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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Biology and Morality: Evolution or Inherency?

Nancy Evans

In a recent commentary for BBC News, Clark McCauley, Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College, analyzed the issue of human evolution from a standpoint that drew on his knowledge of psychology: gradual and collective changes in human behavior. According to McCauley, as environments and situations changed, human behavior was forced to adapt accordingly. In his comments, McCauley cites the example of disgust; although it is now a common human reaction, McCauley claims it once did not exist. As humans became less capable of digesting raw meat, disgust became an important deterring force that, through the process of evolution, became a familiar and shared part of human existence. Evidencing his claim, McCauley pointed to the fact that humans have a shared and easily recognizable facial and bodily response to disgust.

Following McCauley's line of reasoning, if there is evidence that supports changes in active human behavior over time that can be attributed to the evolutionary process, it seems likely that other aspects of human cognition and its manifestations would also be subject to evolution. This paper will address the issue of the evolution of human morality; namely, whether morality is an aspect of humanity that is constructed or innate, and, depending on those findings, whether evolution plays any role in the process of determining our morals.

In order to assess morality, we must first define it and identify the prevalent philosophy behind it. In this paper, morality is defined as the rules that determine what is 'right' and what is 'wrong'. In his dissertation, Van Mildert College Student Nicholas Giles notes that while we do have forces that counteract our morals (i.e. our own desires), morality is often the "limiting factor" of our behavior. We (as a majority) do not steal, because somehow we have internalized that this is a 'wrong' or immoral behavior. Giles uses the example of being nice to our friends, so as to be considered nice ourselves, to segue into a discussion of altruism. Although Giles sees altruism, the notion of giving to others at the expense of oneself, as a counterintuitive philosophy, he recognizes that it the philosophical basis for morality (1).

The biological basis for altruism seems fairly straightforward: organisms that put the welfare of other organisms before their own will be less successful than 'selfish' organisms. However, there are situation specific benefits to altruism; in many cases, organisms in a group will fare better than individual organisms (1). In order to gain access into the group, an outgroup member must generally display a willingness to put the welfare of the group before their own personal welfare. From an evolutionary standpoint, the individuals who exhibit altruistic qualities and gain admittance into the group will most likely have a better chance of survival and, as a result, a better chance of passing along their own genes (3). From another viewpoint, the mere passing along of genes can be considered an altruistic act, so evolution itself would not be possible without altruism. To reproduce is to assume a certain potential of threat to oneself in order for continuation, to put oneself at risk for another (2).

The evidence disputing a biological basis for altruism is convincingly strong. The most fundamental players in the evolutionary process, our genes operate without a trace of altruism. In fact, they are themselves capable of reproduction without any outside assist. If we follow this line of thinking, we are inevitably led to search for another source of morality: human construction (2). Whether individuals believe that it is a supreme being or the invisible hand of society governing their actions, morality is an effective method to keep the masses 'reigned in', so to speak. Giles touches upon this issue, that "without morality, civilization would fall apart". Morality is a 'control mechanism; it allows us to have a society, namely a society which benefits those in control. In political science terms, these individuals (largely from the elite, educated class) are called instrumentalists. The instrumentalist instills in the masses a collective notion that he/she can manipulate to their own advantage. Based on this analysis, altruism appears to be more of a social construction that has been largely internalized, yet is not innate. Further, since 'altruism' and 'morality' are such sweeping, nebulous terms, they lack the common thread for identification as in the disgust model.

This argument is one not easily settled. While there seem to be marginalized genetic and evolutionary benefits to altruistic behaviors, on a human scale it becomes more difficult to prove. Are our morals genetically determined or merely assumed? On a more forward-thinking level, say we do, in fact, internalize the rules of morality, will those of us who act in an altruistic manner have a better chance of survival? If so, this also means a better chance of perpetuation of our own genes, and less of a risk of being evolutionarily phased out. Can our behaviors find their way into the path of evolution, and if so, do they become part of the process? Interestingly enough, an answer to this question may make useless the nature v. nurture debate altogether. Until that point, there may be no infallible way to distinguish between collectively assumed behavior and actions that are the result of evolution.

Works Cited:

Giles, Nicholas. Is Morality a Unique, Humanizing quality, or is it just the product of evolution?. Senior Philosophy Dissertation. Online. Available:

Sharpe, Kevin. Religion and Morality Intersect Biology: Sociobiology and Altruism. Online. Avail:

Uchii, Soshichi. Darwin on the Evolution of Morality. Online. Avail:

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