Evolutionary Morality: How Empathy is Chicken Soup for Humanity

To begin I would like to preface with the following: the existence of god(s) is not the focal point of this discussion, however uncertain or unprovable. Being of such low probability to effectively be scientifically negligible, when full consideration is given to all of the physical evidence ever collected, for the supernatural I digress. Instead within this discussion the topics I am setting up and ultimately intend to discredit are as follows.

1.) Evolution cannot provide a moral framework since it is a purely “theoretical” biological phenomena.

2.) Morality was given by god(s) through the respective holy texts and cannot be found using any other means or philosophy.

To begin, I would like to warn that I will not be directly commenting on the second assertion until after I have fleshed out my hypothesis for the origins of morality and its most base forms, namely empathy and grief. The way in which I will be doing so is using the evolutionary principles as my biological apparatus. So with no further digressions, “Incipere”.

In a broad state of nature, as Thomas Locke once described, one devoid of moral guidance and social structure, anarchy reigns supreme. The controlling emotion of the mind is one of fear, fear of famine, fear of predation, and fear of isolation. The complete and total lack of ANY emotional connection to another human is statistically zero, majority standards ignoring psycho and sociopaths, by the necessity of the parent to the survival of the child. Certain species are born in such a way that they are given no paternal assistance but these such creatures are usually born en masse to offset the probability of infant fatality. Why is this important to understand? There is an innate emotional response that human parents have for children that is so universal that I will contend that this is the place where morality was born.

To say morality was born would allude to a set of parental factors, to which I propose the following. The initial and psychological connection to another of the same species gave birth, if you will pardon the pun, to the phenomena of empathy and grief. Also an emotional responses so common I will intone to call them universal. The two “parental” concepts of empathy and grief work in twine to create a social connection to the offspring that provides reasoning for the sacrifice of food and energy by the parent in an effort to increase the probability of the child’s survival.

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This risk is multiplied in its importance due to the low number of children per pregnancy and long gestation period of the human animal. In this scenario empathy is simply an understanding, through memory, of what it was like to be a child and the pain of life experiences that one accumulates on the path to becoming an adult. Grief on the other hand is the understanding that upon death a strong emotional toll will be felt. I cannot express how important both of these concepts are as they were relatively unique in the infancy of our species as it reinforced a rare and incredibly strong sense of community based on highly developed emotional states.

The beginning of social life was an extension of the family unit. In the early times of human ancestry the small family units were scavengers, hunters, and gatherers. Which while sufficient to sustain life was in no way overly proficient in reducing the danger of famine and other natural hazards. To counter this the first groupings of families began to occur; higher probability of successful hunts and lower potential for injury or death were responsible for a slightly less danger plagued existence. This new social situation is where empathy began to take a larger role over grief in influencing the standards of human behavior. The understanding that to empathize with the other families, to relate to their hunger, to rationalize their fear of injury/death, and to feel their pain when a loved one died would help direct natural competitive behavior into collaborated efforts with the goal of assisting all within the group.

This new behavior was a basic response to better the condition of the collective through cooperation. The process of empathizing with each other’s emotional states became the basis of morality.

To empathize with the emotions and the physical pain of another helps one create a mental role reversal that places them as the recipient of their own behavior.

To understand that an action would create pain and suffering and the ability to imagine this pain in the first person is the driving force for the earliest concepts of morality. This is the closest to an objective morality I believe humans can come to. An objective morality is a system of morals or ethics that are independent of a person’s subjective opinion and cannot be interpreted through social or historical filters. A truly objective morality, I believe, would be subject to all living things and there is significant physical evidence to the contrary of accepted human morality in nature through its intensely violent natural selection processes (more discussion here).

The entire previous set of social scenarios was put forth to illustrate the basic needs and intentions of the first social contracts that humans entered into leaving the state of nature. The most basic agreement was to relinquish the right to kill or harm through competition which would result in more successful hunting and gathering. This was done with the sole purpose of providing a net gain result for both/all parties involved.

Now, is where evolution would enter into the scenario. The many different groups that existed in the ancient past had diversity in their social interactions. The groups that possessed one or both of the following were privy to a better probability of survival: first would be hereditary protein mutations that resulted in a mental tendency to empathize (I will contend that brain structure and mutations are factors that support or diverge from empathy) and second is the “education or indoctrination” into a culture that highly favors empathy.

The reason of course, it would affect early development and lifelong tendencies to support the culture in an indigenous natural scenario over hundreds of generations. The more of these successful groups that possessed these two factors the higher the probability is that this behavior would become hereditary and, employing the evolutionary principle, the deeper morality would be ingrained into the mind physically and psychologically.

This is important because empathy can be used to describe, on the most base level, every human interaction related concept of morality. I implore you to provide me a non religious morality based claim that does not break down to the concept of feeling the effects of such an action as if you were the person/group to be affected (divine morality is highly suspect and subjective hence my omission). Thus I will conclude that the first assumption has been shown false as evolution can utilize empathy to create a hereditary moral code.

