Did Human Morality Come from God or from Evolution?

Public prejudice toward atheists is still high, not only in the United States but in most of the countries in the world. Around half of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist for public office, according to recent polls. Polls also show that the rejection of atheists is mainly due to the public assumption that people who are irreligious are also immoral, since they have no fear of punishment by God. But is God really the source of human morality? Certainly the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim God, invented less than two thousand years ago, is not the source of morality, because humans have probably had a fully developed morality for at least the last 300,000 years. That was well before they first showed signs of being religious, and as I argued in my previous blog post, “The Theology and Science of Free Will,” a religion may reinforce the particular morality of the group that practices it, but morality itself is not religious in origin. Morality actually emerged in the tension between individual humans and the groups that they belonged to, leading to the need of the groups to control the behavior of their members.

In order to understand how this tension developed, we need first to look to the research that has been done on the behavior of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, both in the wild and in captivity. Chimps and humans had a common ancestor some six or seven million years ago and share over 98% of their DNA, and that is evident in the similarities in their behavior. Chimps, like humans, can be individualistic and selfish and aggressive are potentially violent when they come into conflict with each other. In chimpanzees, a male might want to monopolize access to a female when her swollen, pink bottom shows that she is in estrus or heat and therefore sexually receptive. Consequently, a sort of “pecking order” or dominance hierarchy develops among the chimps, with the alpha male able to fight off or bluff any other male. However, often a female will prefer another male and so sneak off with him into the woods where the alpha male cannot see them. All of the males get to have sex, but because of the females’ as well as the males’ promiscuity, no one knows who fathered particular infants. However, chimp social life is not just about conflict and sex. The chimps share the human pro-social tendencies of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, and reconciliation. They just don’t have a system of morality.

The human line, classified with us in the genus Homo, split off from the scattering of species intermediate between us and chimpanzees in east Africa nearly two million years ago. Homo Erectus, as the name implies, stood erect, with long, striding legs and shoulders adapted for throwing things. They got much of their protein as scavengers: When they learned that carnivores had killed a large animal, perhaps because they spotted the vultures circling above it, they raced across the savannah and converged as a group on the scene, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks until the pack of carnivores fled. Then these proto-humans used their carefully crafted “hand-axes” (stone discs with a cutting edge all around) to carve up the meat so they could carry it to their camp. They were safe there on the ground, even at night, because they could build a fire to keep predators at bay in the dark. They had not, apparently, discovered the advantages of cooking the meat in the fire, or at least they had not figured out how to do it properly.

Robin Dunbar, in his book Human Evolution: Our Brains and Our Behavior, has estimated the “mentalizing” abilities of our various pre-human ancestors on the basis of the sizes of their brain-cases. He defines intelligence in terms of “levels of intentionality” or how many individuals’ intentions can be kept in mind at the same time. All mammals have at least first-order intentionality: They form their own intentions and carry them into action. (I called that free will in my first blog.). Elephants, dolphins and apes, including chimps, have second-order intentionality: They not only form intentions that direct their own actions, they also recognize that other members of their group do so. Dunbar estimates that modern humans have fifth-order intentionality: We can form our own intentions and follow the intentions, attitudes, and points of view of four other people, all at the same time. Erectus and other species in the human line had at least third-order intentionality: They they knew that they had intentions, attitudes, and emotions and that others of their kind did, as well, and they could also turn around and look at themselves from the point of view of the other members of their own groups.

Dunbar focuses on the need of groups such as the Erectus scavenger-bands to maintain social bonds or a feeling unity among the members so they would be able to stay together and cooperate. He suggests that they might have used laughter (perhaps in response to physical comedy by the “class clowns” among them) to create warm feelings in the group. He does not recognize that such feelings were not enough to overcome the conflicts that boiled up among the selfish, aggressive individualists that made up the band. Some kind of social control or morality would have to have been imposed on them by the group. But laughter could have helped to do that job as well. Erectus were capable of third-order intentionality but were not capable of articulate speech. Instead, they would have had a variety of verbal calls and/or gestures that could have been used to express their emotions. I therefore propose the hypothesis that Erectus groups could have used shame as means of social control. Their gestures and calls could have shown social disapproval, but laughter is the most powerful shaming mechanism. It erupts spontaneously when someone does something socially inappropriate. The shamed individual would have seen herself from the point of view of the group and felt negatively about herself to the same degree that her group did. The blushing response to shaming must have evolved prior to language, at the Erectus stage, since it is not necessary when people can apologize for what they do. The individuals who blushed would be seen to be accepting the group’s point of view and would have therefore been forgiven for their unacceptable behavior. Those who did not blush and did not correct their behavior to avoid shaming might have been thrown out of the group and would probably not have survived alone on the savannah, much less have been able to reproduce the genes that did not code for blushing.

Homo Heidelbergensis evolved out of Homo Erectus in Africa about 600,000 years ago. They were capable of articulate speech as well as of third-order intentionality and therefore the members of its bands were capable of coming to agreements among themselves that stated social rules and standards of behavior for themselves. The three levels of intentionality were in play at each stage of negotiations: Each individual formed the idea of coming to an agreement that represented the point of view of the group, each intended to do so, and each knew that the others intended to do so as well. Next, each acknowledged that agreement as stating the expectations of the group when it was reached, pledged to abide by it, and knew that the others did the same. And finally, each could compare the standards set in that agreement to his own behavior and to that of the others. But a rational contract of this sort is not self-enforcing. A coldly rational individual would not take the risk and make the effort to enforce the contract on another individual on behalf of the group. I therefore propose the hypothesis that to strengthen enforcement of group moral standards, the Heidelbergs evolved the uniquely human emotion of moral outrage at violators of the group’s moral rules or norms; I also propose the hypothesis that moral outrage directed against the self for violating those norms is the source of the feeling of guilt. Heidelberg groups whose members had these emotions of outrage and guilt would have been much more effective at enforcing their own morality on each other and the members also would be more likely to enforce the rules on themselves. Therefore those groups would be more cohesive and cooperative and successful in ensuring their own survival and reproduction. Individuals who had not evolved these emotions and therefore did not enforce the group’s moral standards on themselves and on the others would be likely to be thrown out of the group and die.

The major kind of social agreement that the Heidelbergs developed was marriage, a huge innovation in human morality. Richard Wrangham in his book, Catching Fire, shows that it was the discovery and spread of cooking led to the establishment of the institution of marriage. Cooking greatly increases the digestibility and nutritional value of food, especially of meat and root vegetables such as potatoes. It therefore made possible a rapid evolutionary increase in the size of the brain. The brain is the most voracious organ in the body, using much more than its share of the energy obtained from metabolizing food. Enough energy for larger brains was available only when eating cooked food. Cooking food also enabled a mother to provide sufficient easily consumed nutrition for then needs of children with rapidly developing brains and thereby increased their chances of survival. But she could not do it alone. Unlike the families of all but one species of ape, human families typically do not just include a mother and her children; they also include an adult male, ideally the father of the children. That is because, until the invention modern appliances, at least one member of the family had to spend hours during the day maintaining the cooking fire and making sure that the food was cooked properly. And at the same time that cooking developed, humans were becoming more proficient hunters. Hunting itself is time consuming, and one person cannot spend enough time hunting and enough time maintaining the fire during the day and gathering and cooking vegetables to survive. A partner was needed to compensate for this time constraint. Human mothers would gather wild vegetable foods of various sorts and cook that food at each family’s cooking fire in the group’s campground while the men in their group were off hunting much of the day. But when one of those men returned, he could raid the campsite of any woman to steal the food she had been cooking.

Wrangham argues that the cultural solution to this problem was marriage, in which the husband agreed to became the protector of his wife, who in turn agreed to cook for him and their children. The husband protected his wife not by standing guard at the fire, but by coming to a moral agreement with the other men in the group that they would respect each man’s right to the food prepared by his own wife as well as his exclusive sexual access to her. Second, the men also agreed that they would share the meat from any large animal killed by any member of the group, so that each man’s wife would have meat to cook along with the vegetables that she had gathered. Third, they agreed that in decision making affecting the group, no one would be allowed to act as boss. Each married man would have an equal say in the discussions leading to any decision. This morality of equality, sharing, and marriage is universal among human hunting-gathering cultures because no other social pattern is compatible with that way of life. It was not inevitable that such a complex cultural arrangement would be worked out, and many human hunting and gathering groups probably died out because they failed to achieve it. The first to achieve it were the Heidelbergs. Numerous cooking fires only appear in the archaeological record in their time, 400,000 years ago, followed after another 100,000 years by a dramatic evolutionary increase in their skull and brain size, made possible by their improved nutrition. They later evolved into modern humans in Africa and into Neanderthals in Europe.

Marriage, as adaptive as it was in the context of the hunting-gathering lifestyle, was not easy for these human ancestors to maintain, with their chimp-like desires and emotions. But they evolved further biologically to enable them to conform to the moral standards they had set for themselves. Most obviously, women evolved to stop showing the pink swellings of their genitals that female chimpanzees showed during estrus. The same evolutionary change made women sexually receptive whether they were in their short period of fertility or not, so wives would be willing and able to entertain their husbands almost any time of the month, making it unnecessary for their husbands to stray into the arms of other women. A less obvious change was the evolution of a new function for an old hormone, oxytocin. In all mammals, its release into the bloodstream and the brain is stimulated in a pregnant female by the vaginal birth of her offspring, and the hormone primes her to become emotionally attached to the infant and to want to care for it. Physical contact between the mother and infant in the course of that care stimulates further releases of the hormone in her and in the baby. Not only that; it is also released during vaginal sexual intercourse, in human males as well as females. And it reaches sustained high levels in romantically involved couples. It makes them feel happy and relaxed as a result of having physical contact with each other or even of just thinking about their partner. So long as that effect lasts, the couple are likely to have eyes only for each other and stay loyal to their marriage. Those who evolved that reaction to oxytocin were more likely to stay together and raise their children successfully to become healthy adults who would reproduce their parents’ new genes, so the pattern spread to the whole population of Heidelbergs and their descendants, ourselves.

