The origins of morality

August 10, 2009 • 4:06 pm

by Greg Mayer

One of the curious things in Francis Collins’ The Language of God is his claim that there are no, or scarcely any, antecedents of moral behavior in animals.  He writes (p. 23):

As best I can tell, this law [the “Moral Law” or “‘the law of right behavior'”] appears to apply peculiarly to human beings. Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.

Quite aside from the all too frequent times when human beings’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness (see any newspaper), a point made by, among others, Sam Harris, the statement is jarring to anyone at all acquainted with the behavior of vertebrate animals, especially a phylogenetically diverse group of them. The incipient stages of the development of the moral sense, and the gradations in the complexity of familial and social behavior in animals, have long been known and documented (see, e.g. Darwin’s accounts in Expression of the Emotions and Descent of Man), but they’re also pretty evident to anyone who’s owned a dog. Indeed, among my earliest contributions to the WEIT blog was an application of Steve Pinker’s “rudimentary moral sentiments” to my cat, Peyton.

Classic Christian theologians might also be surprised by Collins’ claim. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his account of natural law, wrote

Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances…  Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, “which nature has taught to all animals…” [emphases added]

And, just to make it clear, St. Thomas views these shared inclinations as good things.

I bring this up because while in Costa Rica earlier this summer, I read Frans de Waal‘s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. In the book, de Waal makes a convincing case for a wide assortment of moral and pre-moral sentiments in non-human animals, especially primates.  There is in fact every indication of a wide range of such sentiments in animals, ranging from tender parental care in crocodilians and birds, to a sense of fairness in chimps. Jerry earlier posted about some of de Waal’s work, and a quote from him (i.e. de Waal) in an article in the Telegraph, states it nicely:

I am not arguing that non-human primates are moral beings but there is enough evidence for the following of social rules to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals.

Responses to creationist piece in Boston Globe

July 21, 2009 • 7:24 am

Last week Discovery Institute resident creationist Stephen Meyer managed to get a pro-intelligent-design letter piece published in the Boston Globe. It was the usual nonsense, with the added fillip that Meyer quoted Jefferson’s “design” view against evolution, though Jefferson died decades before Darwin published The Origin.

Yesterday there were two responses, one by Harvard linguist/psychologist/evolutionist Steve Pinker, the other by Owen Sholes, an associate professor of biology at Assumption College.

And over at Recursivity, Jeffrey Shalit calls Meyer a liar.

h/t Jason Rosenhouse and SLC.

Steven Pinker on Francis Collins

July 11, 2009 • 6:50 am

Some newspapers and science journals have called atheist-scientists this week, asking for opinions on Francis Collins’s appointment as head of the National Institutes of Health.  In lieu of a phone interview,  Steve Pinker wrote the following to a reporter from one such journal  (copy slightly edited for web publication).  Thanks to Steve for permission to post.

I have serious misgivings about Francis Collins being appointed director of NIH. It’s not that I think that there should be a religious litmus test for public science administrators, or that being a devout Christian is a disqualification. But in Collins’s case, it is not a matter of private belief, but public advocacy. The director of NIH is not just a bureaucrat who tends the money pipleline between the treasury and molecular biologists (which is how many scientists see the position). He or she is also a public face of science, someone who commands one of the major bully pulpits for science in the country. The director testifies before Congress, sets priorities, selects speakers and panelists, and is in many regards a symbol for biomedical research in the US and the world. In that regard, many of Collins’s advocacy statements are deeply disturbing.

For example, I see science as not just cures for diseases and better gadgets but an ideal for how to think about the most important issues facing us as humans– in particular, the ideal that we should seek truth through reason and evidence and not through superstition, dogma, and personal revelation. Collins has said that he came to accept the Trinity, and the truth that Jesus is the son of God, when he was hiking and came upon a beautiful triple waterfall. Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking.

This is not just autobiographical. Collins, in his book, eggs on fellow evangelical Christians in their anti-scientific beliefs. He tells them that they are “right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible” and to “the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.” Granted, he is not a young-earth or intelligent-design creationist. But he has stated that God interacts with creation, in particular, that he designed the evolutionary process to ensure that human intelligence, morality, and Judaeo-Christian religious belief would evolve.

That is far more than just expressing an opinion. That is advocacy, which gives incalculable encouragement the forces that have been hostile to science for the past eight years. And this is not just a theoretical fear: a number of right-wing, religious apologists (e.g., Dennis Praeger, in his debate with Sam Harris) used Collins as a stick to beat secularists:  “Here is a famous scientist who takes an interventionist God and the Bible seriously; who are you to contradict him?” This is going to be multiplied if Collins becomes an even more prominent face of science.

Also, the human mind and brain constitute one of the frontiers of biomedical science. Cutting-edge research treats intelligence, morality, and religious belief as products of evolution and neuroscience. The idea that there is divine design and teleology behind these functions, on the basis of Iron Age and medieval dogma, is antithetical to this vibrant research area. How will Collins preside over the allocation of research priorities if he believes in ““the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted”?

