02 December 2016

The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Empathy.

"I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later—or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!" - Frans de Waal.

2. Empathy

Frans de Waal, following neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, thinks that empathy probably evolved from maternal care. The bond between mother and infant breaks down the self-other barrier and allows the two of them to feel what the other feels. This allows the mother to understand and respond to the needs of the infant before it can clearly communicate them; and it allows the mother to help the infant regulate its emotions, especially to calm itself once aroused. The natural outcome of this is attachment between them that continues to manifest throughout their lives. Attachment is vitally important for young primates to develop normally. Primates which do not successfully attach to their mothers, or a substitute, are at a real disadvantage throughout their lives.

Simple empathy is just emotional contagion, which is when we pick up on the state of arousal of others and respond in kind. It helps to coordinate responses to threats and opportunities and provides a certain amount of group cohesion. It helps mothers and infants cooperate to better care for the infant.

A striking example of emotional contagion is that when one baby hears another baby crying, it will often begin to cry. Humans have the ability to mimic another's facial expression, body language, and tone of voice and this triggers the same emotion in the one doing the mimicking. We literally feel what others feel. We judge a great actor by whether or not we catch emotions from them that seem authentic to the situation being portrayed. Another example of emotional contagion that has fascinated me is catching yawns. Humans, great apes and dogs can all catch yawns from each other. One individual yawns and this provokes a yawn in another. I've tried this with cats and they don't seem to catch yawns, though they do yawn, and I am susceptible to catching cat yawns.

The next level of empathy is concern for others. If a fellow group member comes off worst in a fight, a chimp, often the victor, will go over to them, pat, kiss, and groom them. This helps both chimps to down-regulate their state of arousal. It also helps repair the bond between the combatants. Another way of looking at it is that chimps and other primates have a sense of interconnectedness within their group and when that is damaged or broken, they take steps to reconnect. I'll discuss the importance of this below.

On the other hand it is also possible for group members to pass through different layers of what novelist, Orson Scott Card, called the hierarchy of exclusion, which defines how we treat outsiders and especially how we judge the human/not-human distinction. At the Gombe Stream National Park a splinter group of chimps was systematically hunted and killed by the main group, led by Frodo, an unusually violent alpha male. Minorities in human societies are always vulnerable to this phenomena. All too often we hear of peaceful co-existence until some external shock or economic hardship polarises the community, setting off inter-communal violence and sometimes even genocide. Still, many examples of peaceful co-existence can be found also, especially as globalisation and the free movement of people has created mass movements of people seeking prosperity and/or security. Migration on a large scale also creates some anxiety from existing communities. All kinds of emotions can be contagious. 

Social mammals are able to take empathy a step further, because the ability to literally feel what others feel enables members of groups to recognise and respond to need in each other. Chimps and other animals will often care for individuals that have difficulties related to age or illness for example. Evidence is that both early modern humans and Neanderthals cared for members of their societies that could not have been productive (people with physical developmental problems for example).

Humans and the social apes can take the perspective of the other individual. We've already seen an example of this above when a chimp refuses a reward until their companion gets the same reward. In order to do this, the individual has to understand that the other will sense the unfairness, but also that they will remember it and perhaps retaliate later. They have to understand the consequences of their own actions now, but also understand how the other feels about it and what they might do in the future as a result. Whether a chimp is "reasoning" this out is moot, but they are clearly able to understand and respond to the situation and anticipate, and thus avoid, some likely outcomes.

In another example, de Waal describes two adolescent female chimps in a zoo who held up the group feeding because they wanted to stay out in the sun. Keepers feed the group inside and only start when the whole group is present. So the whole group had to wait for the two. The next day when they were released back into their compound, the group chased, cornered and beat up the two young females. That day, and subsequently, they were the first ones to go in for their food. The group identified who had caused them to wait for their food, they remembered the next day, they acted in a coordinated manner to teach them that actions that affect the group can have unpleasant consequences. The two adolescents understood that they were being punished for behaviour from the day before and modified their behaviour in the future. 

