Morality 'a result of' natural selection


American Association for the Advancement of Science:A KIND of primitive vigilantism is likely to have helped early humans evolve the altruistic and moral behaviour we have today. It was a matter of the weak joining to control the bully so everyone got a fair share.

A session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting debated the evolutionary origins of morality yesterday, the closing day of the event. While many held that morality was invented by human society, it was far more likely that it emerged as a result of natural selection, Prof Frans de Waal, professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, Atlanta said.

Altruism had long been assumed to exist only amongst humans, but many apes, monkeys and even birds displayed what could be taken to be altruism. This suggested that there was a natural selection pressure towards the behaviour that today we view as moral.

Prof de Waal has done extensive work with primates. “We have evidence for empathy, we have evidence for reciprocity, we have evidence for pro-social tendencies and we have evidence for fairness principals,” he said.

He described a range of studies involving chimps and monkeys that demonstrated these tendencies. One of two monkeys was offered the option of receiving a treat for itself or a treat that could be shared with the second, with sharing almost always the option chosen.

“They actually have a preference for choosing the pro-social option that rewards both,” he said, although there was no immediate benefit to the monkey that chooses to be generous.

In a trial that demonstrates a sense of fairness, two chimps are taught a task and rewarded with pieces of cucumber which they readily accept. The task is repeated, but the reward for one chimp is upgraded to grapes. This chimp continues to perform the task, but the second, receiving only cucumber will throw away its reward and stop performing the task, Prof de Waal said.

“I can equate it to the bonuses being given on Wall Street,” and the strong negative public response to them, he quipped.

Charles Darwin argued that our consciences helped to maintain a concern for others, but he did not have the benefit of the data we have today, stated Prof Christopher Boehm, professor of anthropology and biological sciences at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He believes evolutionary pressure pushed us towards altruism.

Our early ancestors would have formed hierarchical groups, with a dominant alpha male holding sway. This would have begun to break down as a tendency towards altruism developed. Weaker troop members would have coalesced to hold the alpha in check, and ensure a fairer share of the food supply, Prof Boehm suggested.

In effect they would have become vigilantes, seeking to protect the interests of the weak against the strong. This would have disadvantaged the alpha without causing harm, but would also have increased survival chances for the group as a whole.

We know this dynamic would have existed because the “alpha tendency” still existed in many species today and must still be held in check, he said.

The behaviour we accept as morality would have continued to develop as human society became more complex, improving control mechanisms that maintained morality. One was conscience, but another was blushing, he argues.

Conscience served to make one feel shame after a transgression and blushing was the manifestation of this, a public display of embarrassment, Prof Boehm said.