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Reflections on Ethics 60
Hardwired for Morality

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On a discussion board in which I occasionally participate, an avowed creationist posted:

"We are not descended from monkeys; if we were, we would have no morality."

As for so many creationist arguments, we see an appalling ignorance of both evolution and logic. However, underlying his argument seems to be an assumption that monkeys have no morality, presumably because monkeys don't have a god.

At least I can agree on that issue; monkeys probably have not developed the concept of a god. But, do they have morality?

There are numerous studies from observing our fellow primates, both monkeys and apes, where behaviors consistent with morality are displayed. We see cooperation in, for example, food gathering, infant rearing and defense of the group. We see members of the group giving consolation to those in distress. We see an apparent sense of fairness and displays of repricocity.

In a 1964 research project, (Whechkin and Masserman) rhesus monkeys were trained to pull a chain to obtain food. Then the food delivery mechanism was modified so that pulling the chain delivered an electrical shock to a companion along with delivering the food. On observing this, each monkey tested ceased to eat. They found it preferable to go hungry than to cause pain to another.

It's not just primates. In an earlier experiment (“Emotional Reactions of Rats to the Pain of Others,” R. M. Church (1959),) rats were trained to press a lever to obtain food. When the lever was set up to also deliver an electric shock to a neighboring rat, the test rat would, at least temporarily cease obtaining food.

The effect in rats did not last long, the urge to eat is strong. But, it seems clear that a rat can feel empathy for another rat, and, at least for a short period, hold to a moral course of action.

Rhesus monkeys seem to have a stronger sense of empathy. One went 12 days without food; apparently preferring to starve itself rather than hurt another.

Yet there was no Rhesus Jesus who told the monkeys "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." There was no Monkey Moses giving out a Monkey God's commandments. Nor is there a rat god. Monkeys and rats can apparently make moral decisions without divine guidance.

It has been suggested out of these and similar studies that an ability to emphasize with others is hardwired into the brains of many mammals (I suspect most dog and cat owners would agree,) and that a more evolved such ability has evolved in primates. And empathy is a significant basis for morality.

What about us? Have we inherited this from our mammalian and primate ancestors? Or did it disappear, and our morality is based on something else?

In a National Institutes of Health Study (Moll and Grafman, 2006,) volunteers were asked to think about either giving a sum of money to charity, or keeping it for themselves. As they thought about the scenario, their brains were scanned. Those who thought about donating the money activated the part of the brain which usually is stimulated by food and sex. This is considered one of the more primitive elements of the brain. And it was clear that thoughts of helping others were, like food and like sex, pleasurable.

It would seem that human brains too are hardwired to consider others and reward moral behavior.. This is the way we have evolved, and it apparently developed early in mammal evolution.