A positive example of such perspective taking, reported by de Waal, involved an elderly female chimp who was blind and quite crippled. Each day a she was led out to a sunny spot by one of her group. Other chimps brought her food. Some would carry over mouthfuls of water that they would spit into her mouth. This suggests that chimps are quite capable of caring for a member of their group who cannot fend for themselves, but that they can also anticipate their need for comfort, food, and water and act to provide them. Humans and Neanderthals also did this well back into prehistory. 

In Robin Dunbar's account of human evolution (2014) he describes primates' time as being almost entirely taken up with three activities: feeding, sleeping, and grooming. All other activities take up a very small percentage of their time. For all social primates except humans, grooming is an important mechanism for experiencing empathy and ensuring social cohesion. Grooming has the effect of promoting a shared sense of well-being (mediated internally by endogenous opiates or endorphins). Chimps and gorillas spend a lot of their time grooming. Bonobos have replaced grooming to some extent with sexual contact (a full range of the possible combinations is observed), though it is almost always very brief. De Waal says ten seconds would be a long time for sexual contact between two bonobos. These strategies enable chimps and bonobos to live in groups of up to around 50 members, though their feeding strategies mean that the main group constantly splinters and recombines over time

Humans tend to live in groups of around 150. If we relied on grooming, getting around everyone would require more time than is available in a day. Since the amount that we need to sleep is more or less fixed, the extra time required would have to come from feeding. And for this to work required significant steps up. We still don't know which was the driving force, but brain and group size both grew together. It's likely that the early hominid ancestors of modern humans began to exploit food sources from the water, especially fish, shellfish, and algae* which gave us access to higher energy-value food and provided nutrients (protein and omega 3 fatty-acids) required for growing bigger brains (this is an aspect of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis).
* A very recent paper, Boesch et al (2016) describes chimps "fishing" for algae using long sticks, while baboons grab what they can from the shore.
Better quality of food gave us one step. Using fire to cook food was another step up. Cooked food gave us more calories per mouthful and made proteins easier to digest. But the major steps up were social. Instead of one-to-one grooming, we began to use many-to-many activities to promote social cohesions. Laughing, singing, and dancing together, for example, produce the same physical feelings of well-being which is mediated by endogenous opiates. Later we added story-telling, and eventually religion combined most of these elements with a sense of greater purpose that allowed us to work together to achieve communal goals (Norenzayan 2013). Much later we learned how to cultivate food animals and crops and this, eventually, led to a population explosion. Predictions seem to be that human population will top out at about 10 billion some time around 2050. 

If we look more closely at laughter, we are thirty times more likely to laugh at a comedy if watching it in a group of four compared to watching it on our own. Our ability to experience empathy is part of what makes this possible. Laughter can be extremely contagious. It's why in the 1970s and 80s TV comedies had canned laughter tracks, and why a lot of broadcast comedy is still done in front of a live audience. Children will often join in adult laughter without getting the jokes, just because laughing together is pleasurable. Laughing together promotes a sense of connectedness. And if the whole group is laughing together, then social cohesion is achieved very efficiently in contrast with extended one-to-one grooming. 

A sense of connectedness is a prime quality for successful social living. We have to connect to our mother, our family, our tribe, etc. The sharply differentiated individual that tends to dominate the Western world, is a rather new, and I think unfortunate development in human evolution. Lone wolves tend not to thrive like pack wolves do. We observe the desperate attempts to substitute  a sense of connection through technology for the real thing. But the rising occurrence of mental health problems in technology rich societies suggests that this is not working. One of Futurologist John Naisbett's maxims in his 1982 book Megatrends was "high-tech/high-touch". He suggested that increasing use of technology would require more human contact not less. He revisited the theme in 1999 in a book called High-tech/High-touch where he explains that "The two biggest markets in the United States are consumer technology and escape from consumer technology." I've argued that virtual communities are ersatz communities and that they largely exist to commodify our lives. The alienation that results from the destruction of our real-life communities, for example, may help to explain the steady rise in the use of prescription antidepressants.

