The main body of my book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, is a Socratic dialogue between two characters: a Christian proselytizer and a skeptic. The skeptic does not discuss atheism, but instead tentatively accepts—for argument’s sake—the Christian’s premises that there is a Creator of sorts, that this said-Creator has made some sort of communication effort with mankind, and that the fundamentalists are correct in their assessment that “one religion is from God, the rest are man-made.” The two characters then discuss non-Christian religions, and the skeptic gets the proselytizer to pinpoint the telltale signs of the human authorship of foreign faiths by three criteria: (a) they’re pieced together from pre-existing religions, (b) their holy laws are often based on irrational prejudices and erroneous conclusions about cause and effect, and (c) their stories contain inaccurate and earth-bound descriptions of the universe—stars that are tiny, a moon that shines its own light, a sun that orbits a flat and stationary earth, etc. With those premises established, the discussion then turns to examining Christianity by the same light held up to the non-Christian religions.
Using the Socratic Method means that the skeptic does not have to argue with the Christian, but instead the Christian is forced to defend himself against his own accusations: his own description of a religion created not by an Almighty Architect of the Universe, but by the flawed mind of man.
Yet although I’ve found the Socratic Method to be an effective way to discuss skepticism of organized religion, I have not found it be an effective way to discuss atheism. (For example, I’ve yet to discover a good way to use the theist’s own arguments against himself when it comes to topics such as evolution.)
To make up for this drawback, I expand upon the two characters’ discussions with numerous essay-length endnotes: essays that explore the way that the non-theistic perspective of our origins and our ethics can make sense out of life with a clarity and coherence unmatched by any variety of theism. This essay on the roots of morality is one of those endnotes—the first in a series that I plan on posting in the months ahead.
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The Pre-Religion, and Pre-Human,
Roots of Morality
(Endnote #12 from Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, pp. 213–216)
A common refrain from apologists for religion is that the existence of a Supreme and Just Being is the only possible explanation for human ethics. How else, they ask, could we have a conscience that values honesty, loyalty, kindness, and compassion; and condemns stealing, assault, rape, and murder? Blind natural selection, they say, couldn’t possibly produce anything akin to morality—for a world whose creatures came about by nothing more than a brutal struggle for survival would value little more than raw power.
Non-theists of course see things differently, yet even in the secular world it’s common to think of aggressive competition as the key component in natural selection. We tend to think of our tendencies for violence as something that’s part of our animal history, and that our cooperative and compassionate tendencies represent our humanity, or humanness—the side of us that has “risen above” our animal nature.
Yet victories in the struggle for survival and reproductive success can take many different forms, and caring and cooperation can sometimes be just as crucial as competition. Cooperative traits are widespread in just about all animals that live in social groups, as social animals need to work together in order to raise their young, warn each other of predators, and hunt their food and fight their enemies:
– Wolves depend on teamwork to bring down large prey such as caribou or moose;
– African wild dogs will carry fresh meat back for the “babysitters” who stayed at home with the cubs during the hunt;
– Harris hawks live in groups with well-defined divisions of labor: certain hawks have the role of rearing and protecting the young, while others never visit the nest but do the hunting and share their food;
– Dolphins will try to save companions trapped in tuna nets, and one or more dolphins will work together to help a sick or injured dolphin stay close to the surface to prevent it from drowning;
– Vampire bats that have had a successful night on the town demonstrate an altruism of sorts by regurgitating blood for companions that have been less successful. (Reciprocal altruism, however, is the rule—for a bat that fails to share will in turn be denied when the tables are turned.)
In his book Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, primatologist Frans De Waal’s extensive studies of apes reveal that even advanced forms of what may be called “ethics”—as demonstrated in acts of empathy, altruism, conflict resolution, notions of fairness, etc.—are not unique to humans.
