Review: The Natural History of Human Morality

Our gardens are taking much of my energy these days, but I sometimes reflect on my biological preoccupations while I am out there. For example, why am I currently focused on the biological roots of human values? Two main reasons. First, I live in an area where strong fundamentalist, even evangelical, religion fills people’s minds and our media. Associated with that comes a nostalgia for the Confederacy. I often read locally that god (take your pick of the many iterations out there) is the source of values, so our American separation of church and state is misguided. Oh, so wrong, even looking at the beliefs of our founding fathers (and mothers). Plus, I have just finished a magnificent book, The Half Has Never Been Told, about how our capitalist and wealthy society rose up on the backs of slaves, and that was a value preached from the white pulpit. Values are man-made, so to speak, and biological in origin even when they are perverse and distorted.

Second, for a rational source of values, go back a few posts (6/28/17 & 7/8/17) where I reveled in Monod’s exposition of spirit conceived of as inherent in our biology. I find his thinking a clear guide to true and humane values, so back to Monod’s ethic of knowledge and the knowledge of ethics. The basic biological value is to promote the generational advancement of a species, i.e., replication of genes and the evolutionary descent from life’s inception until now. All life is local and flows into the future as best it can. If you have followed my blog over the past year or so, you know my supposition that life’s basic task, then, is SWP (Solving World Problems), i.e., the job of gaining what is needed from the world to fulfill that basic biological value, and SWP engenders the ethic of knowledge. The better we know the world, the better we can SWP. You also know that early on in Gaia’s evolution sexual reproduction appeared and that increased the force with which life flows into the future because it increases the pace of new genetic combinations and most significantly for our humanity, it engendered a new set of values for CR (Conspecific Relations). CR transformed the biosphere with the advent of mammals and their remarkable evolution of family relations and empathy. Finally you know that very recently in Gaia’s past SWP embraced CR as a way of organizing the group for success and CR embraced SWP as a way of developing more powerful actions together. In more concrete terms conspecifics became adept at learning and cooperating with each other to mitigate exigencies and exploit opportunities, thereby increasing survival rates, and also turned their impulses to SWP to focus on group organization and governance. That, for me, is a decent summary of the evolutionary descent of humans as we developed a cultural world and an awareness of our humanity.

Many values develop from there, and I appreciate Michael Tomasello’s book, The Natural History of Human Morality, for illuminating this important phase of our evolution. His basic method is to compare empirical studies of moral actions between simians and toddlers, reasoning that any differences shown thereby through similar or analogous designs would highlight the evolution of human morality as distinct from that of apes and as independent of cultural entrainment, i.e., the toddlers would not show much effect of acculturation because of their age and development so any differences could be seen more surely as our evolutionary genetic heritage. Simple and brilliant. And he cites a good deal of research showing some distinct and important differences.

The basic difference is that apes are more competitive than cooperative while toddlers are more cooperative than competitive. Simians will cooperate in order to win a competition, perhaps against one stronger because their social order and interaction are based upon force to a large degree. (If I remember correctly I think Frans der Waal reports some simian relationships are also based upon age, history of interaction, family relations, what I might call simian social wiles and empathy so Tomasello may be overselling the simians’ lack of caring.)  Tomasello does look at some distinct differences to be seen between young humans and mature simians and these highlight the reliance on force used by the great apes in varying degrees, bonobos less than chimps, in contrast with the care and comfort offered by human infants, social behaviors not seen in the simians. For example, human infants as young as 14 months will help others, even strangers, when they perceive their frustration at a task by doing some action to solve the challenge to the goal. They will help spontaneously without incentive. Likewise, they will comfort others who are distressed; the higher the level of distress, the more likely the toddlers respond to soothe. They also show satisfaction when another person provides the soothing, and this seems to me clear indication of the mirroring system establishing a loop of a right brain leading with the warm social reaction to a vicariously experienced social situation. Whoa! These sorts of behaviors are by and large absent in the simian repertoire.

Tomasello goes further and argues that human morality is thus shown to be distinctive very early on, and that argues for a strong genetic influence. He then incorporates more observations as he explicates how our morality changes from our early empathy guided behaviors to the more sophisticated mores established through acculturation. This early empathy (my term, not his) provides the substrate upon which self-other equivalence is developed, and from there the next step to self-other morality, i.e., the same rules apply to each, is tangibly realized. Here, if you will, is the biological origin of the golden rule: do to others as you want done to you.

Part of this shift in human development involves the widening of the empathic circle to include non-kin and even strangers and this comes along with our cooperating with just about anyone really to do necessary tasks, tasks that cannot be performed without competent cooperation and that are important to the selves and their group(s). Herein grows the expectation and obligation that everyone is expected to perform competently in attaining their goal and the same rewards and penalties apply to everyone. These social mores develop incidentally, more or less, until their codification and increasing social complexity demand conscious consideration. Tomasello explains this in some detail and brings up an idea from his earlier work, that these new ways of interacting brought about new ways of thinking. I am still considering how to understand what he means there and so will post on that later, I hope, and I have purchased his earlier book, The Natural History of Human Thinking.

