Humans Hard-Wired To Be Generous

[Revision 1. Placed another link to more news like this after the article]
An update on research into morality as an evolutionary adaptation. I'm just waiting for the old "God wrote it on our hearts..." rejoinder....

The problem with that claim is the following.

As a general principle, if god exists, then he wrote it on our hearts just as the bible says.
But the problems are
* there is no credible evidence that God had anything to do with the Bible
* there is no credible evidence that God exists
* it would suggest that if god did write it on our hearts, then he 'hedged' the freewill question
* and this type of morality is not sophisticated enough to be considered some type of divine manipulation.


Science Daily

Humans hard-wired to be generous

WASHINGTON, May 28 (UPI) -- A study by government scientists in Washington indicates humans are hard-wired to be unselfish.

Neuroscientists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the National Institutes of Health say experiments they conducted have led them to conclude unselfishness is not a matter of morality, The Washington Post reports.

Rather, the two say altruism is something that makes people feel good, lighting up a primitive part of the human brain that usually responds to food or sex.

Grafman and Moll have been scanning the brains of volunteers who were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

They are among scientists across the United States using imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass.

The results are showing many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, opening up a new window on what it means to be good.

Copyright 2007 by United Press International. All Rights Reserved.

Here's another related link with more information on this type of research. On that page, on the right hand side are even more links to this type of research news.


exapologist said...

Now I am certainly no scientist, but I always thought it more or less obvious that cooperative behavior confers an evolutionary advantage over competitive behavior. If two or more organisms team up to watch each other's backs, as well as fight off a common enemy, then they'll have a higher probability of surviving long enough to reproduce and pass off their genes to the next generation (in the economic sphere, publicly traded corporations, and now conglomerates, have learned this lesson, and free market competition is n't so awfully different than species competition so as to make parallels wholly insignificant). Genetic traits that reinforce this behavior -- e.g., sympathy/fellow-feeling -- will then be selected along with it if and when it arises in the gene pool.

Do that for oodles of generations and presto! You've got organisms that are hard-wired for morality. In any case, that's my half-assed just-so story about the evolutionary origins of morality.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! Morality is cooperation and cooperation is goodness, right?

I guess that explains all the human goodness exhibited in the Holocaust. The German government cooperated to exterminate jews in gas chambers and efficiently burn the remains in ovens. They cooperated in extracting gold teeth and maximizing labor while minimizing costly nutrition. And they cooperated in conducting fascination "medical experiments" like "How long does it take to freeze a man to death?" and "How much heat can a human being endure before dying?"

Anonymous said...

Hi Lory,
don't forget, Hitler claimed to be a christian.

exapologist said...

Ummm....what? IF you go back and read my comment, my point was that you can see how a sort of step-by-step progression to morality
could come about by an evolutionary process. I gave two example steps:

Step 1: from competitive behavior to cooperative behavior.

Step 2: from mere cooperative behavior to cooperative behavior reinforced by moral emotions like sympathy/fellow-feeling.

The point was that evolutionary theory provides a heuristic that can be used to explain the origin of morality; if it can explain enough of morality fairly simply, then we have prima facie reason to pursue an evolutionary account of morality. it's not as though I claimed to give a full-blown moral theory in the thread of a blog post (hence the comment about it being a "half-assed, just-so story about the evolutionary origins of morality").

Lots of research has been done on such an account. For example, de Wall has done a lot of studies on the moral behavior of other primates. It turns out that they have a lot of elements in their group behavior in common with humans, including moral behavior (e.g., caring for individuals and parenting them when their parents die, refraining from retaliation when they realize that they were harmed by an individual that doesn't know any better, etc.). However, their moral behavior isn't as good as humans. If so, then this provides a clue about the evolution of moral behavior.

Damon has done research on the moral emotions of empathy, shame, and guilt, and how they develop in children. It turns out that the bulk of moral behavior can be explained in terms of just these three emotions.

From these sorts of points and others, one can see the rudiments of a naturalistic account of the origin and evolution of morality. For example, from cooperation and the coevolution of reinforcing moral emotions like empathy, shame, and guilt, one can imagine communities developing moral rules that reflect and comport with cooperative behavior and the reinforcing moral emotions of empathy, shame, and guilt.

I don't see how your remarks about the Holocaust have anything to do with my comments. Can you turn them into premises for an argument against something I asserted? If so, I would be very interested in seeing it.


