May 13, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Darwinizing Morality

Darwinists continue to try to lay claim to morality (cf. 01/20/2008, 05/02/2008, 03/12/2009)  If Darwinism is to succeed as a comprehensive world view, it must explain this innate sense we all have that certain actions (e.g., torturing babies, slavery, genocide) are morally wrong.  Without a God telling man “Thou shalt not”, how can all humans converge on a moral standard?  One way Darwinists attempt to explain morality is to find continuity between apparent moral behaviors of lower animals and humans.  Another way is to analyze reactions in the brain when humans are thinking moral thoughts and explain it in terms of physical activity in the neurons.  The most common way is to explain morality as an artifact of survival strategies that can be expressed in game theory.  Here are some recent attempts that surfaced in the scientific literature.

  1. Law of the hyena:  The continuity approach was shown on New Scientist, where Deborah Blum reviewed a new book by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, Wild Justice: The moral lives of animals (Ms Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

    Their definition of morality is a strongly Darwinian one.  They see moral actions as dictated by the behavioural code of social species, the communal operating instructions that bond a group safely together, the “social glue” of survival.  They believe such codes are necessarily species-specific and warn against, for instance, judging wolf morals by the standards of monkeys, dolphins or humans….
        Bekoff and Pierce have a larger goal than simply telling nice animal stories or even describing a kind of biological morality.  They also hope to persuade readers that humans aren’t so different from our fellow voyagers on planet Earth.  These moral behaviours, they argue, are evidence of a kind of evolutionary continuity between humans and other species.  This, they acknowledge, may be an even harder sell than the notion of a cooperative hyena.  “Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of ascribing morality to animals because it seems to threaten the uniqueness of humans,” they write.

    More research is needed on this “provocative thesis,” Ms Blum said.  It seems to leave some questions begging, though: how can “moral behaviors” be described as moral at all without some standard of morality?  If such descriptions are mere anthropomorphisms, how is our morality to be judged?  And if animals were proven to exhibit some kind of “morality,” why should Darwinism be the only explanation for it, or the best one?  Blum ended by watching a hyena at the zoo and wondering which one is the moral animal.  Wesley J. Smith posted a response on his blog Secondhand Smoke.

  2. Cruel joke:  Another book review, this time in Science,1 deals with the subject of human cruelty.  Prashanth Ak reviewed Kathleen Taylor’s new book Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain (Oxford, 2009).  This book takes the neurological approach to morality.  The author said at one point, “To get a deeper view of cruelty, therefore, means plunging our attention into a sea of neurons, the soggy, fatty mass from which cruelty is born.”  She did not give much hope for finding the roots of cruelty in the brain: “[f]uzzy blobs rather than tidy packets is certainly what our understanding of neuroscience, with its emphasis on probability, suggests we should expect.”  Ak was not particularly impressed with her imprecision.  He did, however, praise the book as an overview: “Addressing cruelty from multiple perspectives, including moral and evolutionary ones, the book does accord a complex subject its due.”  He felt the book only provides an introduction to a subject that begs for more research. 

    Before delving into the neuroscientific basis of cruelty (or anything else, for that matter) and its mechanisms, one wants to have a clear, rigorous intellectual framework that will allow the formulation of precise, experimentally tractable questions.  No such framework currently exists for cruelty.  As political scientist Judith Shklar pointed out in her classic essay “Putting Cruelty First”, philosophers have generally avoided the topic—as, surprisingly, have political theorists.  In general, academic (especially American) discourse, which holds dear enlightenment notions of an inexorable march to perfection, has not focused on the darker recesses of the human condition, other than to treat them as (regrettable) anomalies.  The typical approach has been to pathologize problematic behaviors, removing them from the ambit of normalcy.  Surprisingly few citations to cruelty occur in scholarly literature; many that do are with reference to sadism.  In older anthropology literature, cruelty was often discussed in connection with “savages,” who were supposed to possess an abundance of it.

    Ak did not end with any suggestions for a better framework.  He just hopes this book “will encourage fresh thought on an issue that continues to be central to human existence.”  For an earlier book review by Prashanth Ak, see the 05/02/2008 entry, bullet 6, “Can’t Darwinize the Golden Rule.”

  3. This is your brain on compassion:  Another neurological approach to morality was exhibited in a paper in PNAS,2 “Neural correlates of admiration and compassion.”  It is not clear whether the authors intended to say that compassion is merely a brain phenomenon.  They did state, “the evidence from neural activity patterns and neural time courses in our experiment suggests a differentiation in the processing of these emotional feelings, in keeping with the complex sociocultural context with which they are associated, building from those related to physical pain and skill to those that transcend immediate involvement of the body to engage the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation.”  There was a passing statement that could be interpreted as a Darwinian reference: “feelings of admiration and compassion recruit the brain’s ancient bioregulatory structures….”  Mostly, they just seemed interested in which parts of the brain lit up using functional MRI when their subjects (“Thirteen right-handed, native English-speaking Americans”) were stimulated with stories that evoked admiration or compassion.
  4. Food fight:  The last paper examined in this entry contained a combination of game theory and continuity.  Jean-Jacques Hublin wrote a commentary for PNAS entitled, “The prehistory of compassion.”3  This excerpt shows the twin explanatory references:

    From an evolutionary perspective, the forms of altruism observed in animals in general and in non-human primates, in particular, have been primarily interpreted as either support to kin (helping those who carry the same genes) or support to those able to reciprocate the favor (helping oneself indirectly).  This is in contrast to the trivial observation of humans helping others, even when the helper receives no immediate benefit and the person being helped is a stranger.  However, claims have been made that the level of altruism displayed by chimpanzees could be much higher than what was once thought.

    Hublin referred to observations of chimpanzees appearing to show compassion to other chimpanzees in distress.  “However,” he noted, “this incipient altruism seen in chimpanzees seems to disintegrate in competitive situations or when food sharing is involved.”  He speculated on why the human race is different: “Because the increase in meat consumption is considered to be a major evolutionary change in early Homo, these hominins had to strengthen a behavior likely preexisting.”  Anthropomorphisms aside, he also suggested that the extended childhood of early man may have also strengthened the incipient compassion seen in chimps: “In the course of our evolution, this was made possible only by having the support of group members other than the mother.”  This begs the question of whether extended childhood was the cause or the effect of the behavior – if either.  Whatever he meant to say, he ended with an appeal to evolutionary continuity:

    Finally, the divide between apes and early humans might not be as large as one tends to think.  Rather than considering ancient human altruism as proof of the moral values of our predecessors, one should instead see it as merely part of the spectrum of adaptations that have made humans such a prolific and successful species.

    But were early humans successful because they were compassionate, or were they compassionate because they were successful?  And what is the source of the light that produced the spectrum?  He didn’t say.


1.  Prashanth Ak, “Human inhumanity,” Science,8 May 2009: Vol. 324. no. 5928, p. 726, DOI: 10.1126/science.1173430.
2.  Immordino-Yang, McColl, Damasio and Damasio, “Neural correlates of admiration and compassion,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online April 20, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0810363106.
3.  Jean-Jacques Hublin, “The prehistory of compassion,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online April 20, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0902614106.

None of these articles comes close to being as sophisticated as Stephen Pinker’s essay last year (01/20/2008) in terms of knowledge of the deep philosophical issues involved, and that essay collapsed into a self-refuting singularity.  These authors did little more than wallow in their own Darwinian vomit.  One should feel compassion for them (Mark 4:34).

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