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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

The Mystery of Morality: Can Biology Help?

Anne Sullivan

What is morality? This ambiguous yet powerful concept has puzzled mankind for centuries, never lending itself to a concise and solitary definition. The concept of morality assumes different meaning and value for various individuals—at times becoming synonymous with religion, sympathy, virtue, or other equally ambiguous terms. In recent years, scientists have acquired a unique voice in the ongoing debate of human morality. Biologist often turn to the past, reaching for the origins of morality, to elucidate its mystery. Their arguments incite heated debate, particularly with religious thinkers who link morality with God and salvation. Indeed, a scientific explanation for morality not only threatens the authority of religion; it also forces humans to reevaluate their self-image as a species. Yet it must be asked how, and to what extent, biology helps us understand what morality is and how it has evolved? Can one fully explain man's inclination to moral sentiment with science? The sheer duration and intensity of the debate regarding morality proves that there are no clear answers. The following exploration will show how a biological vantage point may be useful to understanding morality. Such a lens, however, is limited and unable to fully expose this mystery.

Central to the morality debate is the disagreement regarding ethical behavior as man's invention or as an intrinsic human quality. The latter belief is consistent with the idea of a law-giving God and the notion of natural rights (1). A biological exploration may not allay this dispute, but it can—by accounting for its origins—encourage a greater understanding of what morality is. From a biological perspective, moral aptitude is like any other mental trait: the product of competitive natural selection (1). Is this to say that moral beings were more likely to survive and therefore "chosen" by nature to thrive? Such a statement is difficult to prove. Rather, it is more likely that moral behavior is merely a part of a larger system 'tested' by time and nature's selection process. Morality, therefore, may not be an adaptive feature itself, but one associated with another trait(s) preferred by natural selection (3). Such a quality is said to be a pleitropic trait (3). The necessary trait for the development of morality is a higher intelligence (3). Moral aptitude is a product of intelligence just like any other intellectual ability—literature, art, and technology, for example—facilities which may not be adaptive themselves (3).

Indeed, an increased human intelligence provides the necessary conditions for moral conduct. An essential and primary ingredient for moral judgment, for instance, is the ability to predict the consequences of one's actions (3). When isolated, certain actions cannot be deemed as moral or immoral behavior. The act of pulling a trigger (not an inherently unethical action) is the classic example (3). Only when one is able to anticipate the outcomes of his/her actions, can such behavior be declared as moral or not (3). This ability is perhaps born alongside the evolution of the erect position in human beings. As man's posture evolved, his limbs changed from simply appendages used for movement to organs of operation (3). Man, for example, can now create tools to aid his existence. The ability to perceive tools as a future aid, however, must precede the act of tool-making. Along with the physical ability to create tools sprouts the intellectual power to anticipate the future—to relate means to an end (1). An increased intelligence, therefore, indirectly augmented man's capacity for moral judgment.

If morality is to be understood as a product of higher intelligence, the question now turns to the motives which inspire ethical behavior. For if moral judgment is an intellectual process rather than an innate tendency, our motives for behaving ethically cannot be purely altruistic. Intelligence, for example provides the ability to maneuver the conflict between cooperation and deflection (1). The most classic example of this situation is the noted Prisoner's Dilemma, which seems to prove that even criminals act under honor and moral principle (4). When two criminals are arrested together, neither will "rat" on the other; they will, instead, accept punishment together (4). This seemingly altruistic behavior is actually the consequence of an intellectual process weighing the benefits and drawbacks of both possibilities—cooperation and deflection. The prisoners decide that because both members are capable of "ratting" on the other with hopes of securing immunity, it is safer and mutually beneficial to preserve their alliance (4).

Such a scenario can be imagined in other situations—for intellectual activity is always at work. From this perspective, morality is a mental process that measures the potential benefits of one's actions. Individual profit, then, is the primary consideration, although it may often be disguised as an ethical code . (1) This tendency is present even in animals. Vampire bats, for example, drink blood at night for sustenance and often feed those bats that could not acquire food for themselves (4). The obvious payoff is that the "altruistic" bat may in turn be assisted in the future. Cooperation, therefore, is mutually beneficial and ensures the survival of the species (4). Personal interest as the driving force for ethical behavior may be found even in religious morality (5). For why might a personal live under the moral guidelines of a particular religion? For many, it may be to secure a personal reward in the afterlife (5).

When an intellectual or mental process is intertwined with moral judgment, motives for ethical behavior can clearly be viewed as calculated and selfish. Morality, however, cannot be reduced to the simple measuring of gains and losses. It is undeniable that ethical behavior is often enacted even when a foreseeable advantage to such conduct is absent. The compassionate treatment of others, particularly when there is no perceivable reward, is indeed a puzzling issue—one which religious thinkers often attribute to the existence of a loving God (4). Yet putting oneself at risk for the sake of another is not unique to human beings; animals also exhibit such behavior (3). When a flock of zebras is attacked, for example, they will each scramble to protect the young within the group, endangering their own lives (3). Humans also react with such instincts, proving that an intellectual process is not always involved in moral judgment. The scientific argument, therefore, that morality is the indirect result of a higher intelligence, may not provide a complete explanation. Only some instances of moral behavior can be attributed to this theory.

A biological explanation of morality is insufficient in other areas as well. As previously noted, by evolution provides a heightened intelligence which sets the foundation for morality (4). An important distinction, however, must be identified—that between a human's capacity for moral judgment and the ethical norms accepted by society (3). While the former is indeed influenced by biology, the latter is most likely a product of social and cultural elements (3). Although it appears that natural selection may favor certain moral codes (the ban on incest and the restriction of divorce, for instance, are moral codes that contribute to successful reproduction) it does not, in fact, favor all ethical norms (3). The models discussed earlier, which involve risking one's own life for the sake of another, are clearly not in keeping with natural selection. Moreover, biology cannot justify such codes because our moral standards are both constantly changing and widely varied amongst different cultures (3). Finally, the same heightened intelligence which makes ethical behavior possible would also grant humans the power to accept or reject moral norms (4). Biology clearly accounts only for the development of man's capacity for moral behavior, not the moral codes he has come to accept. Francisco J. Ayala of the University of California likens the distinction to a human's biological capacity for language versus his use of a particular language (3). While biology provides humans with the capability to use language, natural selection does not prefer any specific language over another (3).

What, then, can be concluded about morality? Each voice in this debate (What is morality? Is it an innate quality or social construction? From where does it originate?) provides unique and interesting insight. Yet each argument is limited, providing only a fragment of understanding to the larger puzzle. The biological perspective is one such voice—it demystifies some of the enigma yet will never suffice as a solitary explanation. Biology shows one's capacity for ethical behavior is a product of evolution, but its explanation cannot extend much further. To truly gain a heightened understanding of this ambiguous and highly charged concept, it is most useful to consider not only biological factors, but social, cultural, and psychological influences as well. An interdisciplinary exploration—a union, rather than a separation, of various fields—is indispensable.


1)The Biological Basis of Morality,

2)Biology Intersects Religion and Morality,

3)The Difference of Being Human,

4)Morality Without God,

5)The Basis of Morality: Scientific Vs. Religious Explanations,

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