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Is morality a result of evolution?

JeroenJeroen Luminous beings are we, not this crude matterNetherlands Veteran
edited May 2017 in Philosophy

This morning I came across this wonderful and life-positive TED talk by Dr Frans de Waal, which suggests that morality and ethics are not necessarily just human traits but are also possessed by some animals such as various species of monkeys and elephants.

This makes me seriously wonder if humanity's thinking may not have taken a wrong turn. The primitive but very social behaviour shown in the animal video's in the TED talk makes me think that the primal, tribal behaviour which we as humans would have had would be in many ways better than what most members of the species exhibit today.

It could be that the trend towards individualism and materialism (and thus desire and greed) is not at all what humans evolved for, but that these things are a result of urbanisation and increasing population density, the decrease of the significance of the tribe. We see so many people every time we take a trip by train or bus that it's hard to stay compassionate for them all.

Anyway... finding out that animals also develop morality, fairness and so on quite naturally from the social group made me happy :)


  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    I think a lot of our problems come down to our sheer population size. It is natural in so many animals, including us, to be tribal. But it is hard to maintain that (even leaving room for the acceptance of other "tribes") when we are all now crammed together. Because our sense of tribalism isn't remotely the same anymore we focus on individualism with some of the traits from our tribes (such as traditions of our heritage ancestors etc). But at the same time, tribalism is what has caused people to defend their way of life since the beginning of time. Once our population started growing with the advent of agriculture, our wars with each other really took off because our borders started touching a lot more. So then one tribe wants to take from another to have more for their people etc etc. Animals still go through this as well.

    We get to observe nature a lot where we live. We do not have elephants and other highly intelligent animals though, lol. But despite the videos you see online of strange animals becoming friends and so on (a wolf and a deer or whatever) animals are still so primal. Many intelligent male animals kill the babies of the females in order to mate with them, for example. I've seen a bear exhibit grief over the loss of a cub. I've always seen the remains of other cubs when a male bear killed them to mate with the mother. And I've seen mother bears abandon their cubs for no apparent reason (ie the cub wasn't weak or ill). Of our animals here, bears are quite emotionally intelligent compared to most. But they still operate from a very base survival and I think that instinct would still come into play (survival) or morality for most of them. For us that is true still of course, too. For most of us anyways. But we have the capacity to weigh that. Most of us do not kill the children of other humans in order to mate out of a drive for species survival, for example.

    I don't really have a point, LOL. Just thinking aloud. I know a lot of people who live in cities and don't get to experience nature who tend to think the wrong thing about animals because of online videos. That doesn't mean the cute videos aren't real (and I'm not comparing to your TED talk, I have not watched it yet, this is just a related observation) but a lot of people don't understand that they don't always represent the majority of interaction between wild animals. Nature is cruel, as they say, and that tends to be true. I watch deer beat the tar out of each other over of food every day. Same with birds. I watched a raven eat a baby chipmunk the other day. My sister's dog killed a nest of baby bunnies. I know that the behaviors in your video aren't the same, and I don't dispute their intelligence and even sense of some kind of morality especially in their tribe. But there is probably a lot of cruelness in there, too, that we just don't see.

  • BuddhadragonBuddhadragon Ehipassiko & Carpe Diem Samsara Veteran

    I read long ago that morality was the trait of a civilized society.
    Therefore, the difference between what is considered a society and a mere bundle of huts gathered together, is the definition of a moral code of sorts to be applied to the group.

    Naturally, morality varies from society to society, and things that are condoned in certain countries are viewed as morally censurable in others.

    It is interesting that the Buddha lay such strong emphasis in the inclusion of morality as part of the combo to attain cessation of dukkha.
    Sila prevents the defilements from dictating our line of conduct, while at the same time helps us establish more harmonious relationships with our fellow sentient beings.

    "First establish yourself in the starting point of wholesome states, that is, in purified moral discipline and in right view.
    Then, when your moral discipline is purified and your view straight, you should practise the four foundations of mindfulness."
    (SN 47:3)

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran

    IMO our basic sense of prosocial behavior comes from our evolved animal instincts. I think from that base we've used our intelligence to add stories to those feelings to either increase or decrease behaviors in certain ways.

    Regarding a tribal mentality, there is some researcher (can't remember the name right now) who says that peoples max capacity for relations is about 150. He breaks it down to something like 5 in the innermost circle, then some increasing number in concentric circles of intimacy that has a pretty hard cap. Even in today's populated world we have these kinds of tribes, maybe not as much with the people physically close to us but instead our tribes consist of people we have common interests with.

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    Is morality a result of evolution?

    Yes ...and evolution's got a 'lot' to answer for ...

  • techietechie India Veteran

    Social morality is certainly a product of evolution. Buddha was against it.

    There is another kind of morality born of intuition - you just know what's right and what's wrong (not because society says so). This is a different thing altogether.

  • KundoKundo Sydney, Australia Veteran

    @Shoshin said:

    Is morality a result of evolution?

    Yes ...and evolution's got a 'lot' to answer for ...


  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    @techie said:
    There is another kind of morality born of intuition - you just know what's right and what's wrong (not because society says so). This is a different thing altogether.

    My experience is we can increase and deepen this capacity of intuitive knowing. In order to do so we may have to become increasingly clear of animal, intellectual and emotional behavour. This is transcendence, unfolding the Heart Rose, Awakening, Realisation etc.

    For many of us on the path to 'intuitive morality', we can choose to align with (in our case) the Buddhas, Sangha and Dharma as the means and methods of travel ...

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