Class Warfare Blog

May 10, 2020

The Biological Basis of Morality

Filed under: Morality,Philosophy,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:40 am
Tags: , ,

I was reading, from the recommendation of Professor Taboo, an article in The Atlantic written by Edward O. Wilson in 1998 entitled “The Biological Basis of Morality.” I am only part way through part 1 but a statement appeared that gave rise to a comment. Here is that statement:

I am an empiricist. On religion I lean toward deism, but consider its proof largely a problem in astrophysics. The existence of a God who created the universe (as envisioned by deism) is possible, and the question may eventually be settled, perhaps by forms of material evidence not yet imagined.

And my comment, is I believe a corollary to Clarke’s Third Law (Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.), asks if a deistic creator of the universe can be distinguished from an alien with access to very advanced technology? Remember that a deistic creator, launches his creation and then withdraws form the sandbox. So, any fingerprints it might have left behind are 13.8 billion years old at this point.

I argue that the two are not distinguishable (making my corollary: a deistic creator god is indistinguishable from an alien with very advanced technology), so referring to one or the other as closer to the truth is disingenuous.

* * *

And as is always the case in any morality discussion my mind ferments.

In most of these discussions, including those on free will, there seems to be little attention paid to emergence. Emergent properties of a system have interesting properties. They are usually unpredictable and they certainly break all causal chains and thus argue against a deterministic universe. This, of course, requires an example.

When the automobile was invented, did anyone predict traffic as congested and chaotic as we have it today? And, could anyone upon the basic of, say traffic congestion alone, predict the design of the automobiles causing it? There is clearly a good causal chain, or rather chains, involved in any kind of automobile. (You push the pedal down and the music goes round and round, etc.) Automotive engineers are hired who understand every cause-effect link in the chain, down to tire squirm. But is there anything in the design of those automobiles that allows us to predict the kinds and effects of traffic congestion? I say the answer is “no” as traffic congestion is an emergent property of cars and roads.

Thinking back upon how we became societal, I think the first bands of humans were family bands. We were designed (by evolution, of course) to be social animals, so we had built into us the idea that collectively we had a better chance of surviving than if we all tried to stand alone. So a band of Homo sapiens sapiens started out as a male and female and their children. But as time wore on this little band grew naturally, either through more children or children growing up and having children, or from accepting strays (survivors of the destruction of other families, or finding mates in other groups, etc.). There seems to be a natural upper limit on the size of such groups with evidence indicating that when a family group gets to be of a certain size it splits into two groups. (One of those limitations is how rapidly such a group can exhaust any locales resources. Splitting the group allows time for recovery of any locale between visits of the two bands, each of which harvests less from those locales. And since there was plenty of room, the two bands could follow quite different paths and not share any particular locale, although evidence indicates that these groups set up somewhat regular “meets” to exchange goods and family members.)

Once physical bounty becomes available, such as occurred naturally in river terrains, the upper limit on the size of a quasi-family group (everyone being kind-sorta relatives) went up and agriculture and civilization began their little dance.

Even when the bands were quite small, societal rules evolved naturally as emergent properties of the group. If the same problem came up over and over, say children fighting over who got what food, a structure might have been set up to reduce the tension these created (e.g. “We will take turns.”). Group cohesion was considered a general good as “in numbers lies strength.” So, a hunter who goes out and kills a deer comes back to the group and distributed pierces of meat to the members of the group. This deals with the lack of an ability to store meat (it rots fairly fast in warm climates, and also draws predators, so the safest place to store it is in the bellies of the tribe members). It also creates a nascent altruism.

As these groups got larger, managing a wide range of behaviors became problematic. When the patriarch/matriarch were unavailable to settle problems or weren’t strong enough, men’s and women’s circles were invented to teach the members of those groups and to resolve disputes.

All of these things are natural, emergent, outgrowths of a social species, especially one that learns to communicate significantly (which facilitates learning and dispute resolution).

I assume Dr. Wilson will make these points as I continue reading, but I consider these things inevitable. A highly communicative social species, should end up with general rules of behavior to keep the group viable and on an even keel emotionally. And voila, morals are born.

Note We are now learning that Neanderthals may have had some form of speech available to them (their DNA suggests this). If we hadn’t bumped them off of their perch, they might still be around today, having all of the basics to form complex societies. (They still had differences/limitations to deal with, such as a shoulder joint unable to perform an overhand throw, such as of a spear, so they probably wouldn’t have invented baseball, but they might have invented softball.)






  1. Agree, emergent qualities of all living processes and maybe some not living processes, exist and cannot be known in advance.

    A god would either be the deterministic..create it all together with the end result known from the beginning or a god to create the “sandbox” with some parameters thrown in, like the laws of physics, and then walk away and let emergent mechanisms take over in ways totally unknown to this god.

    And being a non believer, just what would be a god anyway? An advanced alien or some scientific self originating structure . Either way it’s still science at the root.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by maryplumbago — May 10, 2020 @ 11:48 am | Reply

  2. Some interesting speculations here.

    You might want to look at chimpanzee social groups as a general guide to really early humans (prior the recent Sapiens).

    Some fairly complex stuff not exactly simple nuclear families. A lot of course is dependent on resources as you say.

    I think groups got even larger with language, culture, and complex kinship. These complex kinship structures may have been what really made modern humans different from archaic humans.

    Language is crucial to human morality because it permits enforcement of rules at a distance. If a human sees me commit a violation (steal, kill, etc), without language of some form it is impossible to communicate details to others of the group who may not have witnessed the act. Internal language also may create a sort of self-policing of behavior.

    Part of the theory about South Africa origins of modern humans is that the area had an abundance of shell fish which may have permitted larger than previous pre-modern groups. This may have encouraged development of larger, more complex groups.


    Comment by James Cross — May 10, 2020 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

  3. Steve,

    I appreciate you taking the time to read E.O. Wilson’s lengthy exposé on biology/evolution and morality. I am definitely interested in reading your thoughts after you finish his entire write-up. Also, keep in mind that Dr. Wilson wrote that essay in late 1997 to early 1998. Though I haven’t read some of his later books after Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 2000. However, several he has published post-2013 likely delve more contemporaneously into the evolving Q&A’s of morality and its origins… as HE finds it. 😉


    Comment by Professor Taboo — May 10, 2020 @ 8:14 pm | Reply

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