Social Genes

Fascinating piece in the post today, related to how scientists are finding evolutionary basis for human morality.

Pic via MrFarber on Flickr

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results — many of them published just in recent months — are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe’s head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not “handed down” by philosophers and clergy, but “handed up,” an outgrowth of the brain’s basic propensities.

In one 2004 brain-imaging experiment, Greene asked volunteers to imagine that they were hiding in a cellar of a village as enemy soldiers came looking to kill all the inhabitants. If a baby was crying in the cellar, Greene asked, was it right to smother the child to keep the soldiers from discovering the cellar and killing everyone?

The reason people are slow to answer such an awful question, the study indicated, is that emotion-linked circuits automatically signaling that killing a baby is wrong clash with areas of the brain that involve cooler aspects of cognition. One brain region activated when people process such difficult choices is the inferior parietal lobe, which has been shown to be active in more impersonal decision-making. This part of the brain, in essence, was “arguing” with brain networks that reacted with visceral horror.

Such studies point to a pattern, Greene said, showing “competing forces that may have come online at different points in our evolutionary history. A basic emotional response is probably much older than the ability to evaluate costs and benefits.”

Why is it that people who are willing to help someone in front of them will ignore abstract pleas for help from those who are distant, such as a request for a charitable contribution that could save the life of a child overseas?

“We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn’t face the other kind of situation,” Greene said. “It is comforting to think your moral intuitions are reliable and you can trust them. But if my analysis is right, your intuitions are not trustworthy. Once you realize why you have the intuitions you have, it puts a burden on you” to think about morality differently.

I guess we (and other animals) are really social beings…It also means that its easy for us to empathize and interact with people in face to face settings…This really presents a dilemma for social media where the geographical or even chronological proximity is not required for most interactions…I am pretty sure our genes provide no direction on what to do there? What do you think?

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