Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Are People Born Moral and Just? Scientists Say, "Maybe So"

[There is a good addendum from 2/22/12 at the end. Clues to Get the Rich To Share.]

There is a growing body of scientific research that points to the fact human nature is not so brutish after all. The article below from The Raw Story reports on some of this biological research.

In Nicholas Wade's excellent book, "Before the Dawn" [http://bit.ly/wrJkXE] , he points to DNA evidence that human ancestors 50,000 years ago almost became extinct except for a few thousand individual in Northwest Africa from whom virtually all of us are descended. This group may have survived because of subtle genetic changes that allowed human's to be self-sacrificing for the survival of their clan or group. Some call this the empathy gene or altruism gene. Others see evidence of unlearned (innate) cooperative social behaviors and moral codes at play in human children as well as in other higher order social mammals. Some scientists are using MRI brain images to investigate newly discovered moral and spiritual centers in our brains.

From the perspective of human religions, it may be biologically true that god literally dwells within us, at a genetic level.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, when God pronounced man to be "good" it may have been more literal than most followers would believe. (Don't expect the centuries old view of man as fallen creatures to dissolve any time soon in light of scientific evidence to the contrary.)

The most overwhelming evidence of our innate moral and social goodness is all around...it is our massive, complex and inter-dependent human society. If we were more like dogs and incapable of passing up a scrap of meat for a weaker member of the pack we would never have survived, or gone on to become the dominate species. It is true that freeloaders and those who act out of pure greed are very successful in the short term, but in the long run they never prevail over the majority of folks who act out of a sense of morality and social justice.  It is this collective good, so often taken for granted, that we should celebrate and build on to solve our current woes.

Science overturns view of humans as naturally ‘nasty’

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 20, 2012 20:50 EST

Biological research increasingly debunks the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish, a leading specialist in primate behavior told a major science conference.

“Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies,” Frans de Waal, a biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

New research on higher animals from primates and elephants to mice shows there is a biological basis for behavior such as cooperation, said de Waal, author of “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.”Until just 12 years ago, the common view among scientists was that humans were “nasty” at the core but had developed a veneer of morality — albeit a thin one, de Waal told scientists and journalists from some 50 countries.

But human children — and most higher animals — are “moral” in a scientific sense, because they need to cooperate with each other to reproduce and pass on their genes, he said.

Research has disproved the view, dominant since the 19th century, typical of biologist Thomas Henry Huxley’s argument that morality is absent in nature and something created by humans, said de Waal.

And common assumptions that the harsh view was promoted by Charles Darwin, the so-called father of evolution, are also wrong, he said.

“Darwin was much smarter than most of his followers,” said de Waal, quoting from Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” that animals that developed “well-marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience.”

De Waal showed the audience videos from laboratories revealing the dramatic emotional distress of a monkey denied a treat that another monkey received; and of a rat giving up chocolate in order to help another rat escape from a trap.Such research shows that animals naturally have pro-social tendencies for “reciprocity, fairness, empathy and consolation,” said de Waal, a Dutch biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Asked if wide public acceptance of empathy as natural would change the intense competition on which capitalist economic and political systems are based, de Waal quipped, “I’m just a monkey watcher.”

But he told reporters that research also shows animals bestow their empathy on animals they are familiar with in their “in-group” — and that natural tendency is a challenge in a globalized human world.

“Morality” developed in humans in small communities, he said, adding: “It’s a challenge… it’s experimental for the human species to apply a system intended for (in-groups) to the whole world.”


Some further reading:

The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness

by Joan Roughgarden

Are selfishness and individuality - rather than kindness and cooperation - basic to biological nature? Does a "selfish gene" create universial sexual conflict? In The Genial Gene, Joan Roughgarden forcefully rejects these and other ideas that have come to dominate the study of animal evolution.

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved

by Frans de Waal

"It's the animal in us," we often hear when we've been bad. But why not when we're good? Primates and Philosophers tackles this question by exploring the biological foundations of one of humanity's most valued traits: morality.


The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

       by Robert Wright
Are men literally born to cheat? Does monogamy actually serve women's interests? These are among the questions that have made The Moral Animal one of the most provocative science books in recent years. Wright unveils the genetic strategies behind everything from our sexual preferences to our office politics - as well as their implications for our moral codes and public policies.

ADDENDUM:  One day after publishing the above post, the NY Times published a piece showing some of the emerging details in how our brains work to produce social cooperation not seen in other species.  

Here is an excerpt: 

February 20, 2012, 9:00 PM
How to Get the Rich to Share the Marbles

Suppose scientists discovered a clump of neurons in the brain that, when stimulated, turned people into egalitarians. This would be good news for Democratic strategists and speechwriters, who could now get to work framing arguments about wealth and taxation in ways that might activate the relevant section of cerebral cortex.

This “share-the-spoils” button has been discovered, in a sense, but it may turn out to be harder to press than Democrats might think.

Pretend you’re a three-year-old, exploring an exciting new room full of toys. You and another child come up to a large machine that has some marbles inside, which you can see. There’s a rope running through the machine and the two ends of the rope hang out of the front, five feet apart. If you or your partner pulls on the rope alone, you just get more rope. But if you both pull at the same time, the rope dislodges some marbles, which you each get to keep. The marbles roll down a chute, and then they divide: one rolls into the cup in front of you, three roll into the cup in front of your partner.

But an experiment must have more than one condition, and the experimenters ran two other versions of the study to isolate the active ingredient. What had led to such high rates of sharing, given that three-year-olds are often quite reluctant to share new treasures? Children who took part in the second condition found that the marbles were already waiting for them in the cups when they first walked up to the machine. No work required.This is the scenario created by developmental psychologists Michael Tomasello and Katharina Hamann at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. In this situation, where both kids have to pull for anyone to get marbles, the children equalize the wealth about 75% of the time, with hardly any conflict. Either the “rich” kid hands over one marble spontaneously or else the “poor” kid asks for one and his request is immediately granted.

In this condition, it’s finders-keepers. If you have the bad luck to place yourself in front of the cup with one marble, then your partner is very unlikely to offer you one, you’re unlikely to ask, and if you do ask, you’re likely to be rebuffed. Only about 5% of the time did any marbles change hands.

But here’s the most amazing condition — a slight variation that reveals a deep truth. Things start off just as in the first condition: you and your partner see two ropes hanging out of the machine. But as you start tugging it becomes clear that they are two separate ropes. You pull yours, and one marble rolls out into your cup. Your partner pulls the other rope, and is rewarded with three marbles. What happens next?

For the most part, it’s pullers-keepers. Even though you and your partner each did the same work (rope pulling) at more or less the same time, you both know that you didn’t really collaborate to produce the wealth. Only about 30% of the time did the kids work out an equal split. In other words, the “share-the-spoils” button is not pressed by the mere existence of inequality. It is pressed when two or more people collaborated to produce a gain. Once the button is pressed in both brains, both parties willingly and effortlessly share

Tomasello has found that chimpanzees doing tasks similar to this one do not share the spoils, in any of the conditions. They just grab what they can, regardless of who did what. They don’t seem to keep track of who was on the team. Tomasello believes that the “share-the-spoils” response emerged at some point in the last half-million years, as humans began to forage and hunt cooperatively. Those who had the response could develop stable, ongoing partnerships. They worked together in small teams, which accomplished far more than individuals could on their own.

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