The origins of morality

by Greg Mayer

One of the curious things in Francis Collins’ The Language of God is his claim that there are no, or scarcely any, antecedents of moral behavior in animals.  He writes (p. 23):

As best I can tell, this law [the "Moral Law" or "'the law of right behavior'"] appears to apply peculiarly to human beings. Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.

Quite aside from the all too frequent times when human beings’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness (see any newspaper), a point made by, among others, Sam Harris, the statement is jarring to anyone at all acquainted with the behavior of vertebrate animals, especially a phylogenetically diverse group of them. The incipient stages of the development of the moral sense, and the gradations in the complexity of familial and social behavior in animals, have long been known and documented (see, e.g. Darwin’s accounts in Expression of the Emotions and Descent of Man), but they’re also pretty evident to anyone who’s owned a dog. Indeed, among my earliest contributions to the WEIT blog was an application of Steve Pinker’s “rudimentary moral sentiments” to my cat, Peyton.

Classic Christian theologians might also be surprised by Collins’ claim. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his account of natural law, wrote

Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances…  Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, “which nature has taught to all animals…” [emphases added]

And, just to make it clear, St. Thomas views these shared inclinations as good things.

I bring this up because while in Costa Rica earlier this summer, I read Frans de Waal‘s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. In the book, de Waal makes a convincing case for a wide assortment of moral and pre-moral sentiments in non-human animals, especially primates.  There is in fact every indication of a wide range of such sentiments in animals, ranging from tender parental care in crocodilians and birds, to a sense of fairness in chimps. Jerry earlier posted about some of de Waal’s work, and a quote from him (i.e. de Waal) in an article in the Telegraph, states it nicely:

I am not arguing that non-human primates are moral beings but there is enough evidence for the following of social rules to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals.

33 Comments

  1. Posted August 10, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Not to mention that other animals can be far more selfless than humans are. Eusocial insects, and blind mole rats, come to mind.

    Of course Collins would probably credit our more selfish behavior to “free will,” a convenient (very unscientific) out whenever one’s religious claims are threatened. Were it otherwise, though, he’d be crediting god for our “selfless natures,” since there’s no way these people are going to allow their beliefs to be tested.

    Is it at all surprising that Collins is unaware of the morality of other animals, though? He already has his “answers” from his religion, and he exempts this area from questioning. Which is exactly what is wrong with his religion intruding upon areas properly addressed by science.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  2. Thanny
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Let’s not forget *immorality* in other animals. Collins is claiming amorality, so it’s just as useful.

    Such as the mother and daughter chimps that would steal baby chimps and eat them from those in their own group.

    Or the apparent cruelty of orcas in some situations. Such as spending hours to drown a baby grey whale, only to leave after eating nothing but its tongue and lower jaw. Or tossing seal pups around like rag dolls after ambushing them on the beach (quite possibly the most intimidating hunting display I’ve ever seen), and by most accounts not even eating them.

    Male lions killing cubs on taking over a pride strikes me as an example of amorality, however, especially since there’s such a clear selective advantage.

    I think it takes more brains to have the capacity for what we would call immorality versus what can pass as morality.

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I love that you use St. Thomas Aquinas to refute the nonsense that Francis Collins published, but everyone knows that most animals behave better than humans outside of hunger, pain and fear.

    Now I have another book to add to my reading list. Thanks Greg.

  4. Michael K Gray
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    The more I read about Collins, the more I consider him to be a carrier of communicable toxic ignorance; the ‘Typhoid Mary’ of scientists.

  5. Posted August 10, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Only humans could come up with the idea of killing one another after a soccer game.

  6. Andrew
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    The thing that is most interesting about morality in humans is not that we share some glimmers of altruism or immorality, as some animals do.

    It is that we all pretty much agree on a moral standard that includes refraining from murder, stealing, etc. We even have set up a society that punishes these sins.

