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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Primatological Perspective on Evolution and Morality

Sarah F. Brosnan
What can evolution tell us about morality?

Morality is a key feature of humanity, but how did we become a moral species? And is morality a uniquely human phenomenon, or do we see its roots in other species? One of the most fun parts of my research is studying the evolutionary basis of behaviors that we think of as quintessentially human, such as morality, to try to understand where they came from and what purpose they serve. In so doing, we can not only better understand why people behave the way that they do, but we also may be able to develop interventions that promote more beneficial decision-making.

Of course, a “quintessentially human” behavior is not replicated, at least in its entirety, in another species, so how does one study the evolutionary history of such behaviors? To do so, we focus on precursor behaviors that are related to the one in question and provide insight into the evolution of the target behavior. A precursor behavior may look very different from the final instantiation; for instance, birds’ wings appear to have originated as feathers that were used for either insulation or advertisement (i.e., sexual selection) that, through a series of intermediate forms, evolved into feathered wings. The chemical definition may be even more apt; a precursor molecule is one that triggers a reaction, resulting in a chemical that is fundamentally different from the initial chemicals used in the reaction.

How is this related to morality? We would not expect to see human morality in other species, as morality implies the ability to debate ethics and develop group rules and norms, which is not possible in non-verbal species. However, complex traits like morality do not arise de novo; like wings, they evolve from existing traits. Therefore, we can look for potential precursors in other species in order to better understand the evolutionary history of morality.

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