"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Science: The Evolution of Morality

I go on quite a bit about how human beings, as social animals, are more or less hard-wired toward what we call "moral behavior." As I usually phrase it, "Why do people form societies?" The answer, of course, is "For mutual benefit." (Actually, my usual answer is "I don't think it's so that the greediest and most dishonest can take everything," but that's usually when I'm debating "libertarians.")

Well, this morning I ran across this post from Undercover Blue at Hullabaloo, referencing this article by Indre Viskontas on the work of psychologist Paul Bloom. The article is not easy to excerpt, but click through -- it's short, and it has videos and stuff. Essentially, it summarizes Bloom's work with infants and toddlers on how compassion and a sense of fairness seem to be on display early on, based on babies' choices of the good guys (those who help or share) over the bad guys (those who do neither) as preferences -- they opt for the good guys.

This echoes the behavior of other primates exhibited both in research settings and in the wild: most of our relatives travel in groups, and they help each other out. Primate societies are marked by cooperation among the members, which from an evolutionary standpoint (you knew this was coming) has proven to be an adaptive trait: cooperation among members of the group enhances the survival of the group and, by extension, that of the individuals who make up the group.

There's always self-interest, though. In the realm of small children, Bloom discovered that, while perfectly happy to distribute someone else's treats in equal shares, when it comes to the child's own treats, it's a very different story. As they grow, however, that changes, as witness Viskontas' first anecdote in the article on Bloom's work:

At the playground, I watch my 10-month-old son beeline to the center of the sandbox where there is a bright pink shovel. But before he gets there, a rambunctious 2-year-old snatches up the coveted toy first. As my son watches the shovel slip away, a wobbly 14-month-old comes over and offers him a half-chewed cookie.

There's an element of tribalism in this. As Bloom notes, as quoted by Undercover Blue:
"But this compassion and this helping, it all pertains to the baby's own group," says Bloom. They are less naturally generous with out-group members.

By our natures, we strongly value those around us over strangers. And to the extent that you and I don't, to the extent that you and I might recognize that somebody suffering, I don't know, from the Ebola virus in Africa, is a life just as valuable as those of our closest friends and family, that's an extraordinary cultural accomplishment. And it's something that's not in the genes. It's not what we're born with.

And there we have an added wrinkle: culture building on inheritance.

(I don't think I need to emphasize how this applies to, say, contemporary American politics: it's a matter of expanding your perception of "Us" as opposed to "Them," and the trend in American history has always been toward a larger "Us." There's always been an element in American society, and others as well, that fails to make the leap. These days, we call them "Republicans.")

National Graphic did a special with Richard Leakey on his discoveries at Turkana in Africa, of which this clip addresses the issue under discussion here:

Self-interest? Yes, but also, as Leakey puts it, "bonding, care, love, affection, protection" -- which all boils down to "compassion."

If you look at any religion -- and most people, for some reason, consider the teachings of their religion as the basis of morality, rather than its codification -- you'll find that underlying all the codes of behavior, tribal taboos, and "history" is one basic precept: we take care of each other. (Some evoutionary theorists have hypothesized that we're also hard-wired for belief. Be interesting to see how they test that one.)

And I can already hear the objections: how can genetics determine something as complex as our understanding of morality? Well, in addition to instilling a tendency toward cooperation and compassion, evolution also gave us brains. You do the math.

(I'm going to refrain from commenting on the somewhat rudimentary sense of morality evidenced by the spokespersons of the "religious" right, except to note that their concern is with tribal taboos, not any real values. Although I will admit that imagining their reaction to the idea that morality is hard-wired gives me a great sense of satisfaction.)

This one has a lot of ramifications. Use your imagination.

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