I will reiterate the second topic to be refuted for reference: morality was given by god(s) through the respective holy texts and cannot be found using any other means or philosophy.

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Using the evidence based argument that I presented earlier I have shown that evolution can in fact develop what I like to call the most objective morality humanity can have. Utilizing the basic human rights mentality, community welfare behavior, basic sociology, and evolutionary biology one can easily find evidence of morality naturally occurring in every society in history. But that aside, as it properly refutes half of the argument, can we argue that morality was given by god using his “Divinely Inspired Holy Texts”? For the sake of brevity we will only be considering the monotheistic judeo-christian-islamic god but the argument can be put forth in relevance to any sacred text.

 

First I will contend that the god(s) of the three major religions are so deeply inconsistent, incompatible, contradictory, and hostile that unity can never be achieved theologically or ethically. With this one simple fact in mind I wish to point to the predictably and VASTLY different morality directives in all three holy books. Not to mention the multitude of ways in which to interpret the “commandments” that apologists and Sunday devotees all explain away as the morality of the times or the different but true contextual meaning. This subjectivity, to me, removes any validity and further fuels my skepticism that under the routinely blood soaked passages of holy writ there is something more humane and objective, the evolutionary empathy model.

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I think most holy texts begin with the best of intentions unknowingly using the morality of empathy and evolution, but when something is put into a more specific framework human fallibility leaves its mark. Whether it is an attempt to place a supernatural power or control over an as of yet unexplained natural physical phenomena instead of simply accepting ignorance and seeking the truth through evidence. Also the manipulation of the social contracts in an attempt to gain power over others using religiosity is a moral violation where the mark is indubitably left.

 

Since this is such a polarizing topic I have kept my language frank and my ridicule absent but in the end the level of inconsistency that is evident in the supposed infallible word I choose evidence once again over supposed omniscience as well as omnipotence.  I can be good without god, can you?

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3 Replies to “Evolutionary Morality: How Empathy is Chicken Soup for Humanity”

  1. The very idea of a “hereditary moral code” is absurd.

    Tell me . . . is it possible for human evolution to be different such that we inherit a different moral code? Let us say that we evolved a disposition towards rape – and rape turned out to be biologically useful such that we are the descendents of those who were disposed to rape. Would you, then, be seeking to defend a moral code that says that rape is good?

    Another problem rests with the fact that morality is intimately connected to punishment. People who do that which is wrong deserve to be punished. So, how does your system define “that which is wrong?” Is it, “That which we evolved a hereditary disposition to punish?” In other words, where we should look to determine if gays should be killed is in whether humans evolved a disposition to kill gays? Would you accept – as a valid implication – that if a group evolves a disposition to kill gays, then gays deserve to die?

    The situation is just as odd on the other side of the coin – in assigning praise for good deeds. How does it possibly make sense to praise a person for having an “honesty gene”. He certainly did not choose to have it. There was no time at which he stood before a genetic buffet saying, “I will take that gene.” It is an accident. Yet, the claim that morality is to be found in these accidents is to say that people deserve praise and condemnation for the genes they happened, quite by accident, to acquire.

    Indeed, it seems odd to be asking for the answer to moral questions by conducting a genetic test on those who would condemn them. “Is abortion murder? Well, we have conducted genetic tests on everybody in the community and we have found the “abortion is murder” gene in 63% of the population. The “abortion is murder” gene is absent in the other 37% – though 53% of those have a recessive “abortion is murder” gene.” It seems a very peculiar way to be trying to answer moral questions.

    And how do you handle variation in your genetic moral code? Let us say that there is a hereditary moral code, and for one person a genetic mutation gives him a moral code to have sex with young girls. Would your argument come to the conclusion that, for him, having sex with young girls is morally permissible?

    And, do you think that humans are capable of doing evil? Our capacity to do evil is just as much tied to our genes as our capacity to do good. If you are going to pick a subset of these qualities and call them our “hereditary moral code”, while taking other qualities and exclude them, you need to come up with some criteria by which you determine which are to be included and which are to be excluded.

