Evolution · Science

Evolution of Morality

The Post has an interesting article about the origin of morality (HT ). It talks about research showing that various moral impulses are hardwired into our brains by evolution.

This dovetails nicely with another bit of research I stumbled upon recently (but can’t find now) that showed that, when posed with a moral problem, people from all over the world pretty much agree on what the right answer is, though they offer different explanations.

What this suggests is that we dislike stealing because we’re wired that way, and any explanation, be it “It goes against the 8th Commandment” or something involving Rousseau’s social contract, is post-hoc justification of a chosen conclusion.


On one hand, this research is tremendously exciting, since it sheds light on how the software of mind is implemented on the hardware of the body, which in turn is built using genes. So this helps us understand how different behaviors can be selected for by natural selection.

On the other hand, it’s somewhat disquieting, since it suggests that our genes control our behavior and morality. I can just hear the religious nuts exclaim, “Evolution denies free will!” Even if you’re not religious or don’t think that “free will” is a useful concept, it’s still unnerving to think that your likes and dislikes are not under your control. When I think about it that way, it seems like a violation of my innermost self; that what I want and don’t want was imposed on me by external forces; and that I don’t even struggle against this because, after all, I like the things I like. What if evolution had “decided” that rape was good? Would I go around raping people and liking it?

But of course, this view of things is false, or at least oversimplified. We’ve all done things we’ve regretted, even things we knew at the time were wrong. So even if our morality is the product of evolution, it’s not ironclad: we can still go against it, and “free will” is still there (assuming it was there to begin with).

Heck, if you want a stronger evolutionarily-conditioned imperative, how about “stay away from fire”? As fitness-enhancing behaviors go, that’s second only to “If Angelina Jolie wants to have sex with you, say yes!” And yet we have firefighters who run into burning buildings on a regular basis, to say nothing of ordinary people building campfires or having backyard barbecues. So to the extent that our feelings are a product of evolution, they’re guidelines or tendencies, rather than ironclad laws that must be followed.

The other saving grace is that the choice of what behaviors could be considered moral is not as arbitrary as I implied above. Evolution doesn’t necessarily work for the benefit of the individual (just ask any many who’s been kicked in the nuts, or any woman who’s given birth), but by and large it “tries” to keep individuals alive long enough to have children, and rewards those who manage to have more children than their neighbors.

And since we’re social animals, living long enough to have kids involves getting along with our neighbors and not getting killed by the alpha male for being a dick. In short, in a social species, evolution is going to favor traits that allow for getting along with each other. Since we depend on each other, evolution effectively had to solve a problem in game theory, that of allowing the tribe to survive so that individuals may survive. One of the most famous problems in game theory, the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, one very good strategy is to cooperate with the other person, even though you could get more points by screwing him over. A lot of altruistic behavior, like giving food to one’s neighbors or caring for them when they’re sick, can be explained in terms of game theory: if everyone in the tribe behaves this way, then your neighbors will care for you when you’re sick and give you food if they have some and you don’t.

That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? But of course we’re wired to like this sort of behavior, so that doesn’t mean anything. Looking at it purely amorally, we might resent our empathy, which makes it harder to stab people in the back and steal their stuff. But by the same token, I’d rather live in a society where people don’t stab me in the back and steal my stuff (for quite selfish reasons: being stabbed hurts, and replacing missing stuff takes time and energy that I’d rather not spend). Empathy seems a small price to pay for that.

So it doesn’t seem likely that evolution would have come up with a monstrous moral sense, e.g., one that included murder, theft, or rape as virtues, rather than empathy and altruism. So saying “Gee, I’m glad evolution didn’t make me enjoy murdering my children” is like saying “Gee, I’m glad evolution didn’t give me nine-inch molars.” Morality aside, it wouldn’t have been a good solution to the problem at hand, so it wouldn’t have happened.

Now obviously, if things were different, things would be different. If we weren’t a social species, we’d have different morals, just as if we were herbivores, we’d have different teeth. But for the kind of animal I am, I like altruism and empathy. All in all, I think we got a pretty good deal.

One thought on “Evolution of Morality

  1. I do recall reading a bit about various social dilemmas in Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The God Delusion”; not quite primary research, but maybe where you’re remembering this from?

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