    Animals may show snippets of some behaviors that are the same as ours. But these are just instincts. On the other hand, humans possess knowledge of a moral standard that is unrelated to any instincts. We may feel an instinct to steal or be selfish sometimes, but we always perform that action knowing it is wrong and showing sense of guilt.

    • articulett
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 2:13 am | Permalink

      Yeah, but animals don’t start wars nor commit genocide. They generally just kill to eat or protect themselves and their young.

      Animals don’t need invisible overlords to keep from wanton destruction as well.

      • Michael K Gray
        Posted August 11, 2009 at 5:07 am | Permalink

        Rats introduced to naive species in isolation, usually on islands, *do* commit genocide.
        As for animals starting ‘wars’, that depends on what one means by ‘war’.
        Chimps are known to plan battles to the death with other primates.

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted August 11, 2009 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        Ants do. Not only do they start wars and commit genocide, some species will wipe out all the adults of an enemy nest then take the young as slaves. In some species the battles between neighboring nests are so brutal that they have a “demilitarized zone” at the border between the territory of the two nests that no ant will enter.

        “Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.”
        – Lewis Thomas

    • wice
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 4:08 am | Permalink

      “we all pretty much agree on a moral standard that includes refraining from murder, stealing, etc. We even have set up a society that punishes these sins.”

      no. what we all pretty much agree on is that _we_ don’t want to _be_ murdered, stolen from, etc. we have set up groups, because having greater numbers it’s easier to protect ourselves from _other_ people or groups, and to murder those _others_ for resources. when these groups grew larger and larger, they became societies, where people no longer knew every other person in the group, so it also became necessary to have a force, that will protect people from each other _inside_ the group.

      people agreeing on, that murder and stealing is wrong, is pretty much an illusion. most of them simply has no choice, but to accept that the police, that protects them from others, also protects others from them. and many times, when someone sees an opportunity to by-pass this system without being caught, they try it.

      learn your history.

      • Michael K Gray
        Posted August 11, 2009 at 5:10 am | Permalink

        Addendum: Remote New Guinean tribes still consider certain forms of murder to be an honourable and even admirable act.
        This example is enough by itself to disprove moral absolutes in regard to murder, at least.

    • Havok
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Andrew: Animals may show snippets of some behaviors that are the same as ours. But these are just instincts.

      What do you mean by instinct? We seem to have the same instincts :-)

      Andrew: On the other hand, humans possess knowledge of a moral standard that is unrelated to any instincts.

      How?

      Andrew: We may feel an instinct to steal or be selfish sometimes, but we always perform that action knowing it is wrong and showing sense of guilt.

      So then, why is it performed?
      And you know there is no ‘guilt’ in other animals for this instinct?
      An argument from ignorance is not sufficient – sorry :-)
      Enjoy :-P

    • Stephen
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      “we all pretty much agree on a moral standard that includes refraining from murder, stealing, etc. We even have set up a society that punishes these sins”

      Why isn’t this evidence for non-theological sources of morality and ethics? Lots of different religions represented in your sweeping generalization, so if it’s true, wouldn’t that be evidence of a source of morality that lies outside of any particular religion? And likewise for the “setting up of societies.” Lots of cultures that are very different from one another have derived some of the same moral “rules” …

      “these are just instincts. On the other hand, humans possess knowledge of a moral standard that is unrelated to any instincts”

      Really? So it wouldn’t naturally occur to humans to avoid killing their own children? They have to be told by some external authority before they “know” that is “wrong”? What proof can you offer that morality is *not* simply highly evolved instincts, encoded in a social system that reinforces itself over time? Where does this knowledge come from if not from “instinct”?

  7. Posted August 10, 2009 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Andrew writes “Animals may show snippets of some behaviors that are the same as ours. But these are just instincts. On the other hand, humans possess knowledge of a moral standard that is unrelated to any instincts. We may feel an instinct to steal or be selfish sometimes, but we always perform that action knowing it is wrong and showing sense of guilt.”

    The real situation is more complex than that. Studies show that there is an overlap between human and animal moral senses, as would be expected if our morals have evolved from simpler forms.

