I’ve just finished reading Paul Bloom’s short book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, which was published last November by Crown Publishing. Bloom, who works at Yale, is a well-known psychologist, specializing in the development of morality—especially in infants. I recommend his book, especially if you’re interested in how much of human morality is hard-wired versus learned (and, of course, both factors can and certainly are involved).
One of the reasons I liked the book is because it deals frankly with the contention of some religious people that the “innate moral sense” of humans, especially our altruism—which is unique in the animal kingdom—could not be a result of either evolution or culture, and therefore must have been bequeathed us by God. This is in fact a common argument of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and a man who should know better. It’s also been made by Dinesh d’Souza. Both are quoted in a very nice new article by Bloom in The New Republic, “Did God Make These Babies Moral? Intelligent Design’s oldest attack on evolution is as popular as ever.” If you don’t have the time or dosh to read Bloom’s book, the article is a good summary of its findings. It is a Professor Ceiling Cat Recommendation.
Before we get to Bloom’s findings, what is the “moral law argument”? It’s simply this: human altruism can’t be explained by any kind of evolution. What I mean is pure altruism, whereby an animal helps another animal not only unrelated to it, but not part of its social group, and helps in such a way that it sacrifices its own reproductive potential without getting anything back. It’s unrequited altruism. That kind of behavior simply can’t evolve, at least by natural selection, because it reduces the fitness of the performer.
And indeed, I am aware of no cases of pure altruism in the animal kingdom—outside of our own species. I suppose people could argue whether humans really do show pure altruism. We could argue, for instance, that doing selfless acts actually enhances your reputation and hence your reproduction. Still, the case of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comarades, or of volunteer firefighters who risk their lives without pay, or, indeed, religionists like Father Damien in Hawaii who contracted leprosy and died while ministering to confined lepers—those cases look to me like pure altruism.
If this kind of behavior cannot result from natural selection, then, says Collins and d’Souza, God must have given it to us. Surprisingly, religionists find this argument pretty convincing. But they’re leaving out the one factor that Bloom claims is responsible for altruism: culture. In other words, he says, we’re taught to be altruistic.
And the evidence supports him. The evidence is this—a list of traits that very young infants show, presumably before they have a chance to be socialized (they can’t speak or understand much at the ages when they’re tested):
- moral judgment: some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions.
- empathy and compassion: suffering at the pain of those around us and wishing to make this pain go away.
- a rudimentary sense of fairness: a tendency to favor those who divide resources equally, and, by the second year of life, an exquisite sensitivity to situations in which one is getting less than someone else.
- a rudimentary sense of justice: a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished.
Those traits are all seen in rudimentary forms in other species—not just primates but in animals like dogs. Given that, it’s entirely possible that these traits are largely evolved in humans, with their expression perhaps enhanced by culture—our being socialized into being altruistic.
What other creatures don’t show, as Bloom recounts in this piece and in his book, is concern for others at their own expense. The empathy that seems inherent in “human nature” is directed only towards those the infants are familiar with, like family. It is not directed at strangers. In fact, infants are spiteful little things, and do not like even equality with strangers. They will, for example, prefer to have one cookie while another infant nearby gets none, over the alternative where both infants get two cookies. In other words, infants sacrifice their own well-being just to affirm their superiority in the acquisition of goods. Several other studies show the same thing. Infants are empathic but not altruistic.
Bloom argues, then, that the altruism comes from education, an argument also made by Peter Singer in his superb book The Expanding Circle. I quote Bloom:
And so there is no support for the view that a transcendent moral kindness is part of our nature. Now, I don’t doubt that many adults, in the here and now, are capable of agape.
. . . When you bring together these observations about adults with the findings from babies and young children, the conclusion is clear: We have an enhanced morality but it is the product of culture, not biology. Indeed, there might be little difference in the moral life of a human baby and a chimpanzee; we are creatures of Charles Darwin, not C.S. Lewis.
So much for the Moral Law as proof of God. Notice that we haven’t disproven that God gave us altruism, but we have a plausible alternative theory that is more parsimonious, particularly in view of the data from other mammals. Remember that God was invoked by Collins and d’Souza because they couldn’t think of an alternative scientific explanation.
I have only one quibble with Bloom’s article, and it’s inconsequential. He argues that it is indeed possible to get direct evidence that God gave us altruism. We could, for instance, find some “altruism gene” that shows signs of being inserted into our genome by God. Now I don’t know what such a gene would look like, and Bloom doesn’t tell us, but presumably it would be found only in humans and bear no signs of relationship to genes in other species. In other words, its DNA sequence would be sui generis. Alternatively, says Bloom, humans could have parts of the brain that act to produce altruistic acts—parts that other species don’t have.
We haven’t seen any evidence for such genes or brain parts, of course, but were I a theologian I would defend the God Hypothesis by raising two objections. The first is that well, maybe God didn’t give us altruism by giving us “unselfish genes” or “altruistic brain modules,” but simply rewired our brains in a way that facilitates altruism. We wouldn’t know that from the kinds of observations Bloom suggests. But, ultimately, we may understand those pathways, and dollars to donuts they’ll show that the altruistic rejiggering is caused by environmental influences: learning.
The other argument a face-saving theologian could make is that well, babies don’t need to be altruistic, and God arranged it so that our divinely-bestowed altruism would show up only when we were old enough to use it: as, say, five- or six-year-olds. But that doesn’t explain why the other “moral” traits listed above, like empathy and a sense of fairness, do show up at very young ages, like two, also before they’re needed. And presumably you could test that, too, although the tests are verboten: isolate children from all moral instruction and see if they spontaneously become altruistic, without any teaching, later than they evince other inherent signs of morality.
But we already have enough data to suggest that the God Hypothesis is wrong, and the data show that if altruism is innate, it doesn’t appear until children are taught to be altruistic, while other moral virtues—the one seen in nascent form in our relatives—show up largely without instruction.
At any rate, I highly recommend Bloom’s piece (and his book, if you have time)—it’s a good palliative for one of the most popular arguments of what I call the New Natural Theology: the argument that we’re nice to strangers because God made us that way.