Archive for October 18th, 2010

Frans de Waal / Wiki images

Yeah, yeah … it’s bad form to discuss politics and religion in polite company. Shoot me now, but I’ve never been able to take either of those issues off the table no matter how well behaved fellow talkers may be, even though I’m well aware of how pointless debate on the topics always is.

Up until recently, my world has been mainly peopled by those whose biggest religious difference amounted to disagreements over how god-like they were … or weren’t, that being closer to my view. Lately, though, the potential scope of the divide created a rift valley that makes the one in Africa seem no bigger than the gap between my two front teeth … a cute little trademark (I’ve been told) that only becomes inconvenient when I bite into hot pizza.

Of course the debate rages and rears its ugly head one hell of a lot lately. Much of the blame for the spate of suicides amongst gay teens lately can be laid directly at the genuflected knees of the christian self-rightous, and the Tea Party race to pull the US back to 19th century thinking divides the country in ways that are hard to follow, much less absorb.

No idea why it’s taking three paragraphs to get to the point of this post, but this article from the NY Times is what I’m all about.

Written by one of my personal heroes, Dr. Frans de Waal, and titled “Morals Without God?”, it says it all brilliantly, making and substantiating points I consider unassailable on evolution and altruism, on religion and logical reasons for, and on atheism in its various manifestations.

Take for example Dr. de Waal’s observations on the deeper meanings of “inequity aversion” in chimps … a process whereby chimpanzees don’t like it one bit when things aren’t fair:

According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

I find it interesting that hardcore atheist Richard Dawkins shares at least part of the view held by christians that postulates humans are born flawed, although his idea of gaining redemption has more to do with socialization than baptism and salvation.

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.

Frans de Waal disagrees and gives evolutionary biological arguments in favor of our species having more good going for us that we realize.

Even though altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers, this does not make it selfishly motivated. Future benefits rarely figure in the minds of animals. For example, animals engage in sex without knowing its reproductive consequences, and even humans had to develop the morning-after pill. This is because sexual motivation is unconcerned with the reason why sex exists. The same is true for the altruistic impulse, which is unconcerned with evolutionary consequences. It is this disconnect between evolution and motivation that befuddled the Veneer Theorists, and made them reduce everything to selfishness. The most quoted line of their bleak literature says it all: “Scratch an ‘altruist,’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”

Then later in the article:

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity. