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Beaks, Wings, and Morality

eolecki's picture
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Beaks, Wings, and Morality

Have you ever witnessed something that instantly made your gut wrench and makes you think, “that is wrong”?  There are many times when we see something that immediately brings about a feeling of disgust, but when we are asked to explain it we simply cannot.  The only explanation that we can offer is “it’s just wrong”.  These seemingly innate feelings are what many people call morals, or the ability to distinguish from right and wrong.  But the question is, where did this ability to distinguish come from?  Can the biological process of evolution be applied to the evolution of morals or did morals actually evolve the same way as birds evolved beaks, or is it a combination of both?

            It is hard to believe that the process of biological evolution that resulted in giraffes having long necks and birds having wings also resulted in human morality.  Biological evolution is most often associated with physical traits.  However, there are many examples of biological evolution affecting behavior or instinct.  Still, instinct seems different from morality.  Instinct is pulling your hand away from a hot stove; you don’t have to learn to do it.  Morality is knowing it is wrong to kill an innocent person and having feelings of empathy when one sees starving people. 

An important question to ask is whether morality is taught or is innate. Different societies have different morals.  For example there are cultures that practice cannibalism.  Cannibalism is completely unacceptable in the United States, but if a child was taken to one of these cultures and raised in one of those societies I do not think it is likely the child would grow up thinking cannibalism was wrong.  Similarly, I don’t think the child being raised here would grow up and start eating people.  However, sometimes people do deviate from culturally accepted norms.  When slavery was mainstream in the United States, there were people who stood up and said this is wrong even though it was a culturally acceptable.  Because of displays like this, I think that morality is something more universal than just a cultural norm.

Using the idea of a child from a cannibal society being raised in the United States, say there was a terrible natural disaster than left people in our society desolate and without any access to food.  I believe that it would be easier for the child from the cannibal society to eat other humans than most of the other people from our society.  Of course this hypothesis cannot be tested due to ethical standards, but it makes sense to assume that morality is both controlled by both genes and environment.  Even though the child has been raised in an environment where cannibalism is wrong, it still has the genetic components of his birth culture.        

The only way morals could be affected by the biological process of evolution is if they were controlled to some degree by genetics.  In my introductory biology class this point was drilled into our heads: natural selection makes no difference if a trait is not controlled by genetics.  All of the theories put forth by biologist that state morality was selected for through natural selection assume that morality is controlled by genetics.  This assumption makes sense.  Behavior and instincts are controlled by genetics the same way as a bird’s beak.  Through the process of evolution, what we now call morality was probably just selected behaviors.  The idea of “do unto others as you would like them to do unto you” which we now consider moral, was once just a beneficial behavior that had genetic components and was then selected for.  This process of selected behaviors becoming morality though the identical process of biological evolution that also brought about the beak of a bird is only part of the origin of morality.

Even though some aspects of morality were just selected behaviors that benefited the organism, it seems to have evolved further, and by a different process.  Biological evolution selected the behaviors that benefited the organism, but how can we explain morality that does not benefit the organism such as altruism and philanthropy?  An organism that does something purely for the good of another organism is not favored by natural selection; it would actually be selected against.  However, we witness humans demonstrating selfless acts quite frequently.  This evolution lies beyond the range of biological evolution and enters the realm of cultural evolution.           

Something beyond biological evolution took hold of the selected beneficial behaviors and made them into morality.  I will call this phenomenon cultural evolution.  I believe cultural evolution is what has created such a divergence from our primate ancestors.  “Many animals show empathy and altruistic tendencies but do not have moral systems” (Wade, Do Unto Others).  By observing these precursors of morality in other non-human species it shows that it was in fact a process of biological evolution, although something else has pushed human beings farther, and it was not biological evolution, because if biological evolution was the sole agent in forming our morality, we would have the exact same “morality” as our closely related primate ancestors.  The actual process of cultural evolution is left to speculation because there is no way to study it. It leaves no fossil records and cannot even be tested in controlled experiments.  Despite these shortfalls in studying it, it is very hard to deny its existence.  Something made us evolve to have different morals than chimpanzees, and it was clearly not biological evolution.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennet offers a slightly different description of cultural evolution.  He uses the idea of a meme, which is a unit for any item of cultural evolution (342).  Similar to my theory, Dennet argues “evolution of memes could not get started until the evolution of animals had paved the way by creating a species-Homo sapiens- with brains that could provide shelter” (345).  In other words biological evolution occurred first.  However, as Dennet continues to explain his idea of cultural evolution, which he believes “obeys the laws of natural selection exactly,” our opinions begin to differ (345).  This claim means that Dennet believes there is nothing in humans that is not controlled by genes or culture, which would make humans a completely predictable entity.  I disagree with this explanation.  I believe there is something that is beyond both biological evolution and an analogous forms of cultural evolution that results in human individuality and free will.