I find much support in this book for my notion that the evolution of empathy and symbolization form the roots of our humanity. I especially appreciate the good science in demonstrating how our empathy is different from that of other animals and how that has led to a moral dimension of culture. Our empathy is indeed very powerful and pervades all of our mental development. Our special sense or intuition of another’s intent and mental states/processes allow a grand expansion of cooperation, especially as this also leads to symbolic communication about our subjective experience, thoughts and feelings. (Remember, sometimes empathy+symbolization=art.)

I also find some clues about how to understand phenomena like slavery or its modern incarnations in the ways the rich steal the fruits of working people’s labors. The enslavers and the powerful wealthy elite operate with a morality more akin to the simian’s reliance on force: if I can gain resources from the community for myself by force and manipulation of law (and values), ignoring the empathic connection so strong in humanity, I am successful and dominant. The next time you see an ‘alpha’ male gloating over power and wealth, picture a simple ape standing over his pile of bananas while others look on empty-handed and wonder how some can depreciate our distinctive values arising from our biology. Finally, consider how the cultural mind-set of power, e.g., colonial imperialism, is so prominent in some nations and classes and resistant to change (talk to a Scotsman about the English, talk to the 99%ers about the 1%, read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, listen to Noam Chomsky).

I learned a good deal from this book and will learn more by re-reading some passages and maybe one day soon (like winter time when the garden lies mostly fallow) I will re-read the entirety. That said, I want to recommend this book with a quibble: the prose is academic and at times oh so tedious. I understand the academic culture and social styles; I struggled with writing in accordance through two graduate degrees. I got better with the help of my excellent advisers, who, I am sure, found my natural style very un-academic and prone to ambiguity, obtuseness and metaphorical extension. Kind of like here. So read this book patiently, being forewarned of potential difficulty, and consider what this means about us humans in the grand scheme of life.

ReReading Monod: part 2

In the current debate between the religious side and those arguing for science, at least as I see it generally represented in the media and at local events, the former stand on the need for divine guidance and validation of values, else we devolve into uncivilized and evil acting animals (I am still not sure how that would be different in many instances), while the latter argue for the evolutionary basis of values derived from our ancestral past (ancestry defined broadly). Jacques Monod had something intelligent to contribute to this debate in 1971.

Monod saw that with the advent of science human epistemology changed because science, with its axiom of objectivity, separated knowledge from values, i.e., science contributes knowledge about this objective reality but values must come from human decisions and actions because, looked at objectively, the universe is more machine-like than god-like with no absolute or divine values to be found. Before the 16th century both knowledge and values were generally from one domain labeled religion with perhaps a tad of secular philosophy thrown in by Plato and Aristotle. Since that time we have developed a powerful practical means of knowledge (I hope all would agree that science is eminently successful in solving problems and extending our capabilities) that indicates that our ethical values are “sociobiological” in origin and are an emergent feature of our extended and extending conspecific relationships.

Monod goes further with this analysis, saying that actually the distinction between values and knowledge derives from the Catholic distinction between the sacred and the profane. As human society shifts from animistic to scientific, an ethics of knowledge will develop that will include a knowledge of ethics. (Consider the current outcry against the American Trump administration for their desertion of the ethics of knowledge). To be authentic (and here is a modern civilized value), then, requires one to think and act clearly about value held/acted upon and judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. (Now consider again our current politics in a more general sense whereby many elected officials assess reality according to their political and economic convenience in contrast with others, including bureaucratic data driven stalwarts, who assess reality in order to intervene on a factual basis and move society towards adaptive and democratic values).

Does this sound so arcane as to be trivial? Consider the ‘debate’ about whether substance abuse problems are a matter of character/spiritual flaws or an illness. Consider the incorporation by legal authorities of neuroscience findings indicating that the adolescent brain is not fully mature or functioning rationally for fully responsible action. Consider the issues raised in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (see my posts on 5/11/14, 7/15/2014 & 7/28/2014).  Consider the changing approach to autism spectrum disorders, especially in how and what supports we fund for our fellow citizens over their lifetime. Finally, changing tack a bit, consider the remarkable economic data covering 300 years that Thomas Piketty gathered and analyzed for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, and the analysis and values he offers in contrast to so many others who talk about economic and tax policy based upon political dogma (see post 11/25/2016).

Monod argues for a society organized around an ethics of knowledge and a clearly asserted presumption of values. In this he leans left towards civic governance that ensures that the essential needs, including adequate wealth and medical care, of all citizens everywhere are met. He says he knows this will be seen by some as utopian but asserts that this is our choice, if ever we can rise to such a conscious choice, and in this he echoes his old comrade in the French resistance, proponent of clear social responsibility unsullied by claims to the divine, and fellow Nobel laureate, Albert Camus.

A final word about skepticism and existentialism vs god. (In our free country, you may believe in any god you wish; there are plenty to choose from, though quantity does not imply quality. What is not free at the moment is to require non-believers to think and act as you would like.) I recently heard again the old argument that without faith in god, humans would do whatever they want and that is not good, but it seems to me, again looking objectively around the world and through history, that even with faith in god, humans still do whatever they want, oftentimes not good, only now they feel righteous. Oh, and I have posted about righteous indignation before, see post on 5/16/2014. Well, time to travel on.