Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Evolutionary origins (?) of morality

Macaques and chimpanzees have a sense of social order and rules of expected behavior, mostly to do with the hierarchical natures of their societies, in which each member knows its own place. Young rhesus monkeys learn quickly how to behave, and occasionally get a finger or toe bitten off as punishment. Other primates also have a sense of reciprocity and fairness. They remember who did them favors and who did them wrong. Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them. Capuchin monkeys show their displeasure if given a smaller reward than a partner receives for performing the same task, like a piece of cucumber instead of a grape.

These four kinds of behavior — empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking — are the basis of sociality.

Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals.

From this NYTimes article by Nicholas Wade. The first part of the article lays out the evidence used in arguing about how morality might have evolved. But the second part is more interesting: it's here that philosophers get to air their objections to the evolutionary view of morality!


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    Very interesting. The book is not available here. I look forward to reading it. I read his earlier book "Our inner ape" and liked it. I think Antonio Damasio (Looking for Spinoza) too bases behaviour on emotions but I have not completed reading it. Thanks for keeping us informed.

  2. gaddeswarup said...

    Off topic but related. Philosophical transactions of the Royal SocietyB has a special issue (vol. 362, Number 1480/29 April 2007) on 'Social Intelligence: from brain to culture'. There seem to be several interesting articles but our library has discontinued the journal. If you are anybody else find some interesting articles, pl. let me know. Thanks.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Gaddeswarup: Re: interesting work, some suggestions, if you haven't read them already (these are psych type cites):

    1. Jon Haidt, U of Virginia: you can get a number of articles on his website esp "the emotional dog and its rational tail".

    2. Jon Baron, U of Pennsylvania (psych dept)

    3. Joshua Greene (formerly Princeton, now Harvard psych I think) does some work with fMRI and morality

    4. David Pizarro (Cornell?) - in the Jon Haidt mould. He seems to work a lot with Paul Bloom (Yale).

    Hope this helps - I'll try and think of more. Its fascinating stuff.


  4. gaddeswarup said...

    To Anon. above. Thanks. They look very interesting.

  5. Tabula Rasa said...

    ha! n! goes evangelical :-D great recos!

  6. Anonymous said...

    Ah TR, how can I resist!! I love, love love this stuff. This and black toilet paper. I'm still trying to find a way to use the two in a (no doubt) smashing paper - any ideas?


    abi: apologies for hijacking your post.

  7. Tabula Rasa said...

    black toilet paper?!

    as a photgrapher might put it -- negative.

    (abi: apologies from me as well.)

  8. gaddeswarup said...

    Here is an interesting article (via Evo.Psych. site) by Damasio and others. It may be a long time before current reasearch becomes standard science. Here is the abstract (the full article needs subscripion):
    Nature advance online publication 21 March 2007 | doi:10.1038/nature05631; Received 3 November 2006; Accepted 17 February 2007; Published online 21 March 2007

    Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements

    Michael Koenigs, Liane Young, Ralph Adolphs, Daniel Tranel, Fiery Cushman, Marc Hauser and Antonio Damasio

    The psychological and neurobiological processes underlying moral judgement have been the focus of many recent empirical studies. Of central interest is whether emotions play a causal role in moral judgement, and, in parallel, how emotion-related areas of the brain contribute to moral judgement. Here we show that six patients with focal bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a brain region necessary for the normal generation of emotions and, in particular, social emotions, produce an abnormally 'utilitarian' pattern of judgements on moral dilemmas that pit compelling considerations of aggregate welfare against highly emotionally aversive behaviours (for example, having to sacrifice one person's life to save a number of other lives). In contrast, the VMPC patients' judgements were normal in other classes of moral dilemmas. These findings indicate that, for a selective set of moral dilemmas, the VMPC is critical for normal judgements of right and wrong. The findings support a necessary role for emotion in the generation of those judgements.

    Source: Nature

  9. Abi said...

    Swarup, n! : Thank you for your comments and recommendations.

    TR and n!: Thanks for an intriguing comments thread! I'm beginning to like this hijacking ...

    As Peter Sellers says in a memorable movie, "Don't mind me, I'm only spectating ..."

  10. Tabula Rasa said...

    party on!

    my mind is still boggling with the black toilet paper.