After being shown proudly around the campus of a prestigious American university built in gothic style, Bertrand Russell is said to have exclaimed, “Remarkable. As near Oxford as monkeys can make.” Much earlier, Immanuel Kant had expressed a less ironic amazement, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe … the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Today many who look at morality through a Darwinian lens can’t help but find a charming naïveté in Kant’s thought. “Yes, remarkable. As near morality as monkeys can make.”
So the question is, just how near is that? Optimistic Darwinians believe, near enough to be morality. But skeptical Darwinians won’t buy it. The great show we humans make of respect for moral principle they see as a civilized camouflage for an underlying, evolved psychology of a quite different kind.
This skepticism is not, however, your great-grandfather’s Social Darwinism, which saw all creatures great and small as pitted against one another in a life or death struggle to survive and reproduce — “survival of the fittest.” We now know that such a picture seriously misrepresents both Darwin and the actual process of natural selection. Individuals come and go, but genes can persist for 1000 generations or more. Individual plants and animals are the perishable vehicles that genetic material uses to make its way into the next generation (“A chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg”). From this perspective, relatives, who share genes, are to that extent not really in evolutionary competition; no matter which one survives, the shared genes triumph. Such “inclusive fitness” predicts the survival, not of selfish individuals, but of “selfish” genes, which tend in the normal range of environments to give rise to individuals whose behavior tends to propel those genes into future….
Henry Kissinger claimed that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, but for animals who bear a small number of young over a lifetime, each requiring a long gestation and demanding a great deal of nurturance to thrive into maturity, potential mates who behave selfishly, uncaringly, and unreliably can lose their chance. And beyond mating, many social animals depend upon the cooperation of others for protection, foraging and hunting, or rearing the young. Here, too, power can attract partners, but so can a demonstrable tendency behave cooperatively and share benefits and burdens fairly, even when this involves some personal sacrifice — what is sometimes called “reciprocal altruism.” Baboons are notoriously hierarchical, but Joan Silk, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, and her colleagues, recently reported a long-term study of baboons, in which they found that, among females, maintaining strong, equal, enduring social bonds — even when the individuals were not related — can promote individual longevity more effectively than gaining dominance rank, and can enhance the survival of progeny.
A picture thus emerges of selection for “proximal psychological mechanisms”— for example, individual dispositions like parental devotion, loyalty to family, trust and commitment among partners, generosity and gratitude among friends, courage in the face of enemies, intolerance of cheaters — that make individuals into good vehicles, from the gene’s standpoint, for promoting the “distal goal” of enhanced inclusive fitness…
We can see a cultural evolution in human law and morality — a centuries-long process of overcoming arbitrary distinctions, developing wider communities, and seeking more inclusive shared standards, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Humans Rights. Empathy might induce sympathy more readily when it is directed toward kith and kin, but we rely upon it to understand the thoughts and feelings of enemies and outsiders as well. And the human capacity for learning and following rules might have evolved to enable us to speak a native language or find our place in the social hierarchy, but it can be put into service understanding different languages and cultures, and developing more cosmopolitan or egalitarian norms that can be shared across our differences.
Within my own lifetime, I have seen dramatic changes in civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. That’s just one generation in evolutionary terms. Or consider the way that empathy and the pressure of consistency have led to widespread recognition that our fellow animals should receive humane treatment. Human culture, not natural selection, accomplished these changes, and yet it was natural selection that gave us the capacities that helped make them possible. We still must struggle continuously to see to it that our widened empathy is not lost, our sympathies engaged, our understandings enlarged, and our moral principles followed. But the point is that we have done this with our imperfect, partial, us-ish native endowment. Kant was right to be impressed. In our best moments, we can come surprisingly close to being moral monkeys.