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I’ve blogged on this before – a perception of a relationship between the two is purely imaginary. The arguments of those which make the claim fall into two classes: a) the bible (or more generally, religion) is what keeps them from raping and murdering and the only slightly more sophisticated claim b) that it is a supernatural being that supplies our moral sense. Neither stands up to scrutiny.

Let’s look at the first. These people scare me and I want nothing to do with them. If religion is the only thing standing in the way of these people committing violence on their fellow humans, they will indeed commit these acts. History is replete with examples of religion being no bar to bad behavior, and religious ideologues are as bad as every other ideologue who valued ideology over the welfare of their fellow humans. 

This idea that being religious makes one a better person, besides being a false elitism, does not stand up to any scrutiny. The US, arguably the most religious of advanced western nations, has the highest rates of nonviolent and non-lethal violent crime, homicide, adolescent suicide, teen pregnancy and teen STD transmission. One of these days I will present my case that religion is indeed the root cause of the last two. Briefly, abstinence-only programs, which studies have been shown time and again to be an spectacularly failed strategy (for one example, see reference 1), are myopically championed solely by religious organizations. They seem only to serve at maintaining their ridiculous fantasy that teens don’t have sex, at the great cost of depriving teens from critical information about contraception and STDs. Religion is simply not a bar to these acts, and indeed, I posit that the actions of the overwhelmingly religious supporters of abstinence-only nonsense are themselves unethical.

Nor do the religious composition of prison inmates fit this model. Roughly 80% of the citizens of the US profess to be Christian of various denominations, while the irreligious (atheists and agnostics) comprise about 15% of the population. Yet, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons2, the irreligious are hugely underrepresented (0.2%). The National Academy of Sciences, comprised of the most brilliant scientific minds in America, is composed of 93% claiming to be irreligious. A similar organization in Britain, the Royal Society, is about 97% irreligious composition. And, no- there are no questions about religion when a prospect is asked to join either. As Sam Harris notes, what are the odds that their members are raping and murdering at the same frequency that Catholic priests are molesting children?

The more sophisticated claimants for the belief that god is necessary for our moral sense suggest that if a god created us with a moral sense, then even an atheist can be moral. This gets around the problem of how an atheist can be moral even in the absence of a belief in the existence of god. Usually, this argument distills down to this: “Evolution can’t explain the existence of morals, therefor it must have been due to god. Distilled even further, it becomes: “I don’t know where our moral sense came from, therefor it must be due to god.” 

This argument is silly, since it is predicated on the assumption that if we don’t know the answer now we will never know it, a bold claim indeed. This is the trap that CS Lewis fell into in his sophistic work Mere Christianity, and more recently, Francis Collins. One problem that I have yet to see a good answer to when this claim is made is “Of all possible gods, why the Christian one?”

This claim is especially since we do have a good answer to the question “Where did our morals come from?” Evolution. About half of our behavior is known to be under genetic control. It’s easier to see this if we compare the rise of our moral center as an evolved behavior to behaviors which clearly evolved. The fear reflex, for example. We have a fight-or-flight instinct (as do a great many species of animal) which is purely a result of cerebral development. Cerebral development is governed by what are known as transcription factors, genes which turn on and off the activity of other genes by encoding proteins which act as molecular switches by binding to DNA near the gene whose activity is to be controlled. It is the action of transcription factors which allows maximum complexity from a finite genome. If DNA were a true blueprint of the form of an organism, the genome for even the most simplest organisms would be unimaginably huge and likely unworkable. 

So, if cerebral development is under genetic control via transcription factors (unless the activity of a supernatural deity is posited for development instead, my response to which would be to supply the names of psychiatrists I know), then behavior itself is alterable through natural selection through changes in transcription factors. In other words, behavior is alterable by evolution.

When I say our behavior is controlled by our genes, I do not mean that our behavior is determined by our genes. When you are wandering around in the dark and something scares the wits out of you (the fight-or-flight response), you can choose to override the instinct and find the source of the fear. We have a thinking brain and I do not excuse any who act badly that are capable of understanding that they are indeed acting badly. In the same way as other instinctual behaviors, our ability to formulate what we call morals (and what I prefer to call ethics) came about. 

