Much has been written on these forum pages in the past weeks concerning the source and justification of human morals. On the one side N24 author Johannes van Zyl posits that there is one source of absolute and objective human morals, and that is the Christian God. He asserts that the moral code that is part and parcel of all humans comes directly from God insofar as this moral code is absolute and unchanging, and is completely objective. He also asserts that all people have this Christian God given gift imbued in their psyche, even persons of other belief systems such as Muslims and Hindus, and especially atheists. They just don’t know that it comes from the “Only True God”, the Christian God. Personally I strongly disagree with this hypothesis.
N24 author Shaun Stanley has made a counter argument refuting these claims, showing that Johan’s claims are on very weak foundations as far as philosophy is concerned. Shaun has shown that there can be an objective morality without the existence of the Christian God. Personally I agree with this viewpoint.
I would like to present here a hypothesis on the source of human morals, not based on creationist theology, as in the case of Johannes, or from a philosophical viewpoint, as in the case for Shaun. My hypothesis relies on the scientific viewpoint of the Theory of Evolution, first espoused by Charles Darwin, and explained in some detail w.r.t. the actual mechanism by the Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene (before he became a militant atheist and Christians hated him) and how mutation and natural selection provides us with a *moral compass*.
The hypothesis is based on many tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of years of human evolution, even before Homo Sapiens Sapiens spent their lives as hunter-gatherers. This process probably started even earlier with the existence of the species Homo Habilus and Homo Erectus. In this environment two fundamental urges, the first being to stay alive, and the second being to drive the humans to procreate, were the prime drivers for their existence. By doing this the human species was doing what the natural laws of evolution drove them to do, extend their genes into following generations, and ensure the survivability of the species.
During this period of evolution, the human brain also evolved, initially driven by strong emotions and basic instincts, and later developing traits such as human reasoning. As the human species became more *civilized*, and humans became more agricultural and living together in societies, different societal behaviors tended to become more ingrained in the society.
If one follows the tenet that evolution follows the path of least resistance in coming up with solutions that are the most adequate for a certain environment at a certain point in time, it can be assumed that this path not only include abilities to run faster (to better catch prey), but also abilities to survive better in a certain societal environment, and that includes emotions and instincts. As emotions is probably the prime driver for morals, morals also evolved in this way.
In a certain population of organisms, including humans, certain traits will be favoured more than others by the process of natural selection in a particular environment, with the prime driver for this being the ultimate long-term survivability of the population. This means that the members of the population that has more favourable traits for propagation have a higher probability of propagating their genes into future generations. Therefore the trait of emotions that drives morals will also follow this exact same mechanism. For instance, to take a very simple example, the propensity for stealing for one’s own benefit is opposite to the moral value that stealing is wrong. All humans have a relative subjective value of this moral, “do not steal”. In some individuals this moral is very strong, and for others weaker. For an individual the act of stealing is more favourable for his short-term advantage, but is less advantageous for the society.
It just worked out that way that in a particular population the moral of not stealing was more favourable, and the members with this predisposition were more likely to have their genes propagated into the future. It was most probably due to the fact that stealers (thieves) were expelled from the society in some way, or simply killed. So more individuals with a moral value of “stealing is wrong” would tend to be more prevalent in subsequent generations. It turns out that the maxim of the great philosopher, Mr. Spock, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and of the one”, was simply true in this case.
The exact mechanism works in the following way; the human DNA carries the information that during the embryonic development of the human, certain neural pathways are established in the human brain. This includes aspects of instinct, emotions, and morals. After birth, a baby’s brain can perform quite amazing feats. It knows how to breathe and keep it’s body functioning, it can see, feel and hear, and it has some propensity of learning a language. It also has some instincts and emotions that relate to morality that will more fully develop later in its life. This is IMO the primary driver for morals.
After a baby is born it experiences the influence of the society, starting with its mother and father. Later the norms of the society is implanted in its brain, due to interacting with the society, as in going to school, church etc. This is the secondary driver for a human’s moral values. This secondary driver for morals can be considered as part of the environment that evolution uses to perform its selection mechanism. The individuals that survive the best in this environment will also be the most successful, and their ability to procreate will be better than those that are less successful in their environment.