In any case, as our brain grew, our group sizes could grow and maintain their cohesion. Larger groups made us more successful at surviving, so this became a virtuous circle, but it also meant we had to exploit more varied food sources covering wider ranges, which probably led us to the long migrations that saw us settle every continent except Antarctica by about 15,000 years ago. Our reliance on water -based food sources meant that our early migrations followed coastlines and river-banks. These are still our preferred living situations. Until about 30,000 years ago there were up four other species of humans that we shared the planet with, all growing larger brains and larger groups than our ape cousins. All of the species interbred. All non-African humans have 1-2% Neanderthal genes on average, as well as smaller amounts of Denisovan, and other as yet unidentified species. The production of viable hybrid offspring raises the question of whether the different types were actually species or just variants. As it happens, Homo sapiens is the sole survivor of the genus, but we have not evolved beyond the need for a community and all that this entails. Empathy is what makes communal living successful.

2.1 Managing conflict

One of the behaviours that caught de Waal's attention early on in his career as a primatologist was that after a fight, two male chimps would actively reconcile. Often the victorious chimp would reach out a hand to the loser. Once the initial gesture was accepted, the two might hug, kiss, and groom each other until both had calmed down and re-established harmony. At the time this ran completely counter to the mainstream view of what behaviours chimps were capable of.  Ironically, the Romantic view of nature as "red in tooth and claw" dominated science. In this view chimps were seen primarily as dangerous violent animals. The idea that animals might fight was seen as normal, but that they would make-up after a fight was difficult for many scientists to swallow well into the 20th Century. When it turned out that bonobos also made up, but used sexual contact to do so, many scientists were too embarrassed to even mention it in conversation. Here de Waal's Dutch upbringing, with its very straight-forward approach to sex, may have been an invaluable asset amongst more prudish American and British colleagues.

Large aggressive males are part of the successful strategy of social animals: males evolve this way because they are better able to gang up on predators such as leopards, better able to compete with other groups of their own species, and more able to compete intra-group for food and chances to mate with females. Males of most animal species are capable of killing each other, but rarely engage in the kinds of conflict where death or serious injury will result. Aggression is channelled into non-fatal forms of combat, or sublimated into displays and posturing. The same is generally true of humans in small-scale communities, though aggression greatly increases with the advent of "civilisation" and the concept of ownership. Especially, once we can conceive of owning land, we tend to become acquisitive. No doubt, chimps are aggressive and more violent than humans, but for one group member to injure or kill another is to undermine the group that provides the vehicle for their own survival. So it is rare.

The point of this observation is that where you have aggression built into the group dynamic, there have to be mechanisms for managing it and preventing it from escalating, or the group will simply fall apart. There has to be a feedback mechanism to down-regulate the arousal associated with aggression and ways to mitigate the effects of aggression that does break out. Without it aggression might escalate. 

De Waals not only observed reconciliation in chimps, but in one zoo also noticed that an older male who had retired from the hurly-burly of vying for dominance in the troop took on the role of "policeman". He would intervene in conflicts on the side of the weaker party, preventing physical violence from escalating and waiting until the two parties calmed down and reconciled before leaving them alone. This behaviour has since been observed in older males in other zoos and in wild chimps.

There are both internal and external pressures that drive evolution of larger more aggressive males. But social species would not be successful if there were not ways to regulate in-group aggression and violence. "Male-bonding" may be the subject of feminist ridicule these days, or of suggestions of homo-eroticism, but in fact it plays an important role in holding communities together. It helps to create a sense of connection that forestalls aggression and provides a basis for reconciliation if things do flair up. Men need to spend a lot of their time together in the absence of competition for mates (for example) in order to create a sense of connection essential to conflict management. We've seen this sense of connection degraded in recent decades, with detrimental results for communities.