Examples of ape altruism include caring for injured companions, cleaning each other’s wounds, slowing down and waiting for those who move slowly, and carrying fruit down from trees for elders who have lost their climbing abilities. An example of empathy for those outside their own species was caught on videotape (and is widely available on the web) when a gorilla named Binti Jua rescued a three-year-old boy who had fallen into the primate exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo: she scooped him up, carried him to safety, cradled him in her lap, and gently patted him on the back until the zoo staff arrived. The media highlighted this as something remarkable and hailed Binti Jua as a hero, but De Waal notes that empathy of this sort among apes is an everyday occurrence (yet “newsworthy” only when the compassion is directed toward humans).
Conflict resolution is another trait that’s often overlooked in wildlife. Conflicts among social animals are inevitable as individuals compete for food, sex, and power—yet because they also depend on each other (raising their young, fighting enemies, etc.), self-interest demands a certain degree of what may be called peace-making skills (at least within one’s own community). De Waal writes that like married couples, animals need to maintain good relationships despite flare-ups, and that different animals do this in a variety of ways:
Golden monkeys [reconcile] with hand-holding, chimpanzees with a kiss on the mouth, bonobos with sex, and tonkean macaques with clasping and lipsmacking. Each species follows its own protocol. Take something I’ve seen repeatedly during reconciliations among apes … after one individual has attacked and bitten another, he or she returns to inspect the inflicted injury. The aggressor knows exactly where to look. … This suggests an understanding of cause and effect along the lines of “If I have bitten you, you must now have a gash in the same spot.” It suggests that the ape takes another’s perspective, realizing the impact of its own behavior on somebody else.
The definition of reconciliation (a friendly reunion between opponents not long after a fight) is straightforward, but the emotions involved are hard to pinpoint. The least that occurs, but this is already truly remarkable, is that negative emotions, such as aggression and fear, are overcome in order to move to a positive interaction, such as a kiss. The bad feelings are reduced or left behind. We experience this transition from hostility to normalization as “forgiveness.” Forgiveness is sometimes touted as uniquely human, even uniquely Christian, but it may be a natural tendency for cooperative animals (150–151).
As for primate notions of fairness, De Waal proposes that this went through three stages of development. Stage 1 is the resentment we feel when we get less than others. To demonstrate that this emotion exists even in monkeys, De Waal and fellow investigator Sarah Brosnan conducted an experiment that started out by teaching capuchin monkeys to exchange pebbles for cucumbers, which they learned quickly and happily. Once De Waal and Brosnan introduced inequity by giving certain monkeys not cucumbers but the more desirable “pay” of grapes, the cucumber-receiving monkeys became irritated about being short-changed. They sulked and sometimes even hurled their cucumber slices away—the food that they had previously been so satisfied with had become a symbol of injustice, and accordingly had become repulsive.
The study was first published in Nature on 18 September 2003 under the title “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” and De Waal notes that the article “struck a chord, perhaps because many people see themselves as cuke-eaters in a world with lots of grapes.” From Nature’s abstract:
A monkey willing to perform a task for a cucumber may refuse to do so if its partner is given a tasty grape. … In balking at this unequal pay, the monkey is surely being irrational, rejecting food that is on offer. But the negative emotion of “unfairness” and the refusal to accept inequitable situations has been a positive influence in the long-term in the development of human society, and the same evolutionary pressures seem to have prevailed in other primates as well.
From the New York Times coverage of the study (“Genetic Basis to Fairness, Study Hints,” 18 September 2003):
“It’s not fair!” is a common call from the playground, and, in subtler form, from more adult assemblies. It now seems that monkeys, too, have a sense of fairness, a conclusion suggesting that this feeling may be part of the genetically programmed social glue that holds primate societies together, monkeys as well as humans.
Stage 2 in the development of our notion of fairness starts with concerns about how others will react if we’re the ones who are getting the preferential treatment. De Waal notes that monkeys (which are a more distant relative to us than apes) aren’t concerned about the reactions of others: the lucky grape-recipient capuchins could have shared their grapes with their disadvantaged neighbors, but never did—in fact, the grape-recipients would even cheerfully scoop up and eat the cucumbers that their disgruntled neighbors had thrown away. Apes, however, do occasionally demonstrate this type of empathy. When a bonobo named Panbanisha, for example, received highly-prized snacks such as raisins, other members of her colony noticed and moved close to her cage, clamoring for the same treats. Panbanisha reacted by calling for her caretaker to bring more snacks—but she wouldn’t accept the food when it arrived, and instead waved her arm in her friends’ direction. De Waal writes:
… what fascinates me is the connection with resentment. All one needs for the larger sense of fairness to develop is anticipation of the resentment of others. There are excellent reasons to avoid arousing bad feelings. Someone failing to share is excluded from feeding clusters. At worst, the one being envied risks being beaten up. Was this why Panbanisha avoided conspicuous consumption in front of her friends? If so, we are getting close to what may be the source of the fairness principle: conflict avoidance (p. 220).
