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The Goodness of Being Animal December 1, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Science.

Time Magazine’s cover story for their December 3 issue is a fascinating summary of recent work in understanding the biological and evolutionary basis of morality.

“The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality that other species share.”

This research, which includes animal studies, investigations into the neurobiology associated with moral behavior, and child development studies, suggests that human beings have a genetically encoded moral compass that has emerged through eons of evolution.

This research is in its infancy and there are limits to how much science can tell us about moral conduct. However, if the research stands up to scrutiny, there are a variety of widely held myths that must be set aside.

Myth #1 would be the pernicious belief in original sin–the doctrine that human beings are inherently corrupt and can lead morally good lives only through God’s grace. Apparently, the capacity for morality is as deeply embedded in human nature as the capacity for savagery.

Myth #2 is the belief that, because evolution prescribes  “survival of the fittest”, evolution has designed us to be self absorbed moral cretins eager to slay anything that piddles on our property. Instead, apparently, “fitness” is in part bound up with the capacity to recognize and respond to the vulnerability of other human beings.

Myth #3 is the idea that becoming moral is a matter of overcoming our animal nature, an idea for which we have Christianity and Kant to thank. Apparently, to be moral we ought to embrace our animal nature–an idea for which we have Nietzche to thank.

Myth #4 is related to #3–the idea that becoming moral is a matter of becoming more rational and less emotional. Apparently, it is rational to embrace at least some of our emotional responses.

This biological and psychological research reduces the plausibility of Kantian and (some?) utilitarian moral frameworks. It enhances the plausibility of Aristotelian ethics and the ethics of care because both revel in the goodness of being animal.



1. G. K. - December 1, 2007

Myth #1- No Christian defends the position that anyone leads a practically moral life, perfect from all stain. Instead Christ is a moral proxy, through him are all Christians made righteous.

Myth#2- An evolutionary “altruism”, quite ironically, can never be. Peering behind every sacrifice, sharing, or act of selflessness is some form of self-interest. One can act for a benefit that is given to a loved one (a mother ape loving another ape’s son, so that ape will treat her son well) or act to procure a long delayed reward (an ape sharing a trove of fruit, which she probably can’t eat alone anyway, to receive the same benefit days away). Self-interest need not always be blantantly pursued, but to those whose perception is blunted, some apparent social magnanimity among apes allows them to escape being called “moral cretins.”

Myth #3 I think you have a double meaning there for “animal nature.” Would Nietzche have a 21st century evolutionary neurobiologist’s conception of that term, or even have enough to be consider compatible?

Myth#4 I revel in the goodness of being animal everyday, and I ascribe to none of the ethical theories you list.

I am glad that you fairly represent Kant’s view of morality as becoming Spock of Star Trek.

2. Moriae - December 2, 2007

Brief Comment #1. Contained in the submission is the remark, “This research is in its infancy and there are limits to how much science can tell us about moral conduct.” I question whether the use of “infancy” is really applicable. If we mean it in geological terms, then “infancy” wouldn’t be too objectionable. And if it were in its infancy, wouldn’t it be a bit premature to begin stating what the “limits” might be to what we’ll learn? In point of fact, this field has been a going concern since publication George William’s 1966 revolutionary book, “Adaptation and Natural Selection,” that led to a wholesale reevaluation of evolutionary implications from stem to stern. This was closely followed by Robert Trivers’ work on “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism” in 1971, which many of us read with great interest in college, some thirty-five years ago. I still remember how heated our discussions were of his next piece was, “Parental Investment and Sexual Selection” in 1972. Many of us I remember even took pleasure in the fact that Robert Trivers was one of the few “white” Black Panthers. It was an irony we all enjoyed when the liberals of that day vigorously object to the so-called fascist tendencies of the new evolutionary thought being published.

3. Nina Rosenstand - December 5, 2007

Very good TIME article–it succeeds, in a clear and engaging style, in bringing together the threads of discussion from earlier this year, coming from neuroscientists as well as utilitarians (Singer) and other ethicists. But of course it just scratches the surface–and indeed, this research is in its infancy when viewed as hard science–this goes beyond the sociobiological studies of the 1970s (Dawkins, Wilson). Never before have we had actual neurobiological evidence of various functions of the mind. Darwin also speculated that evolution favored an increasingly moral human population, but this doesn’t mean he had the evidence to back it up. But, as we have discussed in an earlier blog, science can only tell us how we deliberate–not whether our moral choices are right.
What amazes me is that the theory of psychological egoism still has such a pull on people. It goes against human experience as well as common sense, and even logic, and yet people are willing to believe that everything we always do is fundamentally selfish. James Rachels, that wonderful man, suggested that it is a mixture of misplaced honesty and cynicism. Mary Midgley, feisty British philosopher, points out that if all acts are selfish, then how do you explain that some actions appear more selfish than others? Let us not forget that the choice is not between “egoism” and “altruism.” That’s way too simple—we are complex critters. Most of our actions have a bit of both in them; and reducing everything to selfishness is as meaningless as reducing everything to altruism.

