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Who taught us to be good?

When I was a kid, I would steal candy from the grocery store because I liked candy. I stopped when I was told it was wrong by my mother.

Now, my mother’s mother told her not to, and down the line it goes, right? Well, considering we evolved from monkeys, how did the monkeys figure out it was wrong without no one to contradict their actions?

Posted: August 6th 2011

bitbutter www

The historical reality is much more complex and nuanced than the sketch I’m about to describe, I’m sure, but I hope it’s useful anyway.

Imagine a population of hominids, some of whom will have descendents who’s lineage, if followed, will eventually lead us to humans.

The hominids have figured out that they can lead better lives and get the things they want more effectively if they cooperate. But the temptation to cheat and steal is ever present.

Now imagine that because of genetic accident, or social innovation, or a combination of both, some of these hominids come to believe that certain acts have a quality that we can call 'must not be done-ness’. They come to believe very strongly that there’s an absolute injunction against doing certain things, that these things are 'just wrong’, and that their wrongness is a non-negotiable part of the universe. For these individuals, stealing is wrong and remains wrong even if you can get away with it and regardless of what your goals or preferences are.

If it turned out that this strange new belief benefited the individuals who held it, making it more likely that they’d have viable offspring, then it would increase the host animals’ changes of passing on their DNA to future generations. Eventually, after a number of generations, almost all members of the population would hold similar beliefs if the adaptive value of these new beliefs was great enough.

Perhaps current the near-universal belief in moral facts among humans is the consequence of such a process. The belief in moral facts, and the intensity of that belief, may result from a subtle combination of genetic and environmental factors that have been benefiting our ancestors since they first emerged.

None of this would mean that the belief that stealing is wrong is true in any absolute sense, but merely that historically it has been beneficial for human ancestors to believe that this is true.

On this view, no one needed to teach humans that stealing was wrong in the same way that no one needed to teach birds to fly.

Richard Joyce’s book The Evolution of Morality talks more about these ideas.

Posted: August 7th 2011

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Eric_PK

To be pedantic, we didn’t evolve from monkeys; monkeys and humans both evolved from a common ancestor.

But to get to your question, humans (like monkeys and apes) are social creatures who have evolved to live in groups, presumably because there are survival advantages to doing so. Or, to put it a different way, the proto-humans who cooperated out-survived those who didn’t. There is a lot of information out there on how communities of the different monkeys and apes operate, and there are lots of parallels with human societies.

Humans, of course, have overlaid that with a intellectual morality that goes beyond what you see in the other primates.

Posted: August 7th 2011

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SmartLX www

It wouldn’t have started with the concept of “wrong”, as earlier primates and even the first humans would have struggled with something so abstract. It would have been a more practical epiphany, along these lines:

“If I steal others’ food, they will steal mine. All our children will steal food too, because they do what we do. So I will not steal, and I will stop others from stealing. Then there will be less stealing, and less fighting, so we can spend more time hunting and gathering and have more food between us.”

Wrongness would have been applied to the act of stealing later on, using a rudimentary definition of “wrong” that concerned the wellbeing of the group. The idea of absolute authority would only have been applied to everyday concerns like this much, much later.

Posted: August 7th 2011

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Galen Rose www

Humans are intelligent, resourceful beings. They have figured out lots of things on their own that the monkeys didn’t – like nothing can go faster than the speed of light, all matter is made of atoms, and people who steal and otherwise act in selfish ways should be avoided for our own safety and peace of mind. We didn’t need to learn this from the monkeys, we were quite capable of working this out for ourselves, and much, much more. (Although monkeys have been observed in a lot of behaviors we would normally label as moral.)

You seem to be suggesting that we humans need a god to tell us what is moral. Why? Did we need a god to tell us that stars are very, very big, or that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared? It doesn’t take nearly as much intelligence to figure out that anti-social behavior must be avoided and punished if we are to live in peaceful, productive social groups.

You give us way too little credit for our intelligence and resourcefulness.

Posted: August 6th 2011

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