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Biology 103
2000 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Morality: Biologically Based?

Alexis Hilts

"The development of the moral qualities is a more interesting problem. The foundation lies in the social instincts, including under this term the family ties. These instincts are highly complex, and in the case of the lower animals give special tendencies towards certain definite actions… " Darwin (1)

Since the beginning of time, humans have been trying to make sense of the world through religion and morality. Generation after generation looks toward philosophy, religion, and morality in our daily lives, attempting to do what each of us deems as "right," and to avoid doing what's "wrong". Each of us knows what we believe, how we make sense of those beliefs in the world, and many of us understand where we derived these beliefs from. But where do beliefs in general originate? Are there such things as "moral instincts" which are biologically based? In other words, why do humans have beliefs at all?

Edward O. Wilson, "the father of sociobiology (2)" introduces us to the argument that exists between theologists, ethicists, scientists, philosophers, and any one else concerned with the origin of morality:

"The split is not, as popularly supposed, between religious believers and secularists. It is between transcendentalists, who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind. In simplest terms, the options are as follows: I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not, and I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists.(3) Many people find it hard to imagine that their beliefs may actually stem out of biological instincts. It's inherent in humans to be attached to their moral or religious values, and therefore it is comforting to think of these values as being transcendental. But there are has been recent evidence for a more biologically based idea of morality.

The theory put forward by empiricists like Edward O' Wilson is that the human mind has "moral instincts," or "epigentic rules" (4), and essentially that morality, altruism, and religion are all concepts that can be explained through "the interplay of biology and culture (3)." Morality and religion are actually ideas that make sense in terms of human survival. Cooperation between individuals leads to a higher survival rate for all of the individuals involved, and makes it more likely that these individuals will have the chance to pass on their genes.

If there it is true that a predisposition for cooperative behavior, or moral instincts, exist in people's genes, then it would make sense that these genes were the ones to survive throughout evolution. Those who had this predisposition would have cooperated, survived longer, and therefore been able to pass on their genes. This process recurring throughout evolution would have "given rise to moral sentiments" (3). This idea also makes sense if you look at the phenomenon of xenophobia. It has helped our survival throughout evolution to be part of tribes or closely knit groups. For this reason, the predisposition to want to form groups, and to compete or fight off other groups would have survived as well. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult for us to function in modern times, when it is often harmful and unnecessary to use these tribal instincts.

It is these drives of human nature, combined with historical and cultural evolution, that make up the moral codes we know and live by. Wilson explains the empiricist's view as follows:

"The individual is seen as predisposed biologically to make certain choices. Through cultural evolution some of the choices are hardened into precepts, then into laws, and, if the predisposition or coercion is strong enough, into a belief in the command of God or the natural order of the universe. The general empiricist principle takes this form: Strong innate feeling and historical experience cause certain actions to be preferred; we have experienced them, and have weighed their consequences, and agree to conform with codes that express them. Let us take an oath upon the codes, invest our personal honor in them, and suffer punishment for their violation.(3)"

Whereas the opposing view (or theologists view) sees morals as being something that do not directly come from humans, rather as something that transcends humanity and then humans work towards perfecting their life to fit these transcendental or spiritual morals, the empiricist believes that the moral drive actually begins within the human as a survival tactic, and then becomes a moral code or religion through culture. The theologists' theory works outside in (religion or moral system to culture to morals to individual) and the empiricists' theory works inside out (individual to morals to culture to moral system or religion).

Wilson states that "the primary origin of moral instincts is the dynamic relation between cooperation and defection.(3)" Game theory is a hypothetical way of thinking of how this might work in evolution. For instance, the Prisoner's Dilemma is when two prisoners get arrested and they are questioned separately, what do they do? Each prisoner knows he has the option to rat the other one out in hopes of getting immunity, however, both prisoners are worse off if they rat each other out. Therefore the option where both prisoners are guaranteed to have the best result is in mutual cooperation: neither tells anything about the other and both attempt to negotiate smaller sentences or getting acquitted due to lack of evidence. This same game theory works with every day situations today, and it would have worked at the beginning of man's existence as well. If you think of it in terms of hunting, men have the most likely chance for survival if they cooperate, as opposed to being selfish, which involves more risk. The idea is that these risk takers would have died out, and those who were willing to cooperate would have survived and passed on their genes. Cooperation and altruism make sense in terms of survival.

Reading about sociobiology had me pretty much convinced. Part of my readiness to be convinced may be because I'm an atheist and therefore don't believe in God or transcendental morals anyway, but the idea that cooperation and morals are a means for survival makes a lot of sense. I do have some questions, though (as usual).

First, Wilson talks about religion coming from a biological instinct as well, so how is it that some people are able to resist the instinct to become religious? For instance, I am an atheist- how is it that I lack these instincts, or am able to somehow avert them? Now as opposed to just posing this question and not having any sort of guess at an answer (as I have done in the past with these papers), I am actually going to risk it and put forth an idea. If religion is a survival tactic in terms of forming a strong group and in that many people need the comfort of feeling that they can understand and explain the world, and that death is not final (3), then my idea is this: people who are exposed to the world a great deal beyond there own upbringing (especially religious upbringing) and think in a certain way, are able to side step the desire to be comforted by religion, and recognize that it is indeed a human construct. These people do not need the type of security that religion presents. Now I realize that this is a controversial idea, I also realize that my only research so far is in my own experience, however I am posing it as an interesting idea which may spur further discussion.

My second question is this: if xenophobia is an instinct because throughout history forming groups (tribes) has helped us to survive, then what happens when this xenophobia no longer becomes useful? It could be argued that today xenophobia is more destructive and less helpful to survival than the opposite- acceptance and inclusion, so will this instinct to form tribes and identify "the other" ever evolve out of our societies? I think that there are two answers to this question. The first, more hopeful one is yes, it is possible not to lose the group instinct entirely but to become less prone to xenophobia because in time because of the circumstances of the world from now on. This would no doubt take a great deal of time, however. The other, maybe more realistic answer is no, xenophobia is merely the down side to a tactic that does help us survive- forming groups- so it will never disappear and it is merely our responsibility to deal with those instincts and prejudices.

WWW Sources

1)Origin of Moral Feelings

2)Susy Jones' paper on Sociobiology

3)The Atlantic Monthly, article by Edward O' Wilson

4)Kevin Sharpe writes about sociobiology




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