Wednesday 15 February 2017

Evolution of Innate Morality

Monkeys and dogs judge humans by how they treat others | New Scientist

Is your dog capable of moral judgements? Is it watching you and evaluating your trustworthiness?

According to a team of researchers from Kyoto and Hokkaido Universities, Japan, it might well be doing so.

Almost to a man or woman, theists will tell you that if gods provided us with anything, they provided us with morals. Neither Christians, Muslims or Jews seem to be able to understand how we could possibly have got morals from anywhere other than their holy book, revealed, so they claim, to mankind specifically to tell us how to behave and what rewards of punishments we could expect to ensure compliance.

The Christian apologist, C.S.Lewis, earned a good living telling people that without a god to reward or punish them they would behave like psychopaths, completely unable to tell right from wrong and having no reason to not be completely selfish.

It is of course yet another origin myth. Just as their mythical god appears to answer their unknowns such as where the Universe came from, where life came from, even where thoughts come from (yes some even argue that their god puts their thoughts into their head because they can't think how else they got there!) so they argue that morals must come from a god, even one so obviously sociopathic, capriciously mendacious and violent as the one described in the Christian Old Testament.

But a paper published last month shows evidence that not only did human morality evolve along with the human species, just as non-theists have argued, but that morality is present in other species and may well have an ancient origin. The study also showed that human infants appear to follow the same process of observation and evaluation of humans based on their interactions with other humans as other species do.

The team from Japan published their findings in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, which, regrettably is published by Elsevier Science Direct who want £23.95 just to reprint the abstract. Their main findings were:

  • Capuchin monkeys negatively evaluate people who refuse to help a third party.
  • Capuchin monkeys negatively evaluate people who exchange unfairly with others.
  • Dogs negatively evaluate people who refuse to help their owners.
  • Nonhuman species can engage in third-party based social evaluations.

The experimental detail is invisible to me behind a paywall, but a report in PhyOrg explains:

Common sense suggests that most people prefer to deal with other people who are fair and in some cases, helpful. In this new effort, the researchers sought to learn if the same might be true of dogs and capuchin monkeys regarding human interactions. To that end, they set up three experiments designed to test how dogs and monkeys reacted to humans behaving rudely.

In the first experiment, a capuchin monkey was allowed to watch a scene in which a person was trying to open a can. After failing, the person asked another person for help—in some cases, the other person complied, and in some cases, they did not. Also in some cases, there was another person present who did nothing, serving as a passive actor in the scene.

In the second experiment, the researchers positioned a capuchin monkey to watch as two people arrived with three balls each. One of the people then asked the other person to give them all of their balls and the other person complied. Next, the person who had given up their balls asked the other to return them—in some cases the other person complied, and in other cases refused.

The third experiment was nearly identical to the second, except it involved dogs, their owners and another person unknown to the dog.

At the conclusion of all three experiments, the people involved (including passive actors) all offered a treat to the monkey or dog that had been observing the action. The researchers report that in all three scenarios, the animals showed a clear disinclination to accept a treat from a person that refused to help with the can or refused to give back the balls, as compared to those that were helpful or fair or were passive actors. The researchers claim this shows that capuchin monkeys and dogs make social judgments in ways similar to human infants, and that it might even offer clues regarding the development of morals in humans.

Clearly dogs could have acquired this ability by some sort of memetic transfer coupled with human selection but the fact that capuchin monkeys also have this ability suggests that it may have it's origin in a shared common ancestor with humans. Both dogs and capuchins not only have a sense of fairness but use that to judge the trustworthiness of members of another species. Other studies have shown that our closest relative, the bonobo has a sense of fairness and evaluates other bonobos based on how fairly they treat others.

Within my living memory our understanding of other animals has increased enormously. From the belief that humans were the only species capable of any sort of thinking, hence our sapiens specific name and the belief that only humans could make tools, we now know many other species not only show highly developed cognitive abilities but can fashion and use tools. Now we are seeing how they can make moral judgements not only of their own species but also of another species. The latter suggests that a sense of fairness not only evolved early on but is essential for group cohesion and cooperative behaviour. It is not unique to humans at all and probably evolved because a group of humans who treated one another fairly was likely to be more successful than one composed of selfish individuals. The evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest applies just as much to social skills and the necessary cognitive abilities as to physical attributes.

It almost seems mean to destroy a precious belief of theists which can be used as an excuse for pretending to be more moral than those without religion, despite the abundant evidence that, if anything, exactly the opposite is true.

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