But, some would say, isn’t “nature red in tooth and claw”? What is preventing an individual from acting selfishly at the expense of others? Humans (and primates in general) survive by living in groups. To live in a group requires that rules of conduct also evolve to minimize friction between members. Any individual that would act badly towards other members would find themselves exhiled, which would be a death sentence. Indeed, there are such individuals. We call them criminals.

In an article for the Times online, science editor Jonathan Leake gives an overview of research presented at this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. In it, some evolutionary paths taken by our species to that heightened ethical sense are described:

Christopher Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center, part of the University of Southern California’s anthropology department, believes such humans devised codes to stop bigger, stronger males hogging all the food.

“To ensure fair meat distribution, hunting bands had to gang up physically against alpha males,” he said. This theory has been borne out by studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes.

In research released at the AAAS he argued that under such a system those who broke the rules would have been killed, their “amoral” genes lost to posterity. By contrast, those who abided by the rules would have had many more children.

Other studies have confirmed that the strength of a person’s conscience depends partly on their genes. Several researchers have shown, for example, that the children of habitual criminals will often become criminals too – even when they have had no contact with their biological parents.

Evolution then predicts that ethical behavior did not spring up, but has precursors from which evolution acted on. Thus, there should be other species (particularly closely related species) which have a moral sense. Indeed, this prediction is born out. 

… scientists say, however, that the evidence is clear. “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,” said Frans de Waal, professor of psychology at Emory University in Georgia in the United States.

In papers at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this weekend de Waal described experiments on monkeys and apes to see if they understood the idea of fairness.

The animals were asked to perform a set of simple tasks and then rewarded with food or affection. The rewards were varied, seemingly at random. De Waal found the animals had an acute sense of fairness and objected strongly when others were rewarded more than themselves for the same task, often sulking and refusing to take part any further.

Another study looked at altruism in chimps – and found they were often willing to help others even when there was no obvious reward. “Chimpanzees spontaneously help both humans and each other in carefully controlled tests,” said de Waal.

Other researchers, said de Waal, have found the same qualities in capuchin monkeys, which also show “spontaneous prosocial tendencies”, meaning they are keen to share food and other gifts with other monkeys, for the pleasure of giving.

“Everything else being equal, they prefer to reward a companion together with themselves rather than just themselves,” he said. “The research suggests that giving is self-rewarding for monkeys.”

Related research found primates can remember individuals who have done them a favour and will make an effort to repay them.

De Waal, who has written a book called Primates and Philosophers, said morality appeared to have evolved in the same way as organs such as the eye and the heart, through natural selection.

The observation of ethical behavior (based largely on reciprocation) is precisely how evolutionary theory predicts what we would see in other social mammalian species. The more difficult question to answer is how we developed our (unarguably) heightened ethical sense:

The big question now is why, alone among the primates, humans have developed morality to such a high level. It implies that humans were once subjected to some kind of powerful evolutionary pressure to develop a conscience.

Some researchers believe we could owe our consciences to climate change and, in particular, to a period of intense global warming between 50,000 and 800,000 years ago. The proto-humans living in the forests had to adapt to living on hostile open plains, where they would have been easy prey for formidable predators such as big cats.

This would have forced them to devise rules for hunting in groups and sharing food.

There are those that would argue that these are suppositions, and they are. But while the answer to the question of what evolutionary pressures pushed brain development towards more sophisticated ethics remains unclear (and may never be satisfactorily answered), should not blind us to the fact that it did occur. The individual steps toward a stronger and stronger sense of ethics are visible in related species and decrease the farther back along the evolutionary tree we go. We need not know all the details about how it happened (though researchers have developed plausible and testable mechanisms) to connect the dots to show that it did happen.

This then brings into question why so many people consider religious authority to be the first they approach with ethical questions. Apparently, monkeys are a better source of answers…


  1. Rosenbaum JE. Patient teenagers? A comparison of the sexual behavior of virginity pledgers and matched nonpledgers. Pediatrics 123:e110-120 (2009)
  2. Golumbaski D, Federal Bureau of Prisons, compiled from up-to-the-day figures on March 5th, 1997

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  1. […] study of the development of morality is another science in its infancy, yet it has already produced some very good hypotheses. We can see the progression of protomoral behavior as the time at which the last common ancestor we […]

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