Morality and Evolution

A couple of recent articles in the Times (one in the Science section) have again raised the question of the origins of morality. One discusses a study of Chimpanzees that demonstrated their ability to empathize with one another. (“Sympathize” is something else again; the difference should be considered.) They would sense that an individal needed help and would go to its assistance. “Lower” monkeys were unable to do this as reliably. Parallel to this, a study of brain injured persons showed that injury to a a particular part of the brain changed the moral calculus of individuals. When faced with a decision to kill a baby to make possible the survival of the group, the brain damaged individuals showed little compunction about killing the baby. “Normal” people found this much harder to do. The conclusion was that there was something in the normal human makeup that made certain actions almost unthinkable, whereas these controls had been removed when a certain part of the brain was damaged.

This research strengthens my feeling that moral behavior probably has a distinct evolutionary basis. The people who survived and reproduced generation after generation were those able to identify their interests with those of the group, and to establish emotional as well as intellectual limits on their behavior. (This is evolutionary selection on a group basis, a case doubted by many evolutionists, but I do not see why.) As one researcher suggested, human beings evolved before the Ten Commandments. What we have developed culturally as codes of behavior are intellectual selections and extrapolations from this biological base. The greatest difference between the ancient, emotive morality and the intellectualized moralities of civilization, is that some of the latter have been able to transcend the in-group and extend moral rules to all human beings — or even all beings. This extension frequently fails to work; it is more talked about than employed. But even the effort is quite an accomplishment. It is doubtful that Chimpanzees would have any concept of Chimpanzee rights, while they do have a strong moral sense governing their interactions within their in-group.

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