The laughably absurd claim by followers of religions that they have the one true morality because it was handed down to them by the one true god, took another blow today when, as reported by in this BBC item, research showed that cooperation is an evolved trait and that, contrary to widespread belief and intuition, selfishness is not a successful long-term strategy.
Zero-determinant strategies are a new class of probabilistic and conditional strategies that are able to unilaterally set the expected payoff of an opponent in iterated plays of the Prisoner’s Dilemma irrespective of the opponent’s strategy (coercive strategies), or else to set the ratio between the player’s and their opponent’s expected payoff (extortionate strategies). Here we show that zero-determinant strategies are at most weakly dominant, are not evolutionarily stable, and will instead evolve into less coercive strategies. We show that zero-determinant strategies with an informational advantage over other players that allows them to recognize each other can be evolutionarily stable (and able to exploit other players). However, such an advantage is bound to be short-lived as opposing strategies evolve to counteract the recognition.
The paper published in Nature Communications is highly technical and mathematical but presents some compelling evidence that, over time, cooperative strategies will predominate over selfish ones, in other words, over time, cooperative groups will evolve ethical behaviour.
This gives a solid evolutionary explanation of the manifestly obvious fact that social species are almost invariably co-operative, just as humans are, and that they will have cultural rules which ensure co-operation. The absurdity of the religious claim that only their particular god can account for morality, a favourite of professional Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis and more recently, William Lane Craig is thus blown out of the water.
This claim was never more than an attempt to pretend to be occupying the moral high ground and to justify a spurious claim to be allowed to interfere in the laws which govern civilised societies and so give themselves a power which they had done nothing to earn. The claim is mostly used these days by people trying to cover their antisocial behaviour and attitudes by blaming a god or a book and telling us they are only being moral and so are superior to the rest of us - the smugly sanctimonious bigot syndrome. One sure way of telling that, whatever it is they occupy, it's not the moral high ground, is the volume and frequency of their claims to do so.
This research goes a long way to vindicating points I have made in the last couple of years where I proposed a perfectly rational memetic evolutionary explanation for the human ethics (see Religion: An Abdication Of Moral Responsibility) and showed why the notion of god-given morality was logically absurd (see Xeno's Religious Paradox).
As though that wasn't bad enough for theists still trying to justify their control of society, we had another piece of research published last January, again reported in a BBC News item, in which it was shown that chimpanzees have a sense of fairness, so the evolution of a propensity for ethical behaviour may well predate the split in our evolutionary tree when hominids diverged from the other African apes some 7-10 million years ago.
Is the sense of fairness uniquely human? Human reactions to reward division are often studied by means of the ultimatum game, in which both partners need to agree on a distribution for both to receive rewards. Humans typically offer generous portions of the reward to their partner, a tendency our close primate relatives have thus far failed to show in experiments. Here we tested chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and human children on a modified ultimatum game. One individual chose between two tokens that, with their partner’s cooperation, could be exchanged for rewards. One token offered equal rewards to both players, whereas the other token favored the chooser. Both apes and children responded like humans typically do. If their partner’s cooperation was required, they split the rewards equally. However, with passive partners—a situation akin to the so-called dictator game—they preferred the selfish option. Thus, humans and chimpanzees show similar preferences regarding reward division, suggesting a long evolutionary history to the human sense of fairness.
Should we be surprised by this?
Not at all. Our cooperative behaviour had almost certainly been establish long before the point of divergence so ethical behavior is exactly what we should expect especially if they had evolved a chimpanzee level of empathy, in other words, the ability to put yourself in the place of the other and model his/her likely reactions to your behavior - which is what we all do when deciding on the most effective action in any given situation. We call this doing to others what we would want them to do to us. This is regarded by sociologists as the golden rule, common to all human societies regardless of which god they have, what origin myths they subscribe to or whether they are more advanced and educated than that and no longer need to believe in magic or need to look for excuses for antisocial behaviour and justify an undeserved claim to power and authority. We now know that this behaviour was present at least in the last common ancestor we share with the other African apes.
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