A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to do a collaboration with my friend Alex from the Cosmic Skeptic YouTube channel. We decided to tackle the question of morality (both its origin and nature). This is part one, covers the origin of morality, and was hosted on my channel, featuring Alex.
Part two is more philosophical, and in it, I cover the nature of morality, and it was hosted on his channel.
Thomas Westbrook: Hey, Thomas Westbrook here. Have you ever wondered where morality comes from? To answer this question, I’ve teamed up with my friend, Alex, from the Cosmic Skeptic YouTube channel. Take it away, Alex.
Alex J. O’Connor: Hello, everybody, and hello to the Holy Koolaid community. You probably don’t recognize my face. My name is Alex J. O’Connor, and I’m really excited to be collaborating with Thomas on the topic of morality. Now, while Thomas is tackling the more philosophical side of morality, I wanted to look at where it comes from altogether. You might not have thought about this before, but our internal urge as humans to act morally and to recognize selflessness as a virtue and condemn evil doesn’t really make much evolutionary sense.
Consider this: I want you to imagine two animals, one of which is completely selfish and one of which is completely selfless. Now, let’s say they have some food, say, half the amount of food that they need to survive for the week. The selfish animal would be willing to steal from the selfless animal and, in doing so, increase its prospects for survival. Whereas, the selfless animal, not only wouldn’t steal from the selfish animal but may even offer to share its food. And, in doing so, would reduce its prospects for survival while simultaneously increasing those of the selfish animal.
In short, what we can conclude is that selfishness, not selflessness, should prosper along an evolutionary timeline. But, we know that this isn’t quite the case. We are all, by and large, inclined to act morally, and we feel bad acting selfishly. But, why is this the case? Why do we give money to the homeless? Why do bees sacrifice their lives in order to sting a potential predator and protect the hive? Why, when a dolphin is injured, do other dolphins group underneath it and push it to the surface so that it can breathe, sometimes for hours at a time? How did this kind of behavior evolve?
Well, there are many theories, but today I want to focus on two specific explanations, or more accurately, two forms of altruism. Now, we’re going to define altruism here in the context of morality. We’re going to say that altruism occurs when an organism acts in such a manner which benefits another organism’s odds for survival at some cost to its own. For instance, if I dive into a deep, cold river to save somebody who’s drowning, this is altruistic behavior, and it’s generally seen to be morally good.
So, why would pre-civilization humans and animals develop such behavior? Well, the first and possibly most intuitive explanation is that which is known as reciprocal altruism – a term first coined by Robert Trivers in 1971. In the early days of humanity, people lived mainly in isolated tribes, and whenever they came into contact with other human beings, they’d almost always be people that they’d see on a regular basis, people they’d see again and again throughout their entire lives. Now, as you may immediately recognize, these conditions are perfect for the development of an “I’ll scratch your back, and you scratch mine” kind of morality.
Let’s say we have two monkeys, both of which need grooming in areas which they can’t reach themselves. Now, Monkey A might realize that if she helps to groom Monkey B, then Monkey B might help to groom Monkey A in return. In this instance, both animals are being cleansed in a manner which would be impossible to achieve without reciprocal altruism. But, what if Monkey B doesn’t return the favor? What if she just lets Monkey A do all the work, and then runs off? Well, it’s safe to say that Monkey A wouldn’t be doing it again any time soon. And, if other monkeys realized that Monkey B doesn’t play ball, then she’s unlikely to see any kind of grooming from anyone. And, in this sense, it’s clear to see that those who abide by reciprocal altruism can prosper, but those who don’t will be excommunicated and be less likely to survive. But, don’t forget, the selfless act of grooming another monkey is rooted in the selfish desire to be cleansed. And, this is one way that altruism can come about and thrive in a community of intelligent animals acting in their own self-interest.
So, there’s the hypothesis. Where’s the evidence? Well, if reciprocal altruism was accurate, then we’d expect to observe it mainly/only in animals which are generally quite intelligent, live long enough lifespans to observe the repercussions of their actions, and live in tightly knit communities. And this is precisely what we see. Birds and mammals which fit these criteria are where we observe reciprocal altruism. In fact, my monkeys example wasn’t just an analogy. It’s a real occurrence. And, this kind of morality still exists today in a sense. If I lend my friend 10 pounds, that’s altruistic behavior. But, I also know that if at some point in the future I’m short of cash, they would probably return the favor. Now, does this mean that I’m only being nice with the ulterior motive of selfishness? Kind of. But, not really. We’ll get to that a bit later. Let’s move on for now.
