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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip


Julia Eddy

Almost never did I question what I knew as "right," until one day in high school when I was faced with an angry teenage boy who aggressively challenged my beliefs by patronizing me with questions such as, "Why are you working so hard in school?" "Why are you trying to save the world?" and "Why do you even care?!" My world as I knew it suddenly became very fuzzy for a moment, but only for a moment for the questions had to be forced back into the depths of my head to be dealt with at a later time (I could not let this boy see that he had stumped me). I just wanted to scream, "Because it is right! It is I who should be questioning you as to why you don't care!" but then found myself muddled with fear and caught in doubt. Doubtful and ashamed of my own reasons for my values (or it seemed lack there of), I disregarded the boy as someone asking stupid questions undeserving of a response.

On more than one occasion I have been challenged to answer one of those eternally menacing questions, "why," and once again for a brief moment that "why" made me feel absolutely helpless, uncomfortable, and lost. These particular occasions of "why" led me to momentarily question my beliefs and entire purpose as a student, activist, friend, and human being. I have been "trained" (whether by nature or nurture or both is up for discussion) to believe in something, not necessarily spiritual but something, to believe in equality and kindness, the golden rule, preserving beauty, loving life, trying to give 100%, smiling and laughing, protecting what I care about, and just having emotion in general. I just knew that certain things were wrong and right, there were a few iffy spots, but usually the actions that boggled me most were the ones that seemed most wrong, such as, people killing other people, lying cheating and stealing, and even the existence of 'wrongs' at all. Hundreds of times I found myself asking "why did this happen? It is so unfair..." Never did I question the things that brought about happiness; I accepted that life just about those "right" things. Now though I dig out those menacing questions that the boy asked again, and I search for redemption. Why do I (we as humans) really care? Love? Why do we help? The main question being why and how did humans become the moral beings that they are? And for that matter, while too enormous, why do we even exist at all?

The story that found me was neither redeeming nor did it settle inquisition. The story of morality that I learned consisted of the same old evolutionary process of expansion and selection (comforting to know that the pattern persists), yet the cascade of amazement came with the realization that the generation and emergence of morality was the product of an evolutionary process that could have easily taken a different road. Still the hardest story to come to terms with is the one that says we as humans "created" morality; it wasn't something already in existence or law of the universe, but it came into existence when it was selected for in humans via social evolution.

While true that human beings are the only known living organisms to exhibit morality, with the exception of certain "quasi-moralists" such as dolphins and some primates, we are not alone in exhibiting cooperation, a product of morality. There is without a doubt a system of "cooperation and group rationality" that goes on in all multicellular organisms as is evident in Darwin's Dangerous Idea when Dennett points out that, "one never hears tales... of an eagle's wings going on strike" (457); instead the "cells so docilely cooperate with the rest" (457). The indication being not that cells are "thinking" about their rationality, but instead acting based on the chemical and genetic information they naturally possess without intent or drive. While cells of multicellular organisms are exhibiting what looks like cooperation, they are not actually conducting a moral act to help out one another (humans may just be anthropomorphisizing these cells). Like Dennett says on page 460, "We unlike the cells that compose us, are not on ballistic trajectories; we are guided missiles, capable of altering course at any point, abandoning goals, switching allegiances, forming cabals and then betraying them, and so forth," humans are the only fully moral organisms. We tend to be amazed when other species have similar behavior to ours and falsely presume that we are not alone in our morality, but those other organisms are just going through similar, yet unintentional, motions as they respond to their environments. So, then how, when, and why did this completely unique trait, morality, come about?

There have been a variety of theories on the cause of morality to evolve. Thomas Hobbes was really the first to formulate a theory in regards to the emergence of morality, and Dennett on page 454 writes a simplified synopsis of the Hobbesian story,
Once upon a time, he said, there was no morality at all. There was life; there were human beings, and they even had language... but not ethical good and bad... although they distinguished a good spear from a bad spear, a good supper from a bad supper... they had no concept of a good or just person, a moral person, or a good act, a moral act or their contraries, villains and vices... then one fine day, a mutation happened to arise... when yet another conflict arose... these particular lucky competitors hit upon a new idea: cooperation for mutual benefit. They formed a "social contract."
Hobbes' wishful thinking was followed by the thinking of such English social biologists as Locke, Rousseau, and Rawls who hypothesized a variety of different paths leading to the emergence of morality. There was one story that they all stood by, that morality was, "an emergent product of major innovation in perspective that has been achieved by just one species, Homo sapiens, taking advantage of its unique extra medium of information transfer, language" (455).

Contrary to Hobbes, Nietzsche thought that the origin of responsibility came not from a desire to cooperate, but rather from punishment for debts and early human torture. Nietzsche thought morality came after humans were able to make promises thus making them obligated (responsible) to pay off any credit earned with other humans. Then one thing lead to another and morality evolved just like any trait over time.

Regardless of the precise path taken to get to morality, the general story told by most scientists is that morality is the result early human interactions experiencing gradual changes over time, which produced a series of intermediates up to the present (such is the case with the emergence of all unique characteristics). In other words, the take away message is that morality hasn't always existed as a supreme law governing the universe; humans created it first. The values and behaviors of one human where passed to another, to another, to offspring, to offspring, forming groups and societies of common beliefs and so forth... These behaviors and values were not difficult to comprehend or cause for any drastic life changes, they were easy adaptations that made sense to society.

It is quite obvious even now that not everyone in the world, or even within a given society, has the same values. Many values overlap but many others don't, hence the reason for so many cross cultural problems is trying to claim one culture as more "right" than another. So in light of the boy who patronized me and caused me to question my own values, he may have been deserving of a more credit than I gave him. While his questions seemed like rude and ignorant challenges, they were actually valid inquiries to which I was dejected because I couldn't trace the origin of my responses. We may have somewhat different values, but there are no true "rights" or "wrongs," because morality is all relative and subjective. It is still very hard to realize the extent of randomness that life is built from, especially when referring to the generation of something that we build every action of our whole lives on. While I find it very discomforting to think that any of my values, especially the ones that involve treatment of other life forms and the Earth, may not be "right," I still chose to believe in and defend them in what I suppose is some attempt to find comfort. The boy and I will agree to disagree as we both find comfort in our beliefs, and for now that is enough.

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Touchstone. 1995.

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