My conclusion is an extension of the argument of my first blog, "The Theology and Science of Free Will." Humans have exercised free will, not just over their own actions, but also over their own evolution. Most of the biological evolution of the human line for the last two million years has resulted from the intentional innovations that the proto-humans made in their ways of feeding themselves, their technology, their social organization, their culture—and their morality. These evolutionary changes have enabled them to adapt more easily and willingly to the new socio-cultural environment that they have created for themselves, from the blushing response to shaming evolved by Erectus to signal their acceptance of the group’s point of view to the romantic feelings evolved by Heidelbergs to hold their marriages together.

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Comment by Homer Edward Price yesterday

Joan, I think I need to connect the dots.  In one post, I wrote: 

Where large animals are the major source of meat, it is men who have to do the hunting, and women are reduced to the roles of cooking the meat and processing the hides from the animals the men have killed.

In my next post, I wrote:

in the more arctic areas in the far north, these [gardening and fishing] activities are not possible, and the Unuit (aka Eskimo, a word which is now considered an ethnic slur) who live there depend on large animals both on land and sea that the men kill for food.  They are the people that I had in mind when I wrote last sentence in my previous comment

And in my previous blog, I wrote:

In some cultures, husbands have customarily been expected to share their wives with overnight adult male visitors. 

All of these comments refer only to one and the same culture, which is an extreme case, due entirely to environmental and ecological circumstances. I was not holding it up as typical. I was using it for contrast, to emphasize cultural variability.  Immediately after the sentence quoted immediately above, I described the social structure and moral expectations of the Wompanoiag and the other peoples of the eastern woodlands, including the Cherokee, almost in the same terms as Anne Marie Paine and U.N. Women.

And perhaps I should state explicitly that I am a cultural relativist. I cannot explain what that means any better than Michael Penn did in his comment below:

Human morality comes from the design of the societal structure that you live in. This is why it is ever changing. Evolution marches along and morality is different in other societies and other countries. It always will be.

It was in the premodern agrarian societies (they called themselves "civilized societies") that women were reduced almost to the lowest social status they have ever occupied.  Most of the food was produced by the men, who used large animals to pull plows to cultivate large fields of crops. Women's work was essential, too, of course, but they could not produce anywhere near as much food, fiber, etc., as the men could, and therefore they were entirely dependent economically--unless they took over the man's role and hitched the plow to the oxen themselves and guided it through the fields, which some women certainly did when there was no other option.  

Worse, what the men most valued were sons to inherit their land and to carry on their family name and to worship their family gods (more on that below).  So the women might be secluded from other men (that was another example I gave in my first blog) and treated essentially as baby machines.  Adultery by women was the worst sin, because it might produce a baby that was conceived by another man.  God forbid, the man felt, that his name and property and god be inherited by another man's son.  

Almost all of these "civilized societies" had polytheistic religions.  They worshiped many gods and goddesses.  All had a Great Goddess (or two or three) but she was never sole creator and ruler of the universe.  That idea was invented by the ancient Hebrews less that two thousand years ago, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, and their God was definitely male.  Their idea of monotheism was rare, until it was transformed by St. Paul into the basis of a universal religion, Christianity.  And, in what I consider to be the greatest disaster ever suffered by Western Civilization (conceived as a culture, rather than as a population), in 312AD, the Emperor Constantine adopted Christ as his chosen warrior god (really!) and slowly made Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on Friday

Homer, I am troubled by one sentence you wrote and wonder if that sentence still stands in modern culture, from your point of view. As a feminist, I see that attitude is a construct that has no validity. The sentence is:

"women are reduced to the roles of cooking the meat and processing the hides"

In primitive cultures, even in the ice homes of far Northern clans, the roles of women are higher than in more "modern" cultures. The influence of economics and power shifted with the advent of property rights. 

In Native American cultures, women owned the "hearth" meaning the home. In some tribes, only women could be judges. 

"The Wampanoag have a matrilineal system, like many indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands, in which women controlled property and hereditary status was passed through the maternal line. They were also matrifocal; when a young couple married, they lived with the woman's family. Women elders could approve selection of chiefs or sachems. Men acted in most of the political roles for relations with other bands and tribes, as well as warfare. Women with claims to plots of land used for farming or hunting passed those claims to their female descendants, regardless of their marital status.