4. Joseph - December 6, 2007

Myth #1 The belief of human beings living good lives only through God’s is a belief for all Christians and people who believe in God. But in reality this causes less savagery in our society by having less corruption and chaos in the world, wanting to be a good person maybe a myth for some but the only way for others.
Myth #2 This myth is what will happen to the future of our society, in 1,000 years we will all be similar color in race, with human beings being “choosier” of their life partner mates. Causing for more perfect and attractive humans that depend on technology, but with the possibility to lessen social skills by losing the abilities to love, communicate, have sympathy, respect for others.

Myth #3 Morality will always be an issue when it comes to human beings, trying to separate ourselves from the primate and keep evolving. For this we have our gadgets, our social classes, and our choosy minds. To keep us separated from these creatures, which we share resemblance and emotions with.

Myth #4 Rationality is a plus and emotion is not as important, this could cause an issue in the future. As I stated in myth 2, humans are going to lose the ability to share these emotions which we need in daily life, humans need to be loved, noticed, communicated with, respected. Rationality is a goal towards morality, but emotions cannot be forgotten.

5. Moriae - December 9, 2007

For those interested, here is a partial list of books pertaining to this subject:

Pinker, Steven, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. 2002. Penguin.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. 2006. Oxford.

Wright, Robert The Moral Animal, Why We Are the Way We Are, The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology c. 1994 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. New York.

Buss, David M. The Evolution of Desire, Strategies of Human Mating, 1994, Basic Books.

Buss, David M. The Dangerous Passion, Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex, c. 2000 by The Free Press, div. of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York

Buss, David M. The Murderer Next Door, Why the Mind is Designed to Kill. 2005, Penguin Books.

Baker, Robin Sperm Wars, Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles c. 1996 by Thunder’s Mouth Press, Imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc., New York

Baker, Dr. Robert, and Oram, Elizabeth Baby Wars, The Dynamics of Family Conflict c. 1998 by The Ecco Press, Hopewell, New Jersey

Johnston, Victor s. Why We Feel. The Science of Human Emotions. 1999. Perseus Books.

Fisher, Helen, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. 2004. Henry Holt Co.

Kohl, James V.; Francoeur, Robert T. The Scent of Eros: Mysteries of Odors in Human Sexuality. 1995. Continuum Books.

Hauser, Marc. Moral Minds. How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. 2006. Ecco Books.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. 1995. Touchstone.

Diamond, Jared The Third Chimpanzee, The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal: c. 1992 by Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., New York

Etcoff, Nancy Survival of the Prettiest, The Science of Beauty c. 1999 by Anchor Books, division of Random House Inc., New York.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies.

Born to Rebel : Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, Sulloway, Frank J. Pantheon, 1996

Irrationality: An Essay on Akrasia, Self-Deception, and Self-Control
Mele, Alfred R. Oxford, 1992

Hunt, Morton, THE NEW KNOW-NOTHINGS: The Political Foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature, Transaction, 1998

Thornhill, Randy; Palmer, Craig T., A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, MIT Press, 2002.

Ford, Charles V., Lies! Lies!! Lies!!!: The Psychology of Deceit, American Psyh., 1998.

6. Nina Rosenstand - December 9, 2007

Thanks for the list, a great compilation of books on the philosophy of human nature. I would like to add E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature, 1978, Mary Midgley, Beast and Man, 1995, and Antonio Damasio’s books. Not sure what your point is, though; if you want to share a good read with us, this is a good start. However, I suspect you’re trying to show that this is not a new topic. Some of us have indeed been doing research into Philosophy of Human Nature for 30+ years. Please see my book The Human Condition (2002), and its bibliography. You can find it on McGraw-Hill’s website. But this is not what Dwight and I are referring to when we call it a science in its infancy. For one thing, research that only dates back 15-30 years is “new,” in the greater scheme of things. But more importantly, as I mentioned above, the links between brain research and human/animal behavior are only just coming together, with research by Damasio and others, as late as the spring of 2007. And BTW, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene came out in 1976.

7. Moriae - December 10, 2007

Actually that wasn’t my intent at all. I simply thought some people who read this blog might simply like a list of accessible materials despite no intent to be exhaustive. Sometimes it simply is what it is. In this case an admittedly partial list.

8. Nina Rosenstand - December 11, 2007

Moriae (nice alias),
In that case, great list! We’re enjoying your contributions.

9. Moriae - December 12, 2007

Thank you Ms. Rosenstand, regarding the Dawkins’ book I deliberately chose the 2006 30th Anniversary issue. It includes his 1st Preface, the very famous Forward by Robert Trivers (which led to his own further research into self-deception), also it includes Dawkins’ Preface to his second edition, then lastly, his lengthy Introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition, which is 8 pages long.

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