Stage 3 is that general feeling that inequality is a bad thing, and equality is a good thing. There’s no reason to believe that any primate other than man has such thoughts, but the building blocks are shared with other primates, and thus are likely to date back to our common ancestor. The roots of our ethical behavior, in other words, predate not only Judaism and every other ancient religion, but humanity itself.
De Waal concludes that the raw emotion of the resentment we feel at being mistreated, combined with an awareness of how our actions affect others, is what creates moral principles:
This is the bottom-up approach: from emotion to a sense of fairness. It is quite the opposite of the view that fairness was an idea introduced by wise men (founding fathers, revolutionaries, philosophers) after a lifetime of pondering right, wrong, and our place in the cosmos. Top-down approaches (looking for an explanation by starting at the end product and working backward) are almost always wrong. They ask why we are the only ones to possess fairness, justice, politics, morality, and so on when the real question is what the building blocks are. What are the basic elements needed to construct fairness, justice, politics, morality, and so on? How did the larger phenomenon derive from simpler ones? As soon as one ponders this question, it is obvious that we share many building blocks with other species (p. 221).
Once tendencies such as compassion and cooperation exist—even if they arose only to care for one’s kin and live peaceably within one’s own clan—they can branch out in any number of ways, such as having compassion for those outside our own communities. Religious founders take these innate tendencies and give them a formal structure by putting them in the mouths of their gods:
– sometimes limiting God’s orders for compassion strictly to those within one’s own community (that is, brutality towards outsiders is permissible, and sometimes even a direct order);
– sometimes expanding God’s directions for compassion to all humanity;
– sometimes—as found in the Judeo-Christian Bible—an incongruent mix of both of the above;
– sometimes, as is with Jainism, compassion is aimed at all living creatures, even—incredibly—mosquitoes:
All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law …
Akaranga Sutra, First Book,
Fourth Lecture (Righteousness), First Lesson: 1–2
De Waal’s take on morality and religion:
Once this sensibility [kindness aimed at family and potential reciprocators] had come into existence, its range expanded. At some point, sympathy for others became a goal in itself: the centerpiece of human morality and an essential aspect of religion. Thus, Christianity urges us to love our neighbor as ourselves, clothe the naked, feed the poor, and tend the sick. It is good to realize, though, that in stressing kindness, religions are enforcing what is already part of our humanity. They are not turning human behavior around, only underlining pre-existing capacities. How could it be otherwise? One cannot sow the seeds of morality on unwilling soil … (p. 181).
Modern religions are only a few thousand years old. It’s hard to imagine that human psychology was radically different before religions arose. It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being the most conspicuous in the bonobo and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply these tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in the works since time immemorial (p. 225).
(NOTE: I uploaded a three-part video series of me reading this post on my YouTube channel [http://www.youtube.com/user/ToddAllenGates]: see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6jTAV9BJg4.)
 Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts are taken from Frans De Waal’s Our Inner Ape.
 In everyday language, the words ape and monkey are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, however, apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans—are not monkeys (the easiest way to tell the difference is that apes don’t have tails). As for the evolutionary line that leads to humans, our most recent common ancestor with monkeys goes back some 25 million years. With orangutans it goes back some 14 million years; with gorillas, 8 to 11 million years; and with chimps and bonobos, 5 to 7 million years. Chimps and bonobos and even gorillas, in other words, are much more closely related to humans than they’re related to monkeys. (Chimps and bonobos split from each other after they split from the human line, so both are equally close to us.)