Empathy and altruism are part of this story, but peace-making and conflict resolution seem to be important skills in their own rights. Managing conflict so that group members are not injured during intra-groups conflicts, especially where there is the real danger of group members being killed, is vital for the survival of the group. Injured members are a drain on the resources of the group. This is partly because the require and receive care, but also because the full strength of the group is required to defend against predators and external competitors. Preventing group members from harming each other is an important capacity to build into a group and evolution has typically furnished with such capacities.


~ Conclusions ~

We should not romanticise about chimps or bonobos. Chimps are more violent than humans, far more prone to physical confrontations than we are. As well as displaying the rudiments of morality, they also sometimes act in ways that in humans would be seen as immoral. They are known to deliberately kill other chimps, especially strangers and infants. Chimps have hunted and eaten human children as they do with small primates that live in their range. It was recently announced that bonobo mothers have been observed to eat their own dead infants, though this is not associated with infanticide.

The emphasis here on moral qualities is for the purpose of highlighting the fundamentals of moral behaviour; it is not meant to portray the chimpanzee as a saint. The bonobo is much less violent than its close cousin the chimpanzee, but is still no saint either. Sainthood does not apply to species, though there may well be saintly individuals in any species. By the same token I have little time for those people who demonise species (or genders for that matter). One of Frans de Waal's complaints is that for most of his working life the negative side of animal behaviour was stressed in biology, partly, he thinks, as a way of highlighting what were thought of as uniquely positive qualities of humans. It turns out that chimps are much better, and humans much less unique, than we thought. We are what we are.

The argument I've outlined in this three-part essay (soon to be a book chapter) is that observing social animals, especially social primates, suggests that there are two principles upon which moral behaviour are based: reciprocity and empathy. I've further argued that reciprocity opens the door to fairness and justice, and that it requires generosity and altruism (generosity with no expectation of reward) as a starting position. In a society in which reciprocity is the norm our reputation for sharing or non-sharing can make a huge difference to our life chances. Empathy enables us to feel what others feel, breaking down self/other boundaries, providing us with a sense of connection with, but also obligation to, the group we are a part of. Such obligations are essential for morality. 

These are not qualities that we have to force ourselves to experience, rather the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. We naturally experience empathy and practice reciprocity at least with our in-group, and we have to make an effort to suppress them. The capacity for reciprocity and empathy is something we share with other great apes and to some extent with other mammals and with birds. They are the basic requirements of a social lifestyle for any animal (social insects are different). We evolved to favour these behaviours because these are the qualities that make for successful social living. These behaviours include maternal care, infant protection, group protection, emotional contagion, concern for other group members, perspective taking, sharing of food, peace making, conflict resolution, and reconciliation.

This much is obvious: for a social animal to succeed as a species it has to have a strong tendency towards prosocial behaviour. If it did not, then no amount of law-making or intellectual reflection could create a workable society. In light of this observation, the idea of the fundamentally selfish human is self-evidently ludicrous. This has not stopped it becoming widely accepted as a fact by theologians, economists, philosophers and psychologists. De Waal dismissively calls the idea that we are fundamentally greedy, selfish, and vicious with only a thin surface layer of civilisation, the veneer theory. This theory is at odds with what we are like, but it's at odds with what we have to be like as social animals. That our theories about ourselves can be so strongly contrasted with what we are actually like is telling us something very important about how our minds work. 

The Freudian idea of a monstrous bestial Id, made up of chaotic and amoral basic urges, held in check by an rigidly authoritarian Super-Ego is a fantasy. The psychoanalytic tradition can be seen as a form of veneer theory. But perhaps the most influential version of veneer theory in the Western world comes from the Abrahamic Bible. Taken as an allegory about the loss of innocence at puberty, it has a certain charm, but historically it has been taken as a literal statement about the inherent evil in humanity, which can only be redeemed by divine intervention. And we invite this intervention through submission to the will of God as expressed in the holy book. Many Buddhists also believe that people are incorrigibly immoral and that redemption comes only through restraining our desires. The restraint of desire as the route to liberation from suffering is a feature of all Indian religions, except Tantra in which immoral desire becomes the vehicle for transformation. Part of the power of Tantra is in the antinomian practice of giving into what are normatively seen as immoral urges: for example, breaking Brahmanical taboos against intermingling of caste (sexual consorts are meant to be women from the untouchable section of society), meat eating, or drinking alcohol.

