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Right and wrong is in our genes


Published May 6, 2007


A young couple engaged to be married is slain by a bunch of religious fanatics because the intended are seen walking together.

The Iranian Supreme Court approves.

That was the verdict issued last month by the Islamic republic's high court. It found a group of six vigilantes were justified in slaughtering five people they viewed as morally corrupt.

Such a backward judgment makes me feel entirely divorced from the Iranian court's understanding of right and wrong. Does their moral compass and our own really share the same essential human instincts for discerning ethical conduct?

Yes, say modern evolutionary biologists, who claim that human moral intuition is largely inherited, as opposed to a cultural acquisition. And the evidence seems to suggest they are right.

Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor of psychology, organismic and evolutionary biology and biological anthropology, interviewed in Discover magazine, says that all humans have "some kind of unconscious process driving moral judgments without its being accessible to conscious reflection."

Hauser gives the example of five people who are in need of organ transplants and a healthy man walks into the hospital. Nearly everyone asked if it is morally acceptable to kill the healthy man to provide life-saving organs to the five others, answers no. But in another example, where a speeding trolley is about to kill five people, most people agree that it is permissible to flip a switch and reroute the trolley so that it will kill only one person.

The outcomes are the same, one person sacrificed to save five others, yet people of all types of backgrounds come up with the same contrasting judgments for the two examples and they often can't explain the distinction.

Humans have an inherent sense of fair play and the idea that hurting someone intentionally, such as strapping them down and harvesting their organs, is worse than doing so as collateral damage to a larger rescue (hence the use of that phrase by modern warmongers).

In his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Hauser fleshes out his thesis, that moral philosophy - the realm of Sir Thomas More, Immanuel Kant and other great thinkers - is really a matter of genetic science.

The rules that govern society are culturally variable, Hauser says, but they generally emanate from an innate moral grammar that has evolved through the process of group selection. In other words, what we understand as morality is not so much a learned system of conduct but a Darwinian adaptation - a mechanism for our species' survival.

The argument goes that humans are social animals and depend on group interactions for food and other necessities. Groups work better when members can trust one another and practice reciprocity. Because humans can quickly identify a breach of trust, they can readily punish a transgressor. Over time, those who demonstrate more cooperative and trustworthy tendencies can build a more cohesive society and will have a survival advantage.

Now, as to the Iranian honor killings, Hauser believes that while humans across societies innately understand concepts of fairness, gratitude, sympathy and other basic moral values, how a culture translates those into social norms is idiosyncratic. "Depending on the cultural climate," Hauser writes, "killing is not only permissible but justified, excusable, and expected."

A crime of passion, such as killing a cheating spouse in the act, is partially excused because humans see it as an uncontrolled reaction to a serious breach of trust. In other cultures, this is taken to such an extreme that any perceived sexual transgression, including the most innocent immodesty, invites a violent response.

As an atheist, I find this research intriguing because some religious people think that the only source of morality is faith.

Yet, given the same objective tests, researchers have found that people come to the same moral conclusions regardless of religious background or lack of one. According to Hauser, "the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine." The primary principles of morality are coded in our DNA.

Kant thought that the human capacity for reason and choice was the source of each person's moral sense and worth. What he didn't realize was the way tens of thousands of years of human evolution had molded our brains. What we believe to be a reasoned moral choice may really be an electrical impulse designed to help our ancient ancestors survive. Imagine that.

?? Copyright 2002-2007, St. Petersburg Times

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