20 April 2012

Flipping the bird at the Ten Commandments

Lady Atheist has a fascinating post up about eagle behavior. These big birds are remarkably attentive to their offspring, providing not just food but extras like twigs to play with. They form permanent mating pairs (as humans are normatively supposed to do) and work for each others' well-being as well as for that of their offspring. And they do all this without any Ten Commandments or threats of Hell-fire.

It's fairly obvious that most of these behaviors contribute to the eagles' reproductive success (that is, their likelihood of producing offspring that survive to produce offspring of their own). Even the twig-supplying behavior, for example, helps the eaglets get used to manipulating twigs, which will help them later when they're building their own nests -- playfulness in young animals comes from an instinct to fiddle with the environment and see how it works, which builds skills useful for dealing with it later. So genes which promote all these behaviors would be more likely to be passed on and become fixed in the gene pool than rival alleles which don't, because the bearers of those rival alleles would be less likely to produce offspring that survived.

This is highly relevant to where human morality really comes from, of course. Human morality is basically an instinctive inhibition or revulsion against certain kinds of behavior which, if they were widespread and accepted, would be extremely disruptive to social groups. It's almost impossible to imagine a stable society in which murder, rape, theft, etc. were considered normal and acceptable behavior and happened routinely. Over time, as human social groups grew more complex and we became more dependent on their stability, individuals born without those inhibitions (the ones most likely to be "sociopathic rapists, killers, and thieves") would have been poor survivors, likely to be killed by neighbors who felt threatened by their behavior. That is, genetic profiles which omitted such inhibitions would have tended to get weeded out of the population.

Religionists like to claim that morality is rooted in religious taboos and that humans would not be moral without those taboos. Objective data show that this is nonsense -- there are basic moral inhibitions that exist in all known human societies, regardless of religion (though in primitive societies they sometimes apply only to behavior toward members of the in-group, not toward outsiders), and atheists are no less moral than religious people -- likely more so, in fact, given the statistical under-representation of atheists in prison. If anything, religious pseudo-morality has largely served to legitimize behavior which normally moral people would find too revolting to engage in -- shunning of gay family members, mass killing of people who believe the "wrong" religion, etc. Even most modern religious people are repulsed by the more disgusting parts of the Bible such as the sacrifice of Abraham or the offering of Lot's daughters, rejecting them as moral guidelines on one grounds or another -- showing that they, too, have a higher innate basis of morality which they use to judge the Bible, and which therefore does not come from the Bible.

Behavior in many animal species resembles human compassionate or moral behavior because it's the product of the same evolutionary forces. Where it differs, most likely the selective pressures are different. Eagles, for example, probably have little or no instinct for compassionate or "moral" behavior toward other eagles other than their own mates or offspring; they don't depend on tight-knit social groups like many other species (such as humans) do, so there are no selective pressures operating to generate rules for behavior toward unrelated but socially-connected individuals.

So with these selective pressures working for millions of years, why aren't we all perfectly moral? For the same reason we don't have perfect eyesight or perfect eye-hand coordination, despite relentless selective pressure to refine those things. Natural selection can work only on the genetic variability available, which in turn is limited by the range of random mutation which happens. And just as occasionally people are born with a missing body part or color-blindness, so some rare defective individuals are apparently born without moral inhibitions -- sociopaths, people who sometimes go on to become serial killers or other destructive types. Evolution, unlike what one would expect from the religionists' imaginary divine creator, produces imperfect results.

[Image at top found via Lady Atheist -- how could I resist?]


Blogger Ahab said...

Fascinating! Yet another reminder that moral behavior is not an exclusively human trait.

I love that photo of the eagle and chick. It's facial expression seems to say, "Oh God. I'm not ready for this. How am I going to put this chick through college?"

20 April, 2012 07:20  
Blogger LadyAtheist said...

Thanks for the props and for adding more to the topic. We can learn a lot from other animals... if we admit to ourselves that we, too, are animals!

20 April, 2012 08:40  
Blogger LadyAtheist said...

p.s. I love the title for this post!

20 April, 2012 16:12  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

But even among Christians, morality is inconsistent. Not only evangelicals but other mainstream Christians, for example, see no moral imperative to doing what's necessary to ensure access to medical care to their fellow humans; see no contradictions in using their religious affiliations to acquire wealth or denounce the death penalty applied against criminals.

Often all that seems to be required for considering oneself to be a Good Cristian is simply declaring oneself as one... no practice beyond that required.

20 April, 2012 22:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ahab: To me the eagle seems to be emanating, "Who the hell are you, coming up here and looking at my nest -- you'll sod off right this instant if you know what's good for you."

LA: Thanks for your own post, which got me thinking about this. Certainly to anyone who's studied biology and especially genetics, it's impossible to deny that humans are animals.

RtS: Religious "morality" is very inconsistent from one religion or person to another because it consists largely of taboo morality, which varies randomly, as opposed to real evolved morality, which is similar across the species.

21 April, 2012 03:13  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Wonderfully informative post.

"Eagles, for example, probably have little or no instinct for compassionate or "moral" behavior toward other eagles other than their own mates or offspring; they don't depend on tight-knit social groups like many other species (such as humans) do..."

As an example of species other than humans, we have elephant behavior that proves compassion is not limited to human animals.

And my favorite Steven Weinberg [Nobel Laureate in physics] quote:

"With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

--Steven Weinberg, quoted in The New York Times, April 20, 1999

22 April, 2012 06:08  

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