Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Unlike Creationists, Ravens Can Tell Right From Wrong

Tolerance and reward equity predict cooperation in ravens (Corvus corax) : Scientific Reports

Who would you expect to be better at telling right from wrong and deciding on an ethical course of action, a devoutly religious person or a Raven?

The answer, if we take the word of creationists, religious fundamentalists and even many serious theologians, is maybe surprising.

Apparently, creationists and even some normal Christians and Muslims, can't tell right from wrong without their holy book to consult. Even Christianity's favourite apologists, William Lane Craig and the late C.S.Lewis proudly informed the world that they couldn't think of how else to tell right from wrong without their Bibles because they couldn't think how a human brain could arrive at an objective definition of morality on its own without some magic creator of morals having invented them in the first place.

Of course, this famously led William Lane Craig to inform his devoted followers that this means genocide and infanticide can be objectively moral acts and that killing children is not wrong because it makes them happy. To make matter worse, in a negation of his own argument, he then accused people who instinctively recoil in horror at this repugnant philosophy, of having a character defect. So, those who think genocide and infanticide are perfectly okay have God-given morals, whilst those who can instinctively see the barbarity in that belief have character defects.

This is modern Christian apologetics, folks! It must be true because the Bible says so.

The shocking thing is that people who argue that they have superior morals because they read the Bible or Qur'an and do what the alleged God in it tells them to do, actually seem to believe that this abject abandonment of their innate humanity and their personal responsibility for their own actions, really do think this places them on a higher moral plane than the rest of us, because, like a psychopath, they can't imagine how a simple thing (simple to normal people that is) like empathy can help us determine the appropriate course of action in a given situation.

Additionally, this feigned or genuine inability to tell right from wrong instinctively, based on the effects your actions might have on others, is actually waved around as some sort of proof that their favourite god exists. C.S.Lewis claimed to have been convinced that the Christian god his parents had believed in actually existed (but no other did, mind you!) because he didn't know what else could have told him right from wrong. Even perfectly normal theologians still use that argument and cite it as the reason for their own superstition. Part of the argument is that only humans have this ability and this then demonstrates that this god of morals (and genocide) created humans separately to the other animals and holds them in especially high regard.

So, to get to the point of this blog, how do these people respond to the latest piece of scientific evidence that humans are not the only species capable of moral actions based on the ability to tell right from wrong and the evidence that many other species show empathetic behaviour?

Take this piece of research into the behaviour of those members of the crow family, ravens, for example. In their open access report published today in Scientific Reports, a team of animal behaviourists from the Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, Austria, show that ravens cooperate to solve problems and are more likely to cooperate with individuals who have not previously 'cheated' them of the rewards for success. When cheated of their share of the reward, individual raven will absent themselves from cooperative activity with those who cheated them. Ravens are members of the crow family, some of which are known to be amongst the most intelligent of non-human animals.

Two birds have to pull the two ends of the string simultaneously to move the feeding platform in reach. If only one bird pulls, the string will just go through the two metal loops anchored to the feeding platform and become unthreaded, while the platform remains stationary.
Picture drawn by Nadja Kavcik-Graumann.
Cooperative decision rules have so far been shown experimentally mainly in mammal species that have variable and complex social networks. However, these traits should not necessarily be restricted to mammals. Therefore, we tested cooperative problem solving in ravens. We showed that, without training, nine ravens spontaneously cooperated in a loose-string task. Corroborating findings in several species, ravens’ cooperative success increased with increasing inter-individual tolerance levels. Importantly, we found this in both a forced dyadic setting, and in a group setting where individuals had an open choice to cooperate with whomever. The ravens, moreover, also paid attention to the resulting reward distribution and ceased cooperation when being cheated upon. Nevertheless, the ravens did not seem to pay attention to the behavior of their partners while cooperating, and future research should reveal whether this is task specific or a general pattern. Given their natural propensity to cooperate and the results we present here, we consider ravens as an interesting model species to study the evolution of, and the mechanisms underlying cooperation.*

Tolerance and reward equity predict cooperation in ravens (Corvus corax)
Jorg J. M. Massen, Caroline Ritter & Thomas Bugnyar
Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 15021 (2015) doi:10.1038/srep15021

*Copyright © 2015, Rights Managed by Nature Publishing Group, Reprinted under Creative Commons CC-BY license

The introduction especially is worth reading as it contains a sample list of cooperative animals as well as some of those in which this recognition of the role of partners on cooperative problem solving has been observed.

This paper shows that ravens, like some other species, not only have a sense of justice in feeling that they are entitled to their share in the reward for collective effort but they recognise a wrong done to them. Both of these must come from an instinctive understanding of right and wrong as well as a realisation that they themselves need to do right by others if they are to get cooperation in the future.

So, although I have no reason to doubt William Lane Craig and other religious people when they claim not to be able to tell right from wrong without a handbook, I wonder if they realise they are telling us that they are not some special godly creation because of this social dysfunction and that they are not even as highly developed in this respect as the common raven, as well as the very many other animals that can clearly tell right from wrong and can behave both empathetically and ethically.

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