Why do people do good things rather than bad things? One of the worst answers to this question is, “Because God has told us what is right and wrong.” A much better answer is, “Because nature has evolved us to be this way.”
Such is the hypothesis of those like Marc Hauser, a Harvard biologist, who propose that Darwinism is a better route to understanding human morality than theology.
Thanks to a comment by benandante on a recent post of mine I learned about Hauser’s book, “Moral Minds” (this New York Times review probably requires registration, but if you haven’t signed up yet for the NYT website, you need to evolve your cyberspace tastes).
I haven’t read this book. However, in Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” he refers to it in a “The Roots of Morality: Why are we Good?” chapter. Dawkins says that Hauser’s message, in his own words, is:
Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems. As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness.
So as the NYT book review says, there can be many different moral codes—just as there are many different languages. Yet the core of both morality and language is hard-wired into us genetically.
This means that God is needed to explain how human morality came to be just as much as God is needed to explain how the human body came to be. Namely, not at all. Darwinian natural selection does just fine as an explanatory mechanism in both cases.
In his book Dawkins frequently reminds the reader that evolution is by no means “chancy.” It’s just the opposite. There’s always a reason why some traits persist and are passed on to future generations while other traits fall by the genetic wayside. Nature knows what it is doing.
And nature does it naturally. Thus to my mind one implication of Hauser’s and Dawkin’s evolutionary perspective is that it usually isn’t necessary to consciously agonize over moral choices.
For it seems that morality is like sex: we have an inbred natural urge to do what needs to be done. In short, trust yourself. Which should lead to our getting along with other members of our “tribe,” for this has lots of advantages, whether we’re living in six million years B.C. or the twenty-first century A.D.
Further, even though it seems that there wouldn’t be any evolutionary reason to identify positively with those outside of our immediate kin group, Dawkins argues that some of our Good Samaritan urges “are misfirings, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo.”
Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual’s psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale [reproduction].
I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness—to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity...We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise able to reproduce.)
There’s no need for the traditional Ten Commandments and other moral codes that supposedly were communicated from on high. Yet studies have shown that people around the world do generally agree about what is right and wrong. Evolution has caused us to be this way.
Dawkins suggests that a New Ten Commandments is called for. He offers up this example that he found on an atheist website. It makes a lot more sense to me than the Old Ten Commandments.
(1) Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
(2) In all things, strive to cause no harm.
(3) Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
(4) Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
(5) Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
(6) Always seek to be learning something new.
(7) Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
(8) Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
(9) Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
(10) Question everything.