Morality as an evolved trait

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If you’re regular follower of this blog you’ll be aware that one of my pet hates is the assertion by the religiati that morality is god-given, or, conversely and usually said with a supercilious grin, that atheists have no basis for morality (see here, here and here for a sample).

Rather than just dismissing their argument as bullshit of the highest order (I know, very persuasive, right?), and arguing that it’s just not sustainable given that there are clearly atheists who are moral, it’s nice to be able to provide some real evidence, after all, that’s what I’ve been banging on about ad nauseam.

This week’s Science Show, on ABC Radio National, featured a talk at the AAAS conference in Vancouver earlier this year, by Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist, who has been studying this very question, and has some fascinating (and hugely entertaining) insights to share (although I don’t think that the religiati will necessarily find them all that entertaining).

In summary, he argues that morality is an evolved trait (thanks again Charles Darwin), and this is a fact which is supported by decades of experimentation now. The experiments in primates and other species clearly demonstrate that all the behaviours we associate with morality can be traced to directly to three key sets of behaviour:

  • empathy & consolation
  • prosocial behaviour (including cooperation and altruism)
  • reciprocity and fairness

These can all be demonstrated in other species, making them appear to practice morality. Now, I suspect the religiati will argue that, well, god made the other species too, so it’s no surprise that they display this behaviour, but that can’t be very satisfying. Isn’t there something about faith being required? And god made atheists too, didn’t he?

The video below presents the highlights of this very entertaining and informative presentation, with some stunning examples of cooperation, fairness, empathy, altruism, and so forth. In particular, watch for the fairness experiment (at around 13:00) featuring grapes and cucumbers – it’s a laugh out loud moment, and one which should leave no doubt about the common ancestry between humans and the capuchin monkeys shown. De Waal also tells us however that this has been replicated with dogs and birds, so it’s not just a primate thing.

So sit back and enjoy the video. I look forward to some tortured justifications and special pleadings by the religious community.


2 thoughts on “Morality as an evolved trait

    Joe Borg said:
    June 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Well RB, thanks for that. You were definitely correct about the laugh out loud moment. Very interesting study.


      rationalbrain said:
      June 28, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      Hi Joe.
      Welcome to rationalbrain!
      Yes, interesting indeed. Animal experiments are easy to misunderstand, causing us to ascribe human values or behaviours to them where none exist. However I think these particular examples are pretty persuasive. It will certainly be worth looking at some of the other research by de Waal.

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