~ Plane, Anne Marie. Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 2000: 20, 61.

"In February of 1757, the great Cherokee leader Attakullakulla came to South Carolina to negotiate trade agreements with the governor and was shocked to find that no white women were present. “Since the white man as well as the red was born of woman, did not the white man admit women to their council?”  

~ The Issue: Empowerment of rural women and girls, U.N. Women, Commission on the Status of Women, March 12-23, 2018

According to Gimbutas, the common leadership role was held by women and their gods were female. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on Friday

Homer, I am intrigued by your grasp of history and storytelling. What is your background; I wonder if there is some Irish storytelling gene embedded in your soul?

Comment by Compelledunbeliever on Wednesday

 Homer I'm sorry but what a fitting name, I will be watching, more appropriately listening to you! I wish I was as eloquent as you.

Comment by Homer Edward Price on Wednesday

Joan writes a beautiful story below about her experiences with the Native Americans in Alaska, which is one of the very few places where they are still able to practice their traditional subsistence lifestyle, characterized by interdependence between men and women.  Most of Alaska is quite nice in the summer and is suitable for the gardening, river fishing, etc., that Joan describes.  By contrast, in the more arctic areas in the far north, these activities are not possible, and the Unuit (aka Eskimo, a word which is now considered an ethnic slur) who live there depend on large animals both on land and sea that the men kill for food.  They are the people that I had in mind when I wrote last sentence in my previous comment below.

Comment by Joan Denoo on Wednesday

I lived in Alaska for two years and became acquainted with homesteading and native women, all of whom did as you say, they created incredibly delicious meals from the foods they grew, the animals they killed, and meat and fish they or their husbands caught. The roles of cooking the meat and processing the hides from the animals had value as an important part of their team. Women bled every month and did not die, they bore children and provided nourishing milk, which the men could not do. When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone describes the disintegration of this ancient system and the roles of women as Judeo-Christion power crushed the "pagans" and women's status declined.

There is no priority of hunting over cooking and tanning hides because both are a science and an art. The notion of one being more important than the other was not part of their cultures. If the woman dies or leaves, the man doesn't have enough time to do the hunting, cooking, and preserving food; if the man dies or leaves, the woman doesn't have enough time to do her tasks and hunting as well. Each one suffers from the absence of the other. 

I went hunting and fishing with women, and we prepared the meals with protein we caught, vegetables we grew, and fruits we gathered in the forest. We tanned hides and made parkas and boots. It requires hard work and if one can share the tasks with another, life improves. 

Comment by Michael Penn on Wednesday

Human morality comes from the design of the societal structure that you live in. This is why it is ever changing. Evolution marches along and morality is different in other societies and other countries. It always will be. 

Comment by Homer Edward Price on Tuesday

Anthropological research has shown that the degree of dependence of women on men in hunting-gathering societies varies with the importance of large animals as a source of meat.  Women can trap or kill small animals as well as men can, so they have more independence in areas were there are lots of small animals in the wild.  Where large animals are the major source of meat, it is men who have to do the hunting, and women are reduced to the roles of cooking the meat and processing the hides from the animals the men have killed.

Comment by Joan Denoo on Tuesday

Homer,  you wrote, "The invention of cooking — even more than agriculture, the eating of meat, or the advent of tools — is what led to the rise of humanity."

Yes, the process of cooking food could very well be the thing that explains "Richard Wrangham's theory of how women's dependence on men got started in the first place." There is a genuine need for women to have a community, especially during pregnancy and the early years of childhood. There is also a genuine need for men to have a community to support him while he hunts for food. Both women and men have dependencies and marriage meet both of their needs. What screwed things up was the notion that only women were dependent. They both were dependent on the other.

What good is raw meat in the advancement of humanity?

What good is nutrition if there is no hunter?

They need each other. 

"T]he invention of cooking — even more than agriculture, the eating of meat, or the advent of tools — is what led to the rise of humanity."

~ Richard Wrangham of Harvard University 

Yes, I can accept Wrangham's theory because he points out the mutual benefit of cooked meat. 

Comment by Homer Edward Price on Monday

Joan Denoo wrote:

I didn't know I had limits placed upon me and that I internalized those limits, to my detriment. It was my college experience that required that I stop, think, respond to my old knowledge and replace it with a new concept of being a free Homo sapiens.

That is what I had in mind when I wrote:

there are always constraints on what we can do, but that does not matter for my purposes. What matters is that those constraints are consciously taken into account in deciding what we will do.

I was also wondering what Joan thought of Richard Wrangham's theory of how women's dependence on men got started in the first place, which I summarize in my blog.



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