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An Evolving Sense of Right and Wrong?

Monday, April 07, 2008 - 10:30 AM

moral compass

Remember that morality experiment about the oncoming train and the track workers dying? Dr. Joshua Greene explained how his neuroimaging research shows that making this kind of moral decision draws on a complex combination of emotional and “cognitive” processes in our brains. It seems that studying biology, as well as society, can help us understand how we decide what’s right and wrong.

A recent article in The Economist highlights some other fascinating experiments that wrestle with the issue of how biology and morality may be related. The article focuses on “Explaining Religion,” a European project aimed at exploring how human biology relates to religion—a seemingly uniquely human practice. One big question is whether there are evolutionary advantages to religion. Which leads to another big question…are there biological explanations for believing in God?

These are profound questions. Can brainscans and morality experiments shed light on philosophy and theology? If our morality is somehow wired into our brains, does that make it more or less legitimate? And would we have to rethink our moral instincts if we knew they evolved when our ancestors faced challenges to survival that are very different from the ones most of us face today?

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Comments [5]

Joseph

This is a great topic! I think it’s very interesting to think about how our sense of morality got wired into us. Did it evolve because it was a trait that enhanced survival? Was it placed there by a higher power? Both religion and science seem to be attempting to answer the same question.

The underlying question that’s even more interesting is why is it there? The Bible describes it as a consequence of sin, and designed to drive us to a realization that we need God’s help. I’m curious as to what our culture will decide to do with it, once science determines it’s an evolved trait.

It seems to me that from an economic perspective an individual could “capture more value” by having a weakened sense of morality, even though the society would be better served by having individuals with stronger senses of morality (to hold the society together, and ensure survival of the whole group). By that reasoning we could individually decide to throw it away – that guilt is annoying anyway – and thinking of it as a relic of the evolutionary process would make it that much easier to discard.

But what if its not a relic of evolution?

Apr. 09 2008 02:59 PM
CharlesP

I believe David Sloan Wilson has a whole book on the subject of religion as an evolutionary bi-product called Darwin's Cathedral. As somebody who was raised, and educated, in a young-earth religion it has been an interesting journey of my own now, at 30+, to study on my own evolutionary theory and see how and where it applies to things besides the length of elephant tusks.

It seems rather obvious to me now that religion is very likely an evolutionary selection (not even speaking of God, just religious organization/beliefs). If people are more pre-disposed to "buy in" to a leader who tells them X or Y and X or Y are things that promote communal living and prolific breeding (strength in numbers and ready-made culture of mating partners to increase those numbers faster than the "lone" people), then you're almost certain to pass on those traits to your progeny and further the selective forces. That's certainly an oversimplification of the process, but the basic idea is pretty sound.

Apr. 09 2008 02:23 PM
Dan Henderson

I agree with Adam, but I've been a bit less kind about it. I've been calling religion a confession of ignorance. We're ignorant of whether any aspect of us exists before conception or after death, and, if so, what that existence is like. We're ignorant of our place in the universe and the reason for our existence. Religion is the collection of answers we decide to use to fill the void. I've always liked the refrigerator magnet that says, "This life is a test. It is only a test. If it had been a real life, you would have been given further instructions on where to go and what to do."

Apr. 08 2008 10:38 AM
Adam Coate

"One big question is whether there are evolutionary advantages to religion."

Religion evolved in humans because humans have an innate curiousity about our world. One of the main driving factors in our evolution was our innate curiousity. We are so smart because we have always been so curious. Hundreds of thousands of years ago we asked the question, "Why are we here?". From that point on religion started its slow evolution into the state it is in today, due solely to the fact that we had to know something that has always been impossible to know with certainty. In short, we create answers to our own questions when there are no answers available. Religion is just one example of these answers.

Apr. 07 2008 03:37 PM
Dan Henderson

I read a Newsweek article quite awhile ago that spoke of the new field of neurotheology. They described an area of the brain responsible for maintaining our sense of ourselves as individuals in an environment. They claimed that the enlightened yogis of the Eastern traditions had learned how to voluntarily turn off this region of the brain, leading to a sense of being one with the universe. It sounded like a pretty plausible physiologic explanation for Enlightenment.

Apr. 07 2008 11:13 AM

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