Monday, March 3, 2008

Evolution of Human Morality

An interesting report in the Economist on a panel discussion among some eminent biologists about human morality at the recent AAAS meeting. And the author seems surprised that biologists are "invading" a field that was supposedly safe in the hands of "philosophers"! If evolutionary biology can explain so much about the evolution and functioning of our own bodies and minds, why should a supposedly complex behavior such as "morality" be off limits to biologists? The article only touches on some of the intriguing ideas, but you should dig up other writings of some of the people mentioned.
Particularly intriguing is the research by David Sloan Wilson and Ingrid Storm of SUNY, Binghamton on conservative vs. liberal teenagers:

He and his colleague Ingrid Storm looked at liberals and conservatives (in the American senses of the words). Each group has a package of values it sees as moral, while viewing many of the beliefs of the other side as immoral. Dr Wilson and Dr Storm restricted their study to white, Protestant teenagers, in order to eliminate confounding variables. However, their volunteers came from two different traditions—Pentecostal, which tends to the conservative, and Episcopalian, which tends to the liberal.

The researchers conducted the study by giving each volunteer a beeper that went off every two hours or so. When it beeped, the volunteer answered a questionnaire about what he was doing at that moment, and how he felt about it.

Dr Wilson and Dr Storm found several unexpected differences between the groups. Liberal teenagers always felt more stress than conservatives, but were particularly stressed if they could not decide for themselves whom they spent time with. Such choice, or the lack of it, did not change conservative stress levels. Liberals were also loners, spending a quarter of their time on their own. Conservatives were alone for a sixth of the time. That may have been related to the fact that liberals were equally bored by their own company and that of others. Conservatives were far less bored when with other people. They also preferred the company of relatives to non-relatives. Liberals were indifferent. Perhaps most intriguingly, the more religious a liberal teenager claimed to be, the more he was willing to confront his parents with dissenting beliefs. The opposite was true for conservatives.

Dr Wilson suspects that the liberal package of individualism and confrontation is the appropriate response to survival in a stable environment in which there is leisure for learning and reflection, and the consequences for a group's stability of such dissent are low. The conservative package of collectivism and conformity, by contrast, works in an unstable environment where joint action, and thus obedience to their group, are at a premium. It is an interesting suggestion, and it is one that plays into the question of how morality actually evolved.
Intrigued? Read the rest of the article here.

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