    There is a relevant scientific study that has been around since 2006 looking at altruism in toddlers compared to chimps.

    It was performed by Dr Felix Warneken and Professor Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. Published in ‘Science’, 3 March 2006, Vol. 311. no. 5765, pp. 1301 – 1303.

    Their study showed that even before they are old enough to talk, toddlers will help an adult without being asked. Young chimps also show this tendency but not so strongly.

    Note that this study shows more than “instinct” or action coming from a sense of fairness.

    The study’s summary is as follows:

    Human beings routinely help others to achieve their goals, even when the helper receives no immediate benefit and the person helped is a stranger. Such altruistic behaviors (toward non-kin) are extremely rare evolutionarily, with some theorists even proposing that they are uniquely human. Here we show that human children as young as 18 months of age (prelinguistic or just-linguistic) quite readily help others to achieve their goals in a variety of different situations. This requires both an understanding of others’ goals and an altruistic motivation to help. In addition, we demonstrate similar though less robust skills and motivations in three young chimpanzees.

    For an easy, non-technical description of the study see: Altruism ‘in-built’ in humans http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4766490.stm

    or google “altruism human infants Warneken Tomasello”

    Looking at a more simple moral sense – fairness – a more recent study on animals perceptions of fairness is reported here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97944783

    In summary, Francis Collins is demonstrably wrong, and it seems that it is his religious biases that are making him wrong.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 10, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you, Cyberguy, the real situation is more complex than that.

      There are millions of people in the US who have no guilt whatsoever about stealing and they do it all the time. It is not limited to the US either. Look at what happened in Baghdad in 2003 when the Iraq government fell and everything that wasn’t nailed down was stolen. I have also known dogs that are much more loyal and reliable than some humans.

  8. Posted August 10, 2009 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    NewEnglandBob – you are 100% right. I did not want to make my post too long by pointing out the flip side, as you have just done so succinctly.

    It amazes me that in one breath christians talk about how all humans are born with sin, and are therefore inherently sinful, and in the next breath about our species’ superior moral instincts compared to animals. They can’t have it both ways.

    But from a non-religious viewpoint, what we see in real life is entirely to be expected, and requires no special explanation.

  9. Norm
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    In C.S. Lewis’ book ‘Mere Christianity’, he brushes off morality in animals as nothing but “herd instinct”. Of course he never really defines what the herd instinct is, we’re just supposed to agree with him that it must somehow be terribly trivial and insignificant and not remotely similar to our oh-so-special human morality. Apparently he’s the best that Christian apologetics has to offer … go figure.

    • articulett
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      Mere Christianity is an inane book that declares PRIDE the worse sin of all. Not genocide, nor torture, nor pedophilia– nope… –PRIDE. Really.

      How anyone can get all googly about a book that declares PRIDE the worse sin of all is unfathomable to me. You have to already have a brain marinated in faith to find shitty platitudes like this inspiring.

      And if there’s such a thing as herd instinct (and I’m guessing this means “in-group amity/out-group enmity”) then it’s pretty much the same in humans as in other animals–particularly our primate kin.

      Francis Coins is a very silly man. He spends too much time getting “special truths” from inane sources while ignoring actual truths in front of him.

      (I do wish they’d give FC the Alzheimer’s draw-a-clock test. http://alzheimers.about.com/od/diagnosisissues/a/clock_test.htm?rd=1)

      • Michael K Gray
        Posted August 11, 2009 at 5:14 am | Permalink

        Correction:
        Christinsanity rates one crime well above mere pride:
        That of not fawning to YHWH, but instead sucking up to another of his fellow gods.
        Look at all the 3 or 4 versions of the 0 commandments.
        The only significant commonality between them is the obscene jealousy of YHWH.

  10. Posted August 10, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Why do christians keep dragging out C.S. Lewis? After all, he was just a writer who was quite good at making stuff up.

