UPDATE: I wrote Frans, who has read this post and many of the readers’ comments, and he said this (quoted with his permission):
Funny that some commentators think that obviously all animals (e.g. hamsters) would do the same, because when we first published this study no one believed that this reaction was possible in animals. In fact, it has never been demonstrated in rodents, only in dogs, corvids, and primates thus far. The reaction is clearly related to what the other one is getting, not the availability of grapes, as we showed in another study.
He also mentioned that his forthcoming book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, deals primarily with the issue I discuss below: that God is unnecessary for humans’ moral sense.
This video is about as powerful a refutation I’ve seen of the notion that our morality is given by God rather than either evolved or a product of our culture. This is taken from a wonderful TED talk by Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of several popular books. His talk is called “Moral behavior in animals”, and is witty and full of insights (you can also watch it here if you don’t have the right Flash player).
Do watch the whole talk, as you’ll learn a lot about “morality” in our mammalian relatives, and there are several nice videos. In the one I show below, two naive capuchin monkeys display what looks for all the world like a reaction to “unfairness” (the video appears about 3/4 of the way through de Waal’s talk). As de Waal notes, cucumbers are okay food for the monkeys, but they really like grapes (de Waal claims that monkeys like food in proportion to its price at the supermarket). A pair of capuchins can see each other getting cucumbers and grapes (they have to give the experimenter a rock before they get a piece of food).
See what happens when one of them is given a grape for his rock, and the other a cucumber. Remember, this is the first time these monkeys have been subject to this procedure:
Now I’m pretty sure that some rudiments of human morality are shared with our primate relatives, and thus evolved in a common ancestor, and also that other moral qualities of humans evolved after we’d branched off from the ancestor of our closest relatives, the chimps. And some elements of human morality, like “true” altruism, in which you risk your life for nonrelatives without much hope of gain—my examples are usually volunteer firefighters and soldiers who throw themselves on grenades to save their buddies—seem to me byproducts of our culture. (See Peter Singer’s wonderful book The Expanding Circle to see how this could happen.) We don’t know how much of our moral sentiments derive from evolution, how much from cultural overlay, and how much from a combination of these factors, but it’s clear that we can see building blocks of morality in primates and other species (de Waal gives an example from elephants). This view, of course, originated with Darwin.
What I am absolutely sure of is that people’s morality does not come from God. I may not be 100% sure that there isn’t a benevolent, omnipotent god (I’d put myself as a 6.999999 on Dawkins’s 7-point scale of disbelief), but I am 100% sure that our morality was not a divine gift. It can’t have been: the Euthyphro argument of Plato shows on first principles that this can’t be true. And it’s manifestly clear that nobody takes the morality of the Bible as their guide—not even William Lane Craig, who believes in the “divine command theory” (i.e., if God said it, it’s right). Presumably Craig, although he says that the Israelites were perfectly justified in decimating the Canaanites because God ordered it, wouldn’t go along with God’s killing 42 children because they made fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head—or maybe he would.
No reputable theologian, or rational believer for that matter, adheres strictly to Biblical morality. As everyone knows, believers pick and choose their morality from a smorgasbord of divine commands, both good and bad, in scripture. And doing that shows that you have a sense of right and wrong that doesn’t come from the Bible or God. Ergo, it comes from evolution and culture.