Again, it’s important that there not be an atheist-litmus-test for science administrators. A person’s private beliefs should not keep him from a public position. But Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration of the Institute and his efforts on the behalf of the scientific enterprise in Congress and in public.  At the very least, he should distance himself from the BioLogos Foundation and any other advocacy group.

For more on Collins, see the conversation between him and Richard Dawkins that ran three years ago in Time magazine; it has been reposted on the Dawkins website.  Slate just published a discussion of Collins’s appointment called “Jesus Goes to Bethesda.” I weighed in yesterday.

Chimps throwing stones

March 10, 2009 • 8:04 pm

by Greg Mayer

My local newspaper, along with many other news outlets, had a story this morning about a chimp at a zoo in Sweden who collects and stores rocks that he later uses for throwing at zoo visitors.  The major point of the article was that the chimp made plans for something he was going to do in the future.  This didn’t seem like news to me; I’d heard stories of great apes doing things that seemed to involve at least as much planning.  I asked my friend, Eric Hileman, formerly Director of Animal Welfare and Conservation Education at the Racine Zoo in Racine, Wisconsin, and now a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, if he knew of apes planning for the future.  He told me that the Zoo’s orangutans did so.  They would occasionally get hold of some item that a keeper had inadvertently left behind, or that had rolled under a door, such as a pencil or screw.  They would then conceal the item, either in their enclosure or on themselves.  Later, the item would be produced by the orang, and shown to the keeper, but not returned.  If the keeper would offer a snack, then the item would be returned to the keeper in exchange for the food.  Holding on to the item for use in bartering for food in the future, rather than attempting an immediate exchange, seems like planning to me, although these were not planned behavioral experiments that might exclude other interpretations.  He also mentioned a story he’d heard of an orang getting hold of a set of keys, and then secreting them away until the keeper had left, but this is a third or fourth hand story.

Having a temporal sense of events is something that I could not see in my considerations of the moral sense of my cat Peyton. It seems a major advance in cognition, and also in the development of a full (rather than merely rudimentary) moral sense, allowing for retribution, admiration, gratitude, and reciprocity.

Sympathy for the human: further consideration of my cat Peyton

March 3, 2009 • 11:39 am

by Greg Mayer

I gave a public lecture yesterday at my university entitled “Is There a Moral Instinct?”  Part of what I did was to elaborate on the theme of Steve Pinker’s rudimentary moral sentiments– sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt– and how I see them exemplified in the behavior of my cat, Peyton.  I showed some video of Peyton-human interactions, including the following, showing trust. She’s exposing her belly and throat for scratching in a way that makes her vulnerable, and thus trust must accompany the seeking of tactile pleasure.

In this next video she’s playing with me, and in doing so holding back from scratching and biting strongly. She wasn’t really very interested in playing at the time, and I had to initiate it, but note that she does not leave, which she easily could do. As I described in a previous post, when her sympathy and trust are removed, she’s quite capable of inflicting painful wounds. The gentle bites and scratches of play are not due to some inability of the cat to fight effectively with people, but rather are an action that mitigates harm to another– sympathy.

Do animals have morality? A response: “For I will consider my cat Peyton”

February 16, 2009 • 1:18 pm


A moral cat?

An alert reader, my friend and colleague Dr. Greg Mayer from The University of Wisconsin, Parkside, read Steven Pinker’s thoughts on the evolution of morality (posted below) and informed me that he saw the rudiments of morality in his cat Peyton (pictured above). I asked him why, and he responded with an answer so cogent that I thought it deserved posting. To wit:

My cat's morality

In his post on the material mind, Steve Pinker mentions the rudimentary moral sentiments-- "sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt". I’m pretty sure my cat, Peyton, has some of them. Gratitude and guilt– maybe; retribution– probably not; but sympathy and trust– absolutely.

The cat I had as a child used to catch small mammals in the yard, and then bring them back to the house. Many cats do this, and some interpret this as the cat sharing its prey with its (human) family, which might be gratitude. Peyton is an indoor cat, and so has no opportunity to share what she’s caught. But it might be that the sympathy and trust she shows to us can be seen as an expression of gratitude. Guilt I’m not sure about. She knows when we disapprove strongly of something she's done (as long as the disapproval is expressed immediately– you can't remonstrate with her over things that are over and done with), and she'll behave in a particular way (slink off), but what her mental state is like is hard to know.