Our genes may well be selfish, but human beings are not. We are prosocial by nature. And in fact we extend this prosociability to other species. For example, dogs have been part of human families for thousands of years. The reason we tend to favour mammals and birds as pets is that we experience reciprocity and empathy with them. In the absence of human company an animal will often suffice to provide enough company to stave off the madness that we experience when cut off from community. We share a considerable range of pro-social behaviours with other animals. And we can see plenty of commonality in chimps and bonobos, though the two are distinct from each other and we overlap with each in different ways. So morality develops on top of this core of pro-social behaviour and ways of dealing with antisocial behaviour.

To return to the morality/ethics distinction I mentioned in Part I of this essay, the moral principles outlined here form the basis of system of ethics that has universal appeal and applicability, i.e. empathy, fairness, justice; reciprocity, consoling the afflicted or defeated, compassion, peace-making, and conflict resolution. These are the basic features of required for social animals to thrive, so any society ought to acknowledge the value of them. That said, this leaves a vast amount of leeway for designing moral rules or precepts to enact these principles. Flourishing is associated with general principles, not with specific rules. Many different species and groups with different approaches to the same principles have thrived. The principles are not prescriptive at the level of specific rules. The other caveat, is that some societies have false views about humans. The various religious versions of the veneer theory, for example, would forestall accepting these moral principles. If you believe that people are fundamentally wicked, your system of ethics will be designed radically differently from a system predicated on prosociability.

Searle's deontological view of morality based on deontology, i.e. on rights, duties, and obligations with respect to our group and members of our group, is consistent with the principles that emerge from studying primates. I've seen some descriptions of deontological morality as being about following rules. But this is not how I interpret it. Obligation to our group follows from the principle of reciprocity. Our fundamental obligation is to the flourishing of the group as the vehicle for our personal survival and we mainly fulfil this obligation this through reciprocity. At least in small-scale societies this seems pretty straight-forward. In larger societies where reciprocity is more tenuous because we are mostly interacting with strangers or out-group people it is more complex.

The evolution of social animals of many different types has converged on these behaviours precisely because they are the most successful. One of the least successful strategies is the Neoliberal zero-sum game where the winner takes all. The unfairness and inequality involved in this strategy weakens the society that adopts it. History is littered with evidence of the lack of viability of inequitable societies. The best places to live are socialist democracies, i.e. places where everyone has a say, but everyone is committed to the general welfare and well-being of everyone else. The catch is that the socialist democracies that flourish tend to be rather small (a few million people at most) and have a strong sense of national identity. And because they are open to persuasion, they are also open to being usurped or suborned.

We also have to be aware of social hierarchies, i.e. the internal social hierarchy of a group and the hierarchies of inclusion (aka the Dunbar Numbers) and of exclusion. Social animals are not typically egalitarian, their societies are almost never flat, but have a vertical hierarchy with alpha-males and alpha-females at the top. But it is worth noting that animals occupying these positions tend to exemplify not brute force, but rather the same moral principles of empathy and reciprocity. Being alpha-male in particular involves a number of quid-pro-quos in return for support. Alphas are more bound by reciprocity and have to be more highly attuned to the the mood of the group and the dispositions of individuals, rather than less. The higher the status of a social animal, the heavier the obligations on them. This may be why humans expect so much from leaders, and why rich people shirking their obligations are seen as egregiously immoral by the masses.

