfishness.
But now biologists and anthropologists say that that interpretation of Darwin's theory is incomplete. Natural selection works through both competition and cooperation. Humans survived as a species because we learned to cooperate. This is the adaptation that allowed us to become the dominant animal on the planet.
Rosenberg imagines two early hominids (creatures that predated Homo sapiens) on the savannah coming across a half-eaten gazelle. At this point hominids were quite a bit lower on the food chain than we are today. If both the hominids ate at the same time, maybe the animal that killed the gazelle would return, or a pack of jackals would ambush them, and they both would be killed. But if they cooperated, if one watched while the other grabbed food for both of them and then they shared it in a safer location, they would increase their chances of survival.
One of the ways we can tell that evolution has programmed us to cooperate is to study babies. How do they behave before they have had time to learn about social interactions? Chimpanzees almost never help another and never share information. But Rosenberg writes, modern “human babies do all these things, and with strangers, well before they can do much more than crawl. They help, they share food, they even convey information before they have language and certainly without knowing anything about norms or niceness. That means that human babies have both an ability conveniently called theory of mind and an inclination to cooperate; both are hardwired or quickly and easily learned with very little experience at a very early age.”
What’s important to realize is that hominids learned to cooperate with the members of their group. Prehistoric groups fought with other hominid groups for possession of resources and territory. Shermer debunks the noble savage myth, which he says is still very strong in our culture, in particular in terms of violence. Many people seem to believe that violence is a recent development: a product of civilization, or patriarchy, or other relatively recent development. Shermer cites the numerous examples of anthropological sites dating back tens of thousands of years that show humans suffering violent deaths from such things as a hatchet blow to the head.
In addition, these early human groups believed they were special and better than people outside their group. Shermer uses an Amazonian tribe, the Yanomamo people, as a window into the thinking of people unaffected by modern civilization. They “consider themselves to be the ultimate chosen people—in their language their name represents humanity, with all other peoples as something less than human.” He quotes Aldous Huxley: “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that the other set is human. By robbing them of their personality, he puts them outside the pale of moral obligation.” [From The Olive Tree, 1937]
Early human social evolution was the story of small tribes cooperating within the group and fighting other groups. For most of humanity’s time on this planet, tribes numbered no more than 150 people. But in the last ten thousand years, the size of our social groups has mushroomed. Shermer includes a chart illustrating this remarkably rapid social evolution of humans:
100,000 – 10,000 years ago Bands 10s – 100s of individuals
10,000 – 5,000 years ago Tribes 100s – 1000s of individuals
5,000 – 3,000 years ago Chiefdoms 1,000s – 10,000s of individuals
3,000 – 1,000 years ago States 10,000s – 100,000s of individuals
1,000 – present Empires 100,000s – 1,000,000s of individuals
In other words, 10,000 years ago all of humankind lived in small groups made up of extended families. Imagine living in a group made up of your aunts, uncles, cousins, second-cousins, etc. Maybe you wouldn’t be related to everyone in your group, but everyone would be very much like you.
Today people live in groups made up of millions of people. I live in the United States, part of a 300-million-member group. Most Americans identify as a member of this group and cheer on its victories (most medals in the Olympics) and bemoan its defeats and threats (9/11, China's rise, Islamic terrorism, etc). We are capable of feeling a kinship with hundreds of millions of people, many of whom are very different from ourselves. Most of us never give this a moment’s thought, but being able to feel a membership in this large and diverse a group is an incredibly significant advance in consciousness.
I talked about these ideas with a friend, and he seemed to dismiss the idea that human social organization is improving. Finally I asked him, “Do you think human culture evolves?” He replied, “I don’t think evolution necessarily means things get better.” Very true—evolution just means a change that renders an organism better adapted to its environment. However, it is our ability to work together that has allowed us to prosper in every environment on this planet—from the poles to the Equator.
From what my friend said he seems to think humans’ ability to interact socially has gotten worse over the last ten thousand years. It occurred to me that there are a lot of new-age/liberals out there who probably feel the same way about this; they romanticize those small hunter-gatherer tribes.
I have a very different spin. Once upon a time, each tribe of 150 or so considered their members the only true humans. Now we can feel a common identity with 300 million people. Soon we’ll be capable of perceiving that every person on the planet is a member of our tribe—the human tribe—and the amount of creative energy that will be released by no longer having to fight each other will be astronomical.