There is much debate among researcher about how cultural evolution works or even if it exists.  In The Beak of the Finch, Weiner denies cultural evolution and gives all the credit with no explanation to biological evolution by saying “Our gift of consciousness is a mystery, one of the greatest remaining mysteries in biology-but it is no more of a miracle than a beak, a feather, or a wing. . .and is made possible by modeling and through the same process.  Why should we assume that consciousness is unique to our kind in anything but degree?” (281).  However, Jesse Prinz believes “morality developed after human evolution was finished and that moral sentiments are shaped by culture, not genetics.  It would be a fallacy to assume a single true morality could be identified by what we do instinctively, rather than by what we ought to do” (Wade, Morality in Primates).

The phenomena of morals and consciousness seems to be what sets us apart from animals, specifically our closely related ancestor, the primates.  In order for us to diverge from primates, it was necessary to have a selection force that was specific to human beings.  While biological evolution clearly played an important role in bringing about certain behaviors, the still undefined process of cultural evolution is what gave us the extra push towards the type of morals we have today.  Morality, like most traits, has both an environmental and genetic component. However, I believe there is a special force that is beyond biological evolution that makes human beings non-predictable and gives us our defining sense of right and wrong. 


Works Cited


Dennett, Daniel C.. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Touchstone, 1995.


Wade, Nicholas. "Is "Do Unto Others" Written Into Our Genes?". New York Times. March 10 2009 <'%20written%20into%20our%20genes&st=cse>.


Wade, Nicholas. "Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior". New York Times. March 10 2009 <>.

Weiner, Jonathan. The Beak of the Finch. New York: First Vintage Books, 1994.




Anne Dalke's picture

emotional dog?

You are concocting quite a stew, here, and I find myself somewhat confused by the relationship you are tracing between biology and culture, genes and memes. I don’t understand, for instance, what you call the “genetic components of birth culture,” and am also not clear what the “special force” is that both “makes us non-predictable” and “gives us our defining sense of right and wrong.”

What I can’t help but add to the richness of the stew, though, are several of the texts that we read together last semester in Food for Thought (I was surprised not to see appear them here, in your discussion of cannabalism): Jared Diamond’s piece in Discover on “Living Through the Donner Party”; the cannabalism sections of Sena Naslund’s novel, Ahab’s Wife; and—to me by far the most striking of all our test cases for “morality”--Jonathan Haidt’s Psychological Review essay, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.” My memory of that piece is that Haidt did a very gutsy thing in saying that 50 years of psychology and moral philosophy has been a study of fantasies and post-hoc constructions→ that we are NOT consciously in control of most of our behavior. Rather, it emerges from us...

and then we think up an explanation; the project of moralizing, in his view, is descriptive, not prescriptive. Moral intuitions come first and directly cause moral judgments; moral reasoning is an ex post facto process, a (slow, "cool," "more cognitively expensive") rationalization of our (quick, "hot," "cheaper") gut feelings.

Where Haidt’s work really challenges yours, here, is in his discussion of "moral dumbfounding”: the fact that we rarely use our reasoning to question attitudes or beliefs. Even in conversation, "my-side bias" and "makes-sense epistemology" lead us to find conclusions that fit our prior beliefs. Such “effortful search may feel like introspection,” but it is actually a one-sided search for "a priori causal theories."

There are all kinds of implications for this way of looking @ the intuitive basis for morality, including the unlikelihood that we can get an opponent to change her mind (in Haidt’s striking language, “as if forcing a dog's tail to wag by moving it with your hand will make the dog happy”). I think he does a fine job explicating the bitterness, futility, and self-righteousness of most moral arguments—as well a rather unsettling job of showing how “attempts to directly teach thinking and reasoning in a classroom setting generally show little transfer to activities outside” (so WHY am I in this business…?)

And where can you go from here?