Monday, 13 June 2022

Evolution News - New Study Shows that Human Morality is Innate, Not Learned.

Are we born with a moral compass? - ResOU

To the great discomfort of Creationists and religious apologists, who claim human morality is God-given, researchers at Osaka University, Japan, in collaboration with Otsuma Women’s University, NTT Communication Science Laboratories, and the University of Tokyo, have shown that human morality is almost certainly an evolved trait because preverbal infants can make moral judgements on behalf of others.

Christian fundamentalists often tie themselves in knots trying to prove that they are the moral superior of others by claiming their faith gives them objective morals, without seeming to realise that trying to put yourself above others and exercise judgement over them without knowing them, is itself a deeply immoral act.

That well-known Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, even went so far as to assert that because he didn't understand how he knew right from wrong, it must have been determined by God and inserted into his psychology in some unexplained way.

Paradoxically though, Christians (and Moslems) also claim the 'Ten Commandments' are the basis of their morality, yet the 'Ten Commandments' contains the invocation to do unto others that which you would they do unto you - the 'Golden Rule' common to just about all human groups. And Jesus reputedly told his followers to 'Love one another' (John 13: 34) (although it's not at all clear that this applies to all his followers or just to the small group he was addressing).

Whatever, these invocations presuppose that we have the necessary instinctive empathy to understand the needs of another person - which we do, of course, hence it is also central to Humanist thinking. And this view seems to have been well founded judging by what the research team found.

According to the Osaka University press release:
For millennia, philosophers have pondered the question of whether humans are inherently good. But now, researchers from Japan have found that young infants can make and act on moral judgments, shedding light on the origin of morality.

In a study recently published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers from Osaka University, in collaboration with Otsuma Women’s University, NTT Communication Science Laboratories, and the University of Tokyo, revealed that 8-month-old infants can punish antisocial behavior exhibited by a third party. Thus, the motivation driving punishment might be intrinsic as opposed to learned.

Morality is an important but mysterious part of what makes us human. We wanted to know whether third-party punishment of antisocial others is present at a very young age, because this would help to signal whether morality is learned.

The results were surprising. We found that preverbal infants chose to punish the antisocial aggressor by increasing their gaze towards the aggressor.

The observation of this behavior in very young children indicates that humans may have acquired behavioral tendencies toward moral behavior during the course of evolution. Specifically, the punishment of antisocial behavior may have evolved as an important element of human cooperation.

Yasuhiro Kanakogi, co-lead author.
Graduate School of Human Sciences
Osaka University, Suita, Japan
Punishment of antisocial behavior is found in only humans, and is universal across cultures. However, the development of moral behavior is not well understood. Further, it can be very difficult to examine decision-making and agency in infants, which the researchers at Osaka University aimed to address.

To tackle this problem, the researchers developed a new research paradigm. First, they familiarized infants with a computer system in which animations were displayed on a screen. The infants could control the actions on the screen using a gaze-tracking system such that looking at an object for a sufficient period of time led to the destruction of the object. The researchers then showed a video in which one geometric agent appeared to “hurt” another geometric agent, and watched whether the infants “punished” the antisocial geometric agent by gazing at it.

To verify their findings, the researchers conducted three control experiments to exclude alternative interpretations of the infants’ gazing behaviors.

This new paradigm for studying decision-making in a social context could be an important turning point in infant cognitive research. In particular, while much previous research on infant cognition has used observations from third parties, and thus examined passive responses to events, the eye-gaze paradigm allows for the observation of active decision-making in infants. Thus, this research model may be useful in uncovering additional information about cognitive abilities in preverbal infants.

The team's results are published open access in Nature Human Behaviour:

Third-party punishment of antisocial others is unique to humans and seems to be universal across cultures. However, its emergence in ontogeny remains unknown. We developed a participatory cognitive paradigm using gaze-contingency techniques, in which infants can use their gaze to affect agents displayed on a monitor. In this paradigm, fixation on an agent triggers the event of a stone crushing the agent. Throughout five experiments (total N = 120), we show that eight-month-old infants punished antisocial others. Specifically, infants increased their selective looks at the aggressor after watching aggressive interactions. Additionally, three control experiments excluded alternative interpretations of their selective gaze, suggesting that punishment-related decision-making influenced looking behaviour. These findings indicate that a disposition for third-party punishment of antisocial others emerges in early infancy and emphasize the importance of third-party punishment for human cooperation. This behavioural tendency may be a human trait acquired over the course of evolution.

What this shows then is that even before they can speak, human infants can recognise antisocial behaviour towards another and will 'punish' the perpetrator. This makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective because it results in uncooperative behaviour being punished and good behaviour being rewarded, so creating more cohesive, cooperative groups. During our evolution, especially as we evolved higher intelligence, the need for (and the benefits of) cooperative behaviour would have become increasingly important.

As another recent paper showed, there is a genetic basis for this improved empathetic ability too, and it probably gave us a competitive advantage over the archaic hominins we came into contact with, especially in the expansionist phase of our evolution as we spread out of Africa and into the rest of the world.

This research makes even more ridiculous the notion that the despicable, murderous thug of a god described in the Old Testament could ever be the source of morality for the vast majority of decent human beings in the world.

Thank you for sharing!

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