Recently a friend asked me the following question:
There’s a big debate over the origins of morality. Some say the answer lies in scripture. Others propose morality is an evolutionary acquirement. How do you explain the origins of morality?
As an atheist I am biased toward non supernatural origins of human morality. However, I have yet to discover a truly satisfying theoretical discussion of human morality based on Natural Selection and evolution. Richard Dawkins tackles the question briefly in his book the GOD DELUSION and I find it to be a good starting place.
Evolutionary biologists have touted the so-called “selfish gene” in recent years and it certainly makes sense to suggest that an organism’s drives to survive and propagate are the motivating forces of its existence. To put it in less academic terms I would submit that as human beings we are neither good nor bad when we come into the world. We are self-centered. We exist to get our needs met.
We know that for the most part the ability to share and show empathy is not necessarily “hardwired” in an infant. These are partly learned behaviors and these capacities don’t really take hold until about 4 years of age and develop overtime through adolescence. It’s one of the reasons why psychiatric professionals tend to avoid diagnosing sociopathy during a patient’s teenage years. We learn our morality from those around us and it’s dependent on our ability to make emotional connections with other people. If this ability is broken or retarded it will impede a person’s capacity to develop a conscience, which is necessary for a person to “have morality” in the true sense of the word.
My current belief (I say “belief because” I can’t really offer you any science at this time) is that Natural Selection favored those of our ancestors who were able to sublimate some of their own selfishness to work in cooperation with other people. If you consider that the so-called cradle of life is in a generally harsh and arid part of the world cooperation and specialization is needed in order to thrive. In order to do this we developed rules or laws. Human society seems to crave order. In order for people to “buy-in” to the rules they have to be handed down with some authority and there must be consequences (although we can see that consequences are not often enough to prevent people from acting against the rules).
If you look at Judaism and Islam you see not just a system of supernatural beliefs. They are both bodies of law. They are legal systems and what better authority then a supreme almighty being? In Christianity the Roman Catholics are bound by Canon Law (whether they realize it or not) and most protestant Christianity is some form of “Law light.” However, post modern Christianity has favored a more mystical stance and tends to blather on about not being held in bondage by the law while failing to recognize that they are still bound to a legal system of sorts. There are rewards and punishments and a divine supreme authority that passes judgment. These are all elements of a legal system. Ancient scriptures are, to my way of thinking, the earliest forms of lawgiving. Laws are developed out of need. They also change according to need.
The bias in our culture is to see the Judeo-Christian ethos as the perfection of morality because it was given by what it sees as the “one true god.” It tends to see the Ten Commandments as some type of Hebrew innovation. It doesn’t seem to occur to the fans of Jesus and Moses that humanity had previously figured out that stealing, murder and adultery is problematic to social order long before Moses and the Ten Commandments.
Karen Armstrong – one time Catholic nun and religious writer – has written about the development of what we refer to as the “golden rule.” Her research suggests that this ethos seems to develop almost simultaneously cross cultures approximately 6,000 years ago. At the time that Moses is coming down the mountain with the stone tablets the other cultures around them are developing ethically along the same lines. So if there is a supreme grand poobah handing down laws it would call into question Israel’s claim of most favored nation status.
The antecedents of many biblical stories and religious beliefs as well as ethical biases are found in the ancient culture of Sumer. Even the Hebrew god that most Christian’s refer to as Yahweh was a one time storm or war god from Sumeria. When we first encounter Abraham nee Abram he is leaving the Sumerian city of Ur of the Chaldeans.
The Sumerians were innovators in many ways and quite advanced when compared to other cultures around at that time – a fact that continues to confound some scholars. Among those innovations is the notion that the nobility or ruling class has an ethical obligation to protect the poor and the most vulnerable. Contrast that with the attitude of the Babylonian ruling class.
The tendency with the Judeo-Christian meme is to suppose that their ethos is universal. If you suggest any form of moral relativity they will recoil in fear and quote endless bible passages. But, anthropology and sociology clearly demonstrate that what we see as universal morality is not necessarily the case. Once again, to my way of thinking, Judeo-Christian morality is just as man made as anything else. Morality – what a culture sees as right and wrong – has more to do with the overall needs of that particular culture to keep order and to allow it to thrive. The needs of the ancient Inuit people in the frozen Arctic will not be the same as a nomadic people wandering the ancient deserts of Palestine.
The prohibition against murder is often the example offered by the believers in a universal morality. I would suggest that our aversion to murder has to do with our ability to form attachments as mammals and the accompanying capacity for empathy in the face of pain and suffering. Yet, that isn’t a fully satisfying answer given the number of murders committed.
Most often, at least in terms of ancient morality, “Thou shall not kill,” could be seen to mean “thou shall not murder one of your own ‘kind.’” Even before the Ten Commandments, God’s covenant with Noah forbade murder. Yet 40 years after Moses gave the Israelites the law, the armies of Joshua cut a bloody genocidal swath through the so-called Promised Land.” In fact, their god commanded it. This calls into question the overall morality of their supreme being.
There have been some questionable nuero science studies attempting to demonstrate that human beings come hardwired for religious belief resulting in the questionable God Gene Theory and a discipline referred to as Neuro-Theology. The results of the study were quite dubious and are not really holding up to the scrutiny of peer review. It also begs the question that if “religious belief” is hardwired into us then it is coded somewhere in our DNA. This means that mutation is also possible and that some may even be born without the genetic capacity to believe. How would we consider this? Is this an adaptation or a birth defect? I have a pretty good idea how the Pope might see this. Those who would like to find a genetic or biological disposition favoring belief should be careful to consider that those lacking it might indicate an evolution or adaption away from needing to believe in supernatural things at all.
Those of us who favor Natural Selection need to recognize that the prevalence of religious belief is not insignificant. Natural Selection suggests that traits useful for survival thrive while those not useful die out. So what is the evolutionary advantage of religious belief? Once again I have not seen an overly satisfying answer. I tend to see religious belief – as suggested by Dawkins - to be a byproduct of a trait that is useful.
Perhaps it is the ability to sublimate a portion of individual self interest in order to work in cooperation with others for survival. This might be tied into the ability follow orders and to learn from those who have previous experience. This is all speculation.
As a final postscript I ran across a small article in an New Thought magazine last month. The neurologist co-authoring it mentioned studies suggesting that “altruism” stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain. In other words doing good deeds and being charitable causes people to feel good. I am not certain what the proves exactly. It does suggest a certain flaw in the “selfish gene” model. The fact is our learning is intimately tied to our nervous system. We are creatures who seek to avoid pain and increase pleasure. For those in the study the had somehow learned to associate pleasure with altruism. But, this is far from conclusive. If altruism were pleasurable then there would be more of it.
A final speculative statement – I predict that Neuro-science will eventually demonstrate that morality is a learned behavior that is not pre-programmed, but gets programmed into us by our parents, families, society and religions. This has nothing to do with a god, who is often whimsically tyrannical and selective in his own morality.