Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Evolution Of Morality. (And Parallels With Language.)

Francisco J. Ayala is a biologist here at UC Irvine and recently became a member of the National Academy of Sciences (One of the highest honors than at scientist can achieve) and was awarded the 2010 Templeton Prize. (He is giving the $1.5 million prize money to UCI's science library.)

He has some recent papers discussing the evolution of morality among humans and I would like to focus on one point: the parallel he draws with the evolution of language:

    One needs to distinguish the capacity to have morality/language with the actual system of morality/language one uses.  He argues the ability to speak languages is something that has resulted from biological evolution.  All humans have the capacity to communicate using some language or another. However, exactly what language one happens to speak is not a result of biological evolution but a result of cultural evolution.

     He claims the story is exactly the same for morality.  Biological evolution gave humans the capacity to have a system of morality.  Three things evolved biologically that gave rise to this capacity: "(a) the ability to anticipate the consequences of one's own actions; (b) the ability to make value judgments; and (c) the ability to choose between alternative courses of action."

    However, the exact moral code each person follows using that capacity is derived from cultural evolution: "Moral norms are products of cultural evolution, not of biological evolution."  It is analogous to the statement: I can speak because of my biological makeup but I choose to speak English over Chinese mostly do to the culture I was raised in.



  1. I speak American and German in addition to French because the cultures corresponding are moraly more respectful of innovators.

  2. Very interesting, and a touchy subject. I think religions, the world over, have a very hard time with such ideas. It makes morality seem more relative, conditioned upon time and place rather than God's dictions.

    Personally, I do think morality is likely an evolutionary trait (both culturally and biologically), and our extreme sociability as humans is the result. Some other species have fairly advanced social structures including bats which have a very communal structure and have mechanisms for punishing cheaters.

    But religions use the "slippery slope" argument for combating moral relativity. I admit it could be a dangerous road to view morality as relative, but this statement "Moral norms are products of cultural evolution, not of biological evolution" still gives humans reasons to play within our moral system if we want to reap rewards. I think it is a possibility that religions were developed as mechanisms for structuring morality in our culture.

    Incidentally, the "green revolution" is becoming a moral issue in our modern society. Many adhere to the sacral nature of being "green" more than being chaste.

  3. Cartesian,

    Glad to hear to could speak with the "great ones" if need be.


    Yeah, I'm taking a purely scientific perspective here. I'm only point out that our capacity to have a moral system stems from biological process. I'm not saying that makes morality relative. (As I'm sure you know)

    But I just want to state it here for those who may be confused. I'm not preaching moral relativism, just pointing out our capacity to have a moral system may have been a result of evolution. Evolution is an amazing beast that brings all kinds of important things about that allows for humans to be... human.

  4. Joseph
    Even if you were preaching moral relativism I would be just fine with that. Frankly I don't see how one makes sense of the world without admitting a very large amount of moral relativity. About the only absolute moral I can come up with is love.

    Even in scripture we have numerous instances of immoral acts seemingly condoned by God himself.


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