Much has been said in regards to the objectivity vs. subjectivity of human morals. In this hypothesis the morals that resides in the human brain/mind is subjective, but the moral values that are advantageous for the survival of the species are objective, independent of what an individual’s opinion of these values are. These moral values are objective but not absolute, as the values will change according to the exact environment that the society would find itself in at a certain point in time. As the environment of humans vary over time, the objective human moral values will change in sync with these changes.
Another point that was debated furiously was the “justification” of human morals. It was said that in the one case, the Creationist hypothesis, the justification is the loving Christian God. In the philosophical argument (as I understand it), objective morals are also possible due to naturalistic causes without the intervention of any gods. In the evolution hypothesis the justification for good morals is simply the best solution that the evolutionary selection mechanism has come up for a certain environment that the organism, i.e. humans found itself in at a certain point in time. If one agrees that life is a good thing, then the justification of good morals is simply that it is one of the methods that will engender the process of providing for enabling this “good” life.
This hypothesis of course disavows the creationist’s opinion that people that do not believe in the God or Christian message has no or defective moral values. It also discredits the notion that an atheistic world will have no morals and we will all go on spurts of raping and pillaging.
So in conclusion, my hypothesis states the following:
1) Human morals come directly from the process of biological evolution.
2) Human morals reside in the human mind, and are subjective.
3) Certain human morals can be seen as objective, as they will prove to be advantageous for the survival of the human species, independent of any human’s subjective opinion of them.
4) The justification of human morals is simply a mechanism that provides for life to continue existing. Nothing more and nothing less.
5) The hypothesis of biological evolution is a necessary and sufficient explanation of the origin of objective and subjective human morals that need no intervention of the Christian God, or any other gods.
A related question that often comes up in the creation vs. evolution debate is where does religion come from. I.e. why is religion so prevalent in the world? And what is it good for?
The answer to this question can also be answered by the biological evolution hypothesis. Evolution by natural selection has inculcated humans with instincts and emotions. These instincts and emotions exist due to that fact that they were selected for by the process of natural selection, as they were more favourable for the long-term survival of the human species.
One of the instincts or emotions that were selected for, and that is still very prevalent in the human condition today is the emotion of the numinous (adjective) experience, or numinousness (noun). It turns out that this is a very powerful emotion that inspires feelings of awe and wonder in the beholder, as well as the feeling of divine or supernatural presence. This emotion creates a feeling that can be equated to “the need to believe”. This emotion is IMO the prime driver for believing that an external supernatural agent is responsible for natural events in the real world. Initially it probably originated with the hypotheses that spirits are in the stones and trees, the dead ancestors had some effect on the material world, and the gods of rain had to be appeased in order that the drought would end and ensuring a good harvest. This basic concept has also “evolved” over time to the point that we have the modern religions we have today.
This emotion is also so strong and the foundational or “proper” belief system that sprouts from this emotion is so well embedded in the human psyche that you will have great difficulty in convinci`ng adherents of a certain belief system to change their views regarding their beliefs. In many cases, especially from the camp of the fundamental Christians, this will also tend to vigorously oppose the existence of the mechanism of biological evolution.
Together with this natural emotion, in most cases the young mind of a child is subjected to the message of religion, and this tends to embed a strong foundational belief system in the mind of the child. Also influential in the formation of this belief system, is the emotion of “fear of death”, that is also a very strong emotional trait forthcoming from evolution. Religion solves this quandary that every biological entity eventually dies off, by promising an eternal afterlife if you follow their rules, and an eternal damnation if you don’t.
It is not 100% clear why this emotion of numinousness was selected by the mechanism of evolution, but the fact that is was selected means that it has some positive value in increasing the survivability of the species. It is also not clear that if this emotion was selected for in the natural environment that existed in the time of primitive man, that this emotion is still valuable for survival in the modern world we live in today. If not the prevalence of religion will diminish in generations to come, as natural selection will tend to discriminate against it. If it is still valuable today, then religion will prevail in society. Only time will tell.
The indirect reference used for this essay was The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and selected portions from the works of Charles Ray Gould.