But about sympathy and trust, I’m sure. She lets us do things with her (like playing Spidercat– this involves holding her upside down near the ceiling) that she would not tolerate from other creatures or people. She routinely exposes her belly and throat for scratching in a way that goes beyond mere pleasure seeking, because it makes her vulnerable, and thus trust must accompany the seeking of tactile pleasure. And in various forms of play, she holds back from scratching and biting strongly. Scratching and biting are key elements of cat play– what makes them play, instead of fighting or predation, is the cat's withholding of its effort so as not to injure the playmate. It's easiest to demonstrate the existence of sympathy and trust by seeing what happens when they're removed. We have to put her in a travel case to take her to the vet. She resists going in, because her trust is reduced by the odd circumstances, which she experiences very infrequently (ca. once per year). On leaving the vet's office, she more fully understands that the case and a trip in the car (which she doesn't like) are coming. She has now lost sympathy with us, and claws in ways designed to prevent her from going into the case, and she draws blood if the people are not careful. Thus the many incidents of play are revealed to be not some inability of the cat to fight effectively with people, but as a voluntary withholding of the full force of her defenses– sympathy.

I may seem like a raving anthropomorphizer here, but the differences in cognitive state, when you live in close contact with them (or observe them carefully in the wild) among amphibians, reptiles, and mammals (especially predatory mammals) are astounding. Darwin, of course, lived most of his life in the country, raised pigeons, and always had dogs which he studied carefully (see especially The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals), and I think this helped him to see the continuity of behavior, especially social, and even moral, between man and the animal kingdom. It's a little harder to notice with mice and hamsters (which, when kept as pets, tend not to be handled as much as cats and dogs), but the cognitive advance of Peyton over my turtle (who has a gentle disposition, and is noticeably brighter than my giant toad) is striking.

Thanks to Greg for this, and of course to the highly ethical Peyton as well.

Steven Pinker’s take on the material mind

February 15, 2009 • 9:37 am

I sent Simon Conway Morris’s attack on the Darwinian evolution of human mind and consciousness to my colleague Steven Pinker at Harvard (for those of you who have been in Ulan Bator for the last two decades, he’s an eminent psychologist and linguist who has written extensively on the mind, language, and evolution).  Steve had a thoughtful response, which he kindly gave me permission to post here:

My own take:

1. Though there’s much we don’t understand about the evolution of human intelligence, nothing about it is especially mysterious. A specific ability to do physics, abstract philosophy, higher math, and the other problems that vexed Wallace never evolved in the first place – they require millennia of accumulated knowledge in a culture, and decades of education and honing in an individual. A more generic ability entertain concepts of number, objects, living things, causality, and so on, and to combine them into lawful generalizations, is patently adaptive, as we see in the ways that all human cultures depend on acquired technological know-how for their survival, outsmarting the fixed defenses of local flora and fauna. While human-level intelligence is species-specific (as are many zoological traits, such as the elephant’s trunk), impressive levels of numerical cognition and cause-and-effect reasoning have evolved several times, including in corvids, cetaceans, cephalopods, and primates.

2. Nor is morality any mystery. Abstract, universal morality (e.g., a Kantian categorical imperative) never evolved in the first place, but took millennia of debate and cultural experience, and doesn’t characterize the vast majority of humanity. More rudimentary moral sentiments that may have evolved – sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt – are stable strategies in cooperation games, and emerge in computer simulations.

3. No feature of consciousness has ever been discovered that does not depend 100% on neurophysiology. Stimulate the brain with chemicals or an electrical current, and the person’s experience changes; let a person’s experience vary, and you can measure the changes in chemistry or electrophysiology. When a brain is damaged, the person’s mental life is diminished accordingly, and when the brain’s activity ceases, the mind goes out of existence – Wallace’s séances notwithstanding, no one has found a way to communicate with the dead. The very existence of a subjective correlate of brain activity may not be understood (if it’s an intellectually coherent problem at all, which some would deny), but positing a “soul” simply renames the problem with no insight, and leaves the perfect correlation between consciousness and neurophysiology unexplained.

The science/religion compatibility debate continues. . . .

February 6, 2009 • 11:51 am

Over on Edge, scientists continue to weigh in on my New Republic piece on the compatibility of science and faith. Steve Pinker and Sam Harris have just contributed, both taking the “non-accommodationist” stance.  Sam’s article,  a brilliant piece of sarcasm, has been widely misunderstood on the web, with many thinking he has seen the light and become a man of faith!  Yet how is it possible to mistake the following for anything other than sarcasm?

And yet, there is more to be said against the likes of Coyne and Dennett and Dawkins (he is the worst!). Patrick Bateson tells us that it is “staggeringly insensitive” to undermine the religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree completely. For instance: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school. When I was a neo-fundamentalist rational neo-atheist I used to criticize such behavior as an especially shameful sign of religious stupidity. I now realize—belatedly and to my great chagrin—that I knew nothing of the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public expression of his faith? Bateson is right. Clearly a belief in the inerrancy of the holy Qur’an is indispensable for these beleaguered people.

A second-order debate on the Edge debate has sprung up on Richard Dawkins’s website as well–there are nearly 800 comments!  Clearly this issue continues to attract a lot of attention, and generates a lot of heat as well as light.

Whoops!  Just informed that The Atlantic has taken up the debate in a column by Ross Doubthat.  Also, two pieces on The American Scene, one by Jim Manzi, and the other by Alan Jacobs.