I'll Help You, But Why Do I Have To Want To? (Morality, Evolution, and Survival)

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Biology 202

2006 Second Web Paper

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I'll Help You, But Why Do I Have To Want To?
(Morality, Evolution, and Survival)

Astra Bryant

Let us take for granted, that we, Homo sapiens sapiens, are moral creatures. By this, I mean that we are able to experience chemically generated emotional responses which societal infrastructures label as "moral feelings". Whether we act upon these emotions is neither here nor there: humans, barring biological deformity, experience morality. In a previous paper, I argued that morality was generated by both our biological structures and by the pressure of social culture - let us assume this without arguing its validity.

The experience of morality cannot be traced to a single emotion. Morality is a complex behavioral response that requires the coordination of a range of basal emotions and neurological processes love, hate, anger, guilt, responsibility, recognition, and many more. Morality's component emotions can be mixed, matched, and measured out in many different arrangements; this plethora accounts for the lack of a single feeling that can be described as "morality". Morality is a complex behavior, and comes in many different flavors. Examples of the flavors of moral emotions (keeping the distinction from moral actions in mind) range from the everyday: wanting to share your lunch with the person who just spilled hers; to the rare: the guilt and feelings of responsibility you experience when your brother needs you to donate your kidney to save his life.

But why does morality exist? It could be argued that our moral feelings are constructs of societal pressures - that we do not actually have moral feelings, but that as our societies dictate, so we will create feelings to match. But the presence of specific neural pathways and structures that influence our feelings of morality (remembering individuals whose complete lack of moral feelings have been identified as a product of neuronal deformations) indicate that the ability is not following the more. Instead, I would argue that feelings of morality evolved, and that our innate ability has been incorporated into our societies. The idea that morality is an evolved - and therefore a heritable trait - is crucial. For if morality is a heritable trait, then its existence is a product of the action of natural selection. The idea that morality is a product of natural selection pressures allows us to examine morality in terms of its "usefulness". For a heritable trait to survive the pressure of natural selection, it must be one of two things. Either said trait must have no effect upon the survival of the organism and its offspring, or, it must have a positive effect. Given that, for example, our moral feelings prompt us to donate parts of our body to others (thus decreasing the chances of our own survival), I argue that morality is not a neutral trait. Instead I believe that morality is, in fact, thoroughly integrated into the struggle to ensure blood-line survival. But how could morality ensure survival? It should be clear that moral feelings often do not aid in individual survival - giving away food, no matter how noble the feeling that prompted the action, still results in less food available for sustaining you. So, natural selection should have selected against moral feelings. But the continued existence of morality, supported by natural selection, becomes explainable if the purpose of natural selection is rigidly defined. It should be understood that the point of natural selection is not to ensure individual survival. One lifetime is way too short a time over which to discuss natural selection. More reasonable is the ensured survival of the species, or as current Darwinian Theory would have it, a specific blood-line. With this firmly in mind, the fact that morality has not been selected out, can be considered as the result of the catalytic nature of moral feelings.

We experience moral feelings. Generated by our brain in response to defined situations, they instruct us as to what actions would be most beneficial to the overall survival of our blood-line. Societies have constructed social rules which fit these responses - labeling these survival-beneficial actions as socially acceptable. But in order for survival to be affected (thus satisfying natural selection's pressures), we must act upon our feelings. Earlier, I made a distinction between the internal feelings of morality, and the performance of the physical activity suggested by those feelings. To have an impact upon survival, it becomes important to have more than internal feelings. Actual physical behaviors are the key to favorably changing our survival quotient.

Under this circumstance, the two faces of morality - the internal feeling and the external behavior - can be seen as a means, and an end. The end is the external behavior - the physical action that will increase the chance that the bloodline will survive into the next generation. The means are our feelings of morality - electrochemical signals that because of the way our nervous system works, influences our behavior in very specific, survival-increasing ways.

The label of replication tool, with a positive effect on blood-line survival, can be extended to include what we think of as our consciousness. However consciousness is generated, whether though emergence or quantum mechanics, it has the effect of motivating us beyond basal stimulus/response behaviors. Consciousness is most likely at least influenced by heritable traits so the same argument for the selected status of morality can be applied. Our consciousness, including its subset of morality, encourages replication through what amounts to neurological mood music.

This coolly biological explanation for morality and consciousness is somewhat disquieting. It categorizes what we see as our individuality, as nothing more, or less, than a tool used in order to ensure replication. Our moral sense in one of those experiences that bridges quantifiable neurobiology, and the idea of the 'human soul'. Morality, along with honor, wisdom, and language, is regarded as a defining characteristic of humanity. As we make inroads into demystifying morality and consciousness, we perhaps will come to find that the boundaries between the quantifiable and the ethereal, between the human soul and the animal existence, are not actually there at all. The realization that, as Thomas Metzinger puts it, "you are basically a gene copying device ((1))", with no soul, and worse, no innate nobility that is not the by-product of a blind attempt to ensure survival, forces us to examine our own mortality, as well as every feeling that we experience.

But for me, what is truly disquieting is not the fact that our ultimate purpose is replication. Nor is it the fact that our behavior, including our consciousness, evolved as a chemically induced motivation tool used in the pursuit of said replication. It is the enormous trouble to which our brain goes to adapting these chemical pathways in order to distract us from the task of replication.


1) Blackmore, Susan. Conversations on Consciousness. Oxford University Press. Oxford:
2)Can Evolution Explain Morality?, An influence I came across while writing my first web paper - didn't read this time around, but helped guide the genesis of this paper.
3)Darwin on the Evolution of Morality, Another influence I came across while writing my first web paper - has some nice quotes from Darwin's writings.

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