October 3, 2022
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ColumnsMind and Matter

A case for moral evolution

Approximately one-third of U.S. citizens reject evolution, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Ironically, a large body of sociobiological research suggests that the religious values that produce such skepticism are the products of evolution itself.

Human are eusocial, but it took a while for us to get to this point. What circumstances brought us to the complex level of socialization we see now? Research points to the shift from a vegetarian diet to one that relied more on meat. As E. O. Wilson said, for a group to maintain such a highenergy diet, it was not efficient to spend time roaming about in loosely organized packs resembling that of modernday chimpanzees. It was much more efficient to establish a “nest” and divide labor into many tasks: tending offspring, hunting, scavenging and protecting. Working as a team with a central base camp provided us more time to devote to developing tools, systems and relationships.

The development of a nest centered on teamwork was accompanied by the development of greater moral complexity. Groups that worked together efficiently did better than groups that did not. Yet competition for status and social benefits still existed within the groups, which required individual members to operate on a balance between individualism and altruism. Excessive selfishness put the entire group at risk. To survive, members had to rely on a system of teamwork. To curtail overly selfish behavior, we developed moral rules that encouraged teamwork. Group mentality became valued, and members of the group that displayed the opposite — hoarding, stealing, killing — were punished and often stripped of social status.

With the dawn of moral regulation came certain questions. Why did we have to follow these moral rules? What was the motivation? Of course we did not know that these rules were evolutionarily based, set in place to promote group mentality, which would ensure a greater chance of survival. To justify moral rules, we looked toward higher powers and beliefs, which compelled us to behave morally. Religion acted as a social impetus for teamwork and moral policing, ultimately increasing survival.

Though humans still act selfishly, we rely on a system of teamwork and division of labor not

practiced by our evolutionary ancestors. The difference is that now we can explain some of the evolutionary reasons for the ways we act, which raises the question of what purpose religion plays in a society that can scientifically explain why it must act morally.