    I can never figure out why christians, particularly RCs, consider his arguments devastating.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      I can never figure out why Christians, particularly RCs, consider his arguments devastating.

      It is the Christians herd instinct to do that :)

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 5:17 am | Permalink

      Because Lewis’s lies are slightly superior to any of the lies that your average brain-stopped Xtian could come up with without actually thinking about the subject.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      James-Michael Smith says:
      theological heavyweights such as Bernard Ramm, C.S. Lewis, Pope John Paul II, J.R.R. Tolkein and John Polkinghorne.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted August 11, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        theological heavyweights AKA logic lightweights AKA believers in superstitious nonsense.

        Pleeeeeeaze!

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted August 11, 2009 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    ” As best I can tell, this law [the "Moral Law" or "'the law of right behavior'"] appears to apply peculiarly to human beings. ”

    As long as the two humans or groups of humans in question do not appear peculiar in some way to one another. If they do, all bets are off.

    Francis needs to go find a Sunday School somewhere to run.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 5:18 am | Permalink

      St. Francis of Ah… Si! Si!

  12. articulett
    Posted August 11, 2009 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen a lot of species care for other animals outside their own–particularly infants: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYy6iOR8s1w

    I’ve also seen groups gather to help a member of their herd reminiscent of gangs and other human in-group amity/out-group enmity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LU8DDYz68kM

    This is so common, that you have to be willfully ignorant to ignore the growing compendium of examples to imagine morality is something only in humans. It’s good to have an instinct to take care of the vulnerable since you and your loved ones may one day be amongst the vulnerable–it’s a gene’s insurance policy! And we share genes with all life forms– more genes with those critters that seem to have the same sorts of feelings we have.

    Moreover, animals don’t kill over religion nor destroy the planet with wars. In this way they show superior morality to humans. Francis Collins’ god-glasses blind him to that which is obvious to most biologists.

    He’d be a better scientist if he didn’t have a desperate need to find evidence of his waterfall-inspired god.

    I want to ask Francis, “If there were no god, would you want to know?” Or would you prefer to go on believing a lie?

    • Havok
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Articulett: This is so common, that you have to be willfully ignorant to ignore the growing compendium of examples to imagine morality is something only in humans.

      Shhhhhhhh, you’re spoiling the surprise! :-)

  13. Posted August 11, 2009 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    Francis Collins writes (p. 23):

    “As best I can tell, this law [the "Moral Law" or "'the law of right behavior'"] appears to apply peculiarly to atheists. Though other christians may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other religions’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.”

    Fixed that.

  14. Spirula
    Posted August 11, 2009 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Francis Collins’ god-glasses blind him to that which is obvious to most biologists.

    A.K.A Cathedral science

  15. Havok
    Posted August 11, 2009 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Woops!
    Seems I got on the train a little late:-)

  16. Havok
    Posted August 11, 2009 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    During the hubbub in the “blogosphere” concerning FC’s appointment, and all of the responses and counter responses, I’m curious, has Mr Collins himself responded to the points raised?
    I’m not a voracious “interwebs” and MSM consumer, so perhaps I missed it?

    • articulett
      Posted August 11, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t seen anything except that he prayed about the job and got a “warm feeling” about it. I guess he’s been too busy praying and watching out for signs in nature to pay much attention to the concerns of his critics.

      Heck, god gave him a warm feeling–what more does he need to tell him he’s on the “right path”.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] The origins of morality That the animal kingdom might show at least some intimations of moral behavior is not much of an argument, nor much of an explanation of how morality evolved. The dissent of Collins on this question is therefore not surprising: Darwinists have a severe problem with the question of morality, and the failure to acknowledge this has turned Darwinists into a blinkered species, and arrested progress. [...]

  2. [...] how you have developed into the person that you are today.  For example, you can write about your religion and how it has helped you guide your actions and build your character.  It’s important to [...]

  3. [...] at Why Evolution Is True, Greg Mayer addresses this same excerpt of Collins' book, so I will simply link to it rather than [...]

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