The hierarchy of exclusion is a moveable barrier which literally excludes the majority of people and animals from the reach of our morality. Humans are certainly capable, at their best, of having a very wide and open circle of inclusion. The fact that we keep pets, for example, and frequently treat them as members of our family is a significant indicator for how far we are able to include strangers in our group. So successful are we that it's likely that dogs have evolved to be more like us to fit in better. Dog social dynamics seem to be more like ours than, say, that of wolves or wild dogs.

The principles of morality are transparent to society, meaning that reciprocity and empathy are so ubiquitous we don't often think of them and we don't need to think of them when formulating rules. Moral rules tend pertain to the breakdown (real or potential) of our natural sociability, i.e. everyone gets on with their lives, but when things go wrong, the spoken or unspoken rules are invoked as a way of re-establishing order and/or harmony. Thus is consistent with Searle's idea of background capabilities, where we develop dispositions to behave in ways that are consistent with the rules, without having to consciously follow the rules.

For example, the rules that Buddhist monks follow were in many cases composed in response to failures to act in ways consistent with what was socially acceptable for monks. Notably the law text for Buddhist monks, the Vinaya, records that many of the rules for Buddhist monks resulted from direct complaints about the behaviour of monks by lay people. For this reason most of the monks' rules are matters of social etiquette, specific to Iron Age India rather than having any general moral significance. However, though the Vinaya records that monks were given the opportunity to make this distinction, they eschewed it in favour of rigid rule following. Even so, disputes over the rules resulted in multiple versions of the rules (seven versions survive in Chinese translation).

One of the problems with religious communities is that they become obsessed with rules and enforcing norms. This partly because salvation is contingent on good, or even perfect, behaviour. I've seen this go wrong in large and small ways in my own community. I've seen quite bad behaviour be rationalised on the basis that someone else is breaking the rules. Charismatic individuals are also able to persuade people that their version of morality supersedes a more general version and in this lies the basis of the cult. 

The transparent nature of morality seems to have deceived intellectuals for many years. For too long, for instance, we thought that morality was a function of intellect and reason. But simple observation shows that this picture is simply wrong. Humans are social, even prosocial, they tend to generosity and reciprocity, and are naturally empathetic. We are naturally attached to our parents and peers and this attachment make us happy. Infants who fail to develop attachments are developmentally stunted and likely to suffer from personality and mood disorders. But it also means we suffer when our loved ones die (and this predisposes us to belief in an afterlife).

Moral theory has been hampered by a failure to detach itself from erroneous legacy thinking. In recent decades governments have promoted psychopathic anti-social behaviour. For example, Alan Greenspan (inspired by his psychopathic guru, Ayn rand) is said to have been against prosecuting financial traders for fraud because of his belief that "the market" would punish them. This is quite close to the Buddhist view of karma taken literally. But it didn't work. The finance industry, freed of regulation and over-sight by Greenspan and people like him, relieved of any obligation to society, simply ran amok. Which makes you wonder about whether Buddhist karma could possibly be the basis for morality in the real world.

People often assert that science cannot tell us how to live. Anti-science advocates like to say that science can play no role in the design of moral rules or ethical systems. Clearly this is not the case. Here, science has revealed the underlying dynamics of the lives of social animals as based in reciprocity and empathy. Any moral system which is designed with a different understanding will be flawed and will fail to provide appropriate incentives and disincentives to be moral. Science provides insights into our motives and decision-making processes that are crucial to fostering prosperous and healthy communities (if that is our goal). There will be no perfect system, no panacea for refusing the duties and obligations of group membership, and no stable set of rules that will deal with all situations. But, we do know what principles evolution produced to make groups generally successful. We have the choice about whether to use this information or not. I hope we do use it and that we make societies that are more fair, justice, harmonious and connected than our current societies as a result. But I fear we have a lot of unlearning to do before any of this will make sense to the majority. 



~~oOo~~


~ Bibliography ~

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Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52]. https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

Waal, Frans de. (2016) The Life Scientific. [Interview with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio4, broadcast 4 Oct 2016]. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wt6bj
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