17 October 2010

The Roots of Human Morality

This is a nicely nuanced article in the New York Times, written by Frans de Waal, a primatologist, exploring the roots of human morality in our evolutionary heritage. His view of empathy and altruism is a nice alternative to what he coins as "Veneer Theory", which tends to see all human behavior as fundamentally selfish. He concludes somewhat ambiguously by minimizing the necessity of a God in the evolution of morality while also recognizing the integral part that religion has had on our lives.

Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concernas yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion. 

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