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.


On The Hearing Of Falling Trees in Forests

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Never let it be said that I don’t tackle the big questions.

Today’s big question is that familiar old philosophical chestnut (yes, I know, at least three of these adjectives are redundant) : “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Why now you ask? For some reason it came up over a pre-Christmas dinner with some mates, and a fairly loud and prolonged argument ensued between two of us in particular. Fortunately the general volume in the restaurant was approximately that of a 747 at take-off, so no harm done. What is remarkable is that the bulk of the argument was had prior to any significant alcohol being consumed. Go figure.

So, what’s the answer? I’m firmly in the negative, while my friend (who, by the way, is a physics teacher), argued for the affirmative.

My argument is as follows:

1. The problem actually has a clue in it: it refers to someone ‘hearing’ the tree fall.

2. The process of hearing is done in the brain, after the sensory input is converted into electrical signals. That is what we call ‘sound’.

3. What is the sensory input? Simply sound pressure waves (as per Physics 101), which you can picture as ripples on a pond. It is these sound pressure waves which stimulate the various bits of our ears, causing the brain to register a ‘sound’.

4. Therefore, if there is no organ or device to convert the pressure waves into a perceived ‘sound’, then the falling tree cannot be heard.

Using a recording device doesn’t help either. In that case, the pressure waves are converted by transducers into patterns on tape or disc or memory of some kind, which we still can’t ‘hear’. In order to hear what is recorded, the device must convert those recorded patterns back into pressure waves, and for this we use some nice electronics, and critically, speakers. How do speakers work? They feature a membrane which bounces back and forth to disturb the air in precise ways, replicating the original sound pressure waves.

There are also thought experiments we can do to confirm this view.

For example, let’s remove the medium – the air. Does the tree make a noise now? No, even though we may be standing right next to it, we will ‘hear’ nothing. Why isn’t the tree making a noise now?

Let’s imagine a race of aliens who visit us, who have never evolved the ability to sense sound pressure waves, just as we have never evolved the ability to see in the infra-red part of the spectrum. Will they ‘hear’ the falling tree? Maybe they have developed some other sort of sense organ which is sensitive to changes in the visual field, resulting in a flight response. They may even ‘see’ the sound pressure waves as a colour, but it’s not necessarily perceived as sound.

So, all you budding philosophers, you may now proceed to shoot me down in flames.