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    1. It seems you have a wrong understanding of what the word “evolution” means. Firstly, the idea of a hereditary moral code would only be “absurd” if it was unknown in the animal kingdom; but as we know dogs are very loyal, elephants stand over their dead children to mourn for days before leaving and gorillas are known to cry after the passing of loved ones. So your first statement is pretty much null; most animals with any brain capacity clearly have a hereditary moral code. I won’t go through each mistake you made as I didn’t plan on writing an essay today, but I will answer your rape question. 1) Yes, it is possible for different humans to have difference moral codes (the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results) but most people are not insane, it is a fringe percentage, therefore it is an exception and not a rule. The same way that all fish inherently know that big shark coming towards them is dangerous, there will be a tiny amount of fish that don’t know this somehow – although it is in their DNA – and they will perish because of it, but that doesn’t mean the whole genetic code of the fish species will suddenly think sharks are friendly and it wouldn’t make it moral. 2) “Let’s say we evolved a disposition towards rape” No, we are disposed to having sex as much as possible to spread our species, but there is no evolutionary advantage to a violent crime in a sexual manner as that would diminish the chances of pregnancy if forced harshly, and due to stress and struggle could stop insemination and even kill the foetus due to high stress levels later in the pregnancy. We are by nature expected to spread our seed around, the reason the penis has a curved helmet for instance is to scoop out the semen of other men so that our own semen is the only fluid that reaches it’s goal – as you can see, that has a purpose, a violent assault on a woman does not. 3) “gays deserve to die” You have confused the idea of evolution and what is morally right. We as a species may believe that survival should be for all, that is a very moral statement, but evolution shows us that survival is not based on the nicest ending, or the fittest but on the most likely to adapt to it’s surroundings. Therefore, if hypothetically it was an evolutionary advantage to kill gays, that does not immediately make it moral by all species. For example, a lion finds it moral to kill his youngest, humans don’t feel that way. Another example is Spiders, the majority of spiders on the planet have been proven as bisexual or gay, because they somehow know there is an overpopulation of spiders, and from an evolutionary basis, that reduces the amount of food for each spider – strangely spiders know this and have started to stop repopulating all over the world to slow down their growth and keep their species alive, it is scarily fascinating – whether it is moral to us is not an issue, as it works for them. Morality is not a one size fits all code for every species. But it is clearly found in most advanced species and has it’s own purposes. Please look up Evolution and what it actually means before commenting. You won’t find me on a car website talking about how to refit an exhaust box, because I have no idea about cars. Take that how you will.

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  2. It seems you have a wrong idea of what ‘morality’ means.

    The idea of a hereditary moral code is absurd in the same way that the idea of a round square or married bachelor is absurd. Morality is concerned with what is chosen, and with rewards and punishments that are deserved. By definition, a “hereditary moral code” is not chosen, it is absurd to praise or condemn a person for their genetic code, and illogical to say that A deserves to die because B evolved a disposition to feel justified in killing him.

    I do believe that animals have moral systems, by the way. But it is not where you find them. It is in rewarding (by grooming, sharing food, sex, etc.) those who engage in behavior patterns animals seek to reinforce, and punishing (snarling, snapping, a swipe with a paw, and withholding rewards from) those who engage in behaviors an animal wants to see extinguished.

    But the only “hereditary” component is the inherited plasticity of the brain – the fact that our likes and dislikes are shaped in part through experience. Because of this, it is possible even for some animals to understand the effects if reward and punishment.

    But then morality becomes “behaviors we have reason to encourage or discourage through reward and punishment.”

    Your shark analogy misses the point of the rape objection. The rape example suggests the possibility that rape is a successful means of reproduction – that ancestors who raped had more offspring than those who waited for consent. If we are talking about a “hereditary moral code” we are talking about the possibility where rape becomes a right and a woman’s right to refuse simply does not exist.

    Though I do not believe in a hereditary moral code. I go with malleable (plastic) desires that people generally have reason to shape using reward and punishment – and on this measure rape is inherently something to be discouraged.

    Besides, your definition of rape is quite narrow. It is generally understood as sex without consent. Violent struggles are not a necessary component to rape. Indeed, we can add to our possible history that women who struggled were killed and our hereditary moral code thus prohibits struggle when confronted with rape.

    And I am not the one confusing evolution with what is morally right. You are the one advocating an inherited moral code. I have no objection to homosexuality because homosexual behavior does not qualify as something that people generally have any reason to discourage – reasons to discourage it come from the error of objectification, combined with religious myth. But you cannot rule out a possible evolutionary story where a disposition to kill homosexuals – or members of neighboring tribes – did not make it into the moral green pool.

    Note that evolution does not even rule out harmful genes – not if they belong in a package that produces other benefits. Or just luck (happened to be the chance survivor of some random accidents). Nearly anything can get written into a hereditary moral code as long as the package can reproduce. And, of course, as we all know, evolution produces diversity. We can expect inherited moral codes to be as diverse as biological life – leaving us with a ton of unanswered questions about what to do about conflicting codes.

    Perhaps women and men evolved different hereditary moral properties to go along with their different hereditary physical bodies. Perhaps black males or ethnic jews also have their own hereditary moral codes. Maybe a disposition to rape is recessive trait in this hereditary moral code.

    How would your system qualify a recessive trait as good or bad?

    I want to stress – I am not an advocate of a “hereditary moral code.” I put the idea in the same bin as “round squares” and “married bachelors”. It is incoherent – which is exactly why one comes up with all of these questions.

    Certainly, we have inherited a set of dispositions to like and dislike certain things. We have also evolved certain dispositions to be kind and helpful to others – that sit beside dispositions to engage in great cruelties as well. However, morality is concerned with what we SHOULD like or dislike. Evolution has something to say about this – but so does physics and geology. It helps to define the limits of what is possible. But it doesn’t answer the question of where we SHOULD stand within the boundaries of what is possible. That is the question morality seeks to answer.

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