Anonymous said...

EA is right,
I should make my case better as well,

behaviour, good and bad, appears to cut across boundaries. There doesn't appear to be anything supernatural about it.

This field of research shows data that backs that principle.

Conclusion: Goodness is not tied to christianinty.
- Principle/Warrant: Goodness is exhibited by all categories of people
- Backing: research shows that it is reliably and predictably indicated in specific parts of the brain across categories of people.
- Grounds/Data: Only 30% of the world are christians, yet more than 30% of the world exhibit "goodness".

Anonymous said...

The point was that evolutionary theory provides a heuristic that can be used to explain the origin of morality; if it can explain enough of morality fairly simply, then we have prima facie reason to pursue an evolutionary account of morality.

My point is that what you're really talking about is not morality at all. You're talking about cooperation.

A Gestapo agent is searching the neighborhood for Jews. A sweet looking old lady helps him out by telling him there is a Jewish family hiding out in her neighbor's attic. That's cooperation not morality.

Moreover, if morality were natural then it wouldn't be a virtue. I'm married and the instincts that evolution gave me urge me to spread my seed. My desire is to sleep with as many women as possible. However, I believe that's it's wrong to be unfaithful and so I refrain. Most married men cheat (about 65%). The common excuse is "it's my nature."

Almost all moral decisions involve a struggle against our nature or instincts. In Christianity it's called "the sinful nature." A low paid public official has to struggle against his survival and pleasure instincts in order to refuse a handsome bribe.

The Holocaust was immorality on such a grand scale that it's impossible to believe that morality is in any sense natural. Survival of the fittest is natural. I don't know if Hitler identified himself as Christian/atheist/mystic but I do know that he believed in Darwinian "survival of the fittest." And for him the fittest was the "Aryan" race. He wanted to maintain the purity of his race or gene pool so he tried his best to exterminate those who threatened that purity. Hitler believed in eugenics. His BELIEFS are what formed his moral character.

Morality is more about belief than biology. The evolution of morality is the evolution of belief systems. If I truly believe in Christianity then I will behave accordingly even when it goes against my insticts.

You don't need the supernatural to explain the origin of morality but you do require a belief in the supernatural to be moral in the sense that we undertand it. You have to believe that people "ought" to behave a certain way. And as you know there is no way to justify such a belief naturally. This is especially true in cases where doing what is moral is contrary to your self interest.

A man gets drunk one night and on his way home from the bar he loses control of the car striking and killing a woman and child. He gets out of the car and finds that the woman and child are both dead. He panics and drives off. He spends the next few days tortured by remorse and terrified that any minute the police will knock on his door. Days pass, weeks pass and nothing happens. He breathes a sigh of relief. He has gotten away with it.

Now should this man turn himself in?

If he turns himself in he may lose everything--his job, his wife, and his home. He's a timid intellectual and he doubts that he can even survive in prison for a year much less ten or twenty. And even if he turned himself in it wouldn't bring back Lucy and her young daughter Mary--he learned their names from the news.

So, what should he do?

Well, it all depends on his BELIEF SYSTEM. If he is a Christian and really believes in an afterlife and judgment then clearly his best option is to turn himself in. In this case his choices are either 20 years in prison or eternity in hell. So, clearly the better choice is 20 years in prison.

However, if he doesn't believe in an afterlife and this life is all there is it would be insane for him to give up 20 prime years of an all too short life. If he doesn't believe in an afterlife then he shouldn't turn himself in.

Anonymous said...


Hitler was not an atheist but he was strongly anti-Christian. In public he had to pretend to be Christian like any politician.

Here are some Hitler quotes from "Hitler's Table-Talk":

"The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity."

"The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity....

"The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle, by allowing the survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure."

Hitler clearly believed in natural selection and the "survival of the fittest." Christianity teaches that "the meak will inherit the earth" and "the first will become last." Hitler hated Christianity because it was contrary to everything he believed in.

Yulacu said...

I'm married and the instincts that evolution gave me urge me to spread my seed. My desire is to sleep with as many women as possible.

I don't believe the article stipulated that you don't have a desire or urge to spread your seed. The article stated that "Difficult moral decisions, by contrast, activate multiple brain regions that conflict with one another, he said." Suggesting that people would simply sleep with as many women as possible examines the issue in a vacum without considering the other competing areas of the brain. I doubt the most common execuse is "it's my nature" but I'd be happy to examine any studies you have to back up that statement.