Charles Darwin didn’t quite understand altruism. In fact, he worried that its existence potentially threatened the entire Theory of Natural Selection. But, one of the reasons for this was because Charles Darwin considered evolution at the level of the organism. However, we now know, as popularized in “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins that evolution works at the level of the gene, not the level of the organism. And, this makes a world of difference when it comes to explaining altruism. As Dawkins puts it, “Organisms are just vessels for genes. Genes travel within us and within every animal through multiple generations, surviving on the basis of how well suited they are to their environments. In other words, you are evolutionarily programmed to protect the survival of, not necessarily yourself, but your genes.
But, why is this important? Well, the primary means of passing on your genes is through reproduction. When a child is born, that child gets all of its genes from its parents – 50% from its mother and 50% from its father. Your child contains your genes. And, so, by raising them and protecting their survival, you are allowing your genes to prosper. And this is why when you think of the ultimate case of altruism, where a person would do absolutely anything for another, a mother’s love for her child kind of tops the bill. In fact, say a mother has three children. It would actually make sense for that mother to sacrifice her life in order to preserve their survival. This is ultimate altruism. But, if those three children go on to reproduce, then the mother’s genes will go on to be more prosperous than they would have been if she’d have saved herself at her children’s expense. By acting selflessly, she is selfishly preserving her genes. And, suddenly, this kind of parental altruism makes a whole lot more evolutionary sense.
But, wait, this doesn’t just work from a mother to a child. You also share your genes, which you inherited through your parents, with any siblings that you might have. In fact, you share about 50% of your genes with your siblings, precisely the same amount that you share with your children. So, by showing them altruistic behavior, too, you are again increasing your genes’ prospects for survival, the basis of Natural Selection.
So, why, then is the altruism of a mother generally stronger towards her child than, say, her sister? Well, firstly, there’s an extra layer of dependence between a mother and a child but, also, when we were developing our morality, it took a lot more effort to raise a child from a mother than it did from a father. It was very common for men to go around and impregnate multiple women, and if women had multiple children, for each child to have a different father. This means that siblings tended to be half-siblings, lowering the genetic similarity. It just perfectly explains the hierarchy of the priority of care, and it’s one of the reasons why I just love evolution.
And, this second kind of altruism is called “kin altruism,” because it works on the basis of protecting the survival of your kin in order to protect the survival of the genes which reside within them. And, it doesn’t stop there. This can be extended even further to cousins, nieces, nephews, and ultimately to everyone. And, this expanding circle of morality is discussed at much greater length in Peter Singer’s “The Expanding Circle,” which is a book that I highly recommend.
Now, of course, the conditions of human life have altered drastically since the time of the inception of morality. But, our modern way of living, with its societies and economic systems and global communication, makes up only an inconceivably tiny speck on the end of the great timeline of humanity. And, just like goosebumps, the human tailbone, leg bones in whales, and wings on an emu, the remnants of our ancestral history leave us with traits and tendencies which are built into our nature. And, in this case, the vestigial characteristic in question is morality, a Darwinian by-product of our evolutionary history.
But, doesn’t that make morality just entirely meaningless? Well, look, I’m not saying that people consciously act morally only to serve their self-interest. Think about the experience of love. When we experience love, the feeling can be explained by biological and chemical science. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy being loved and sincerely love other people that we should be skeptical of the real motives of our partner’s affection. We simply understand where it came from and why it occurs.
I don’t think that when a soldier is confronted with the opportunity to save his squad by putting his life on the line that he takes a moment to assess the evolutionary advantage of acting altruistically. No, he’s just acting according to his natural and evolutionary instincts. And, explaining why such moral acts occur through kin or reciprocal altruism in absolutely no way diminishes their nobility. Sometimes, rather counter-intuitively, selfless behavior of the organism can work in the selfish-interest of the gene. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, once articulated what is now known as “Hume’s guillotine” or the “Is-ought problem”. It’s a fallacy to assume that is’s can always lead to ought’s. Evolution is a fact. But, don’t conflate an understanding of Natural Selection with an advocacy of social Darwinism or any kind of ideology which dictates how we ought to behave. Or, in short, we don’t have to be selfish just because our genes are.
Thanks, Alex. Now that we know more about the origin of morality, it’s time to get philosophical and ask, “What is the nature of morality? Is it subjective? Can you have objective moral truths without God?” To watch me answer these questions and a whole lot more, head on over to Alex’s channel, “Cosmic Skeptic”. The link’s in the Description. And, while you’re there, be sure that you show him some love, and hit that Subscribe button. Thank you guys so much for watching, and thanks, as always, to my incredible patrons. You guys rock! Don’t drink the Koolaid!
“Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” - Steven Weinberg
New to atheism? I'm here to help.
Enter your email to get my free infographic:
13 Things I Learned in my First Year as an Atheist.
Join our community Facebook group:
Join our community of critical thinkers, skeptics, and humanists as we strive to create a better world. We're optimistic about the future, promote science education, and base our understanding of the world on empirical data.