Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.Chimp communities have methods for deflating internecine conflict. An instinct toward diffusing tensions within social groups has obvious social advantages:
If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands.This behavior can also be thought of as a precursor to social compromise and reciprocity, which in turn allows for groups to grow much larger than what is feasible in communities of one or a few dominant males and those subservient to them.
Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.
It is not without costs, however. Fit males are unable to capitalize on their full procreative potential. Scarce resources must be shared, and big finds are more quickly consumed. Warfare likely forced humans, out of necessity, to 'transcend' these restraints:
As Dr. de Waal sees it, human morality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries, with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. “The profound irony is that our noblest achievement — morality — has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior — warfare,” he writes. “The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter.”From these localized beginnings, human morality has become increasingly ecumenical. Religion is a tangible representation of this phenomenon, and has helped facilitate it. It generally followed a similar path, from localized animism and shamanism, to regional supernatural narratives in Nordic and Greek mythology, to the universal accessibility of Christianity, and (arguably) to pluralistic humanism that is unconditionally all-inclusive.
The degree of moral sophistication likely differs between contemporary populations as well. Anglo populations descended from northwestern Europe seem to have gone the farthest, as evidenced by their propensity to engage in costly undertakings with a determination to make the world a better place for all its denizens. The leadership in business, media, and politics, all largely see the world from some variation of this universalist/propositionalist perspective. The 'ancient', pugnacious Bushmen are at the other end of the spectrum as the least morally 'evolved'.
In my favorite war strategy game, I find myself forming emotional bonds with the fictional troops I lead. Compromising the strength of an expeditionary force, I keep some warriors who've previously kept me alive garrisoned up uselessly in the center of my encampment just so they won't be at risk. This is absurd and self-destructive. But it is genuine. As a vegetarian and 'practitioner' of ahimsa, I'm a pretty extreme example, though my ancestry is Scottish and English.
I throw out the 's and the bit of self-indulgence as a segue into the question of how evolutionarily beneficial such moral ecumenicism is to human fitness going foward. Will it lead to self-immolation for those societies that extend it to other societies that do not have a universalist conception of morality? Will the latter societies on the receiving end use this moral generosity to overcome those giving it to them?
Randall Parker reports on emotional "brain damage" that inhibits emotive responses in those who've suffered from it:
Consider the following scenario: someone you know has AIDS and plans to infect others, some of whom will die. Your only options are to let it happen or to kill the person.A morality that is extended wide enough to include all levels of an entire society facilitates technological and economic growth by allowing the most industrious in that society to rise to the top.
Do you pull the trigger?
Most people waver or say they could not, even if they agree that in theory they should. But according to a new study in the journal Nature, subjects with damage to a part of the frontal lobe make a less personal calculation.
The logical choice, they say, is to sacrifice one life to save many.
Despite East Asia's IQ advantage over Europe, the latter has been the world's advancing force for the last five centuries. The social immobility in the lands of Confucianism (although Confucianism is often thought of as being distinctly Chinese, it's influence in Korea and Japan has been monumental) retarded the East for hundreds of years, and communism has done so more recently. While China may have more raw human capital, it seems to have been inefficient in its use of that capital. With anxiety and curiousity, we wait to see whether or not China will finally be able to maximize that human potential and become the world's human epicenter.
Yet those with a damaged frontal lobe may have more of an edge than we realize.
As Asia continues to propel itself foward at a staggering rate, the struggle for natural resouces is going to be propelled to unprecedented levels. China alone has 1.3 billion people. At less than 5% of the world's total population, Americans consume about a quarter of the world's energy. China has more than four times as many people as the US. India will become even more populous than China in the coming decades. That's an enormous increase in demand. Will a dumbed down world be able to keep up on the supply side?
A cold logic devoid of emotive moralism may have a real premium in the future. Genetic engineering, a growing share of elder dependents, and claims to scarce resources are all areas in which utilitarian logic may become an absolute necessity.
It's plausible that genetic manipulation will eventually make for customized levels of emotional empathy. Those who are going to be combat soldiers, bounty hunters, and judges are not well served by being sappy. Occupational therapists and caretakers of the senile or handicapped, on the other hand, need to be especially empathetic.