Almost all moral decisions involve a struggle against our nature or instincts. In Christianity it's called "the sinful nature."

While I don't suggest that mankind is inherently "evil" or "good," I disagree with your assertion that ALL moral decisions involve a struggle against our nature. As the article clearly indicated, it feels good to be generous.

The Holocaust was immorality on such a grand scale that it's impossible to believe that morality is in any sense natural. Survival of the fittest is natural.

Now I'm confused. In the beginning you suggested that it's a natural instinct to spread one's seed, but assuming that you are faithful to your spouse, you and many others, have managed to act against that natural instinct. So can or cant we act contrary to our natural urges? To reiterate what I said before, several different sections of the brain may compete with one another when coming to terms on a moral decision, but this does not imply that morality isn't natural.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lory,
alpha has some good points. You do too. But I think you are equivocating a little bit and assigning unwarranted characteristics to morality when you say but you do require a belief in the supernatural to be moral in the sense that we undertand it.
I will acknowledge that while there can be shown to likely be a natural basis for morality, morality needs fine tuning, and the culture and reasoned principles have more to do with it than supernatural agents. I suppose a healthy survival instinct and the ability to recognize chances of survival are better in group (or the natural urge to cooperate) can go a long way in developing reasoned principles to foster more of that behaviour that strengthens the group. For example, don't murder, don't steal, don't bear false witness, etc.

And to clarify, my quip about hitler was only to counter your playing of "the nazi card". I don't care to debate what hitler was or wasn't. He's one of many that have abused their power, in and out of the church. That was my point when I said that morality spans categories of people, independent of religion, independent of supposed supernatural agents.

Anonymous said...

The roles of victim and victimizer were not created by God for us to wear, but wear them we do, especially during times of threat and distress - it is so easy to become fearful and lash out at others or abandon worthwhile causes in order to flee.

Generosity is well within the scope of natural instincts but not towards those who mistreat us or are deemed our enemies. Jesus said that Himself. But by faith we break down the natural inclination to bond against a natural enemy when we see that person who has mistreated us as a fellow human in need of salvation.

To see the world as God does, and to see how humanity gets caught up in these roles of victim/victimizer is the purpose that Jesus came to invite us and save us out of this cycle. With God we are neither victim nor victimizer but become adopted into a diverse family that enjoys and loves each other eternally.


Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Lee: Before I comment on the ideas here and the other comments, I should point out something. I am in general suspicious of most news articles on science, because they frequently overstate conclusions, get the basics wrong, etc. But the article you quote from comes from a service of UPI, which makes me twice as suspicious, since the UPI is owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
(This does not make it, necessarily, untrue, but it -- like articles in the WASHINGTON TIMES -- needs to be taken with several grains of salt.)

I will admit that I am especially suspicious of any claims that either we are 'hard-wired' for a particular trait, or that a trait is 'genetic.' These claims seem to be being made every few years, and so far they have never panned out. (I remember that there was a time that a claim was made that 'xenophobia' -- fear of THE OTHER was hard-wired as well.)

Yes, that last sentence means that I do not accept that homosexuality is genetic either -- which may surprise those people who know I am bisexual -- but I do not.

Before you trumpet research like this, it would be good to find the original paper -- unfortunately, as far as I can see, only available on PubMed -- and check out what claims are actually being made rather than how a reporter turns them into a story. And then, even if the research seems promising, give it time before you jump on the bandwagon.

In fact, I still believe that people are moral, generous, altruistic, etc, because being so makes sense -- in contrast to the Christian cry that 'we are all sinners' one of the more deadly problems with Christian morality -- and because empathy is something we have evolved.

Anonymous said...

HI Prup,
don't worry,
I realize this is RESEARCH. And though it does come from the newspaper, I follow science news like other people follow sports and I know there are other similar findings from independent labs that back these findings and make this noteworthy. Some of it is reported in Journals like Science and Nature.

This doesn't make me an expert by any means, but I am capable of retaining some information that I can pass on.

And about homosexuality nature vs. nurture, don't be surprised if it turns out it is a little of both.

There are (last time I looked) 1500 species of animals that exhibit 'homosexual' behaviour, so it may be that some of it is genetic, since i don't think you would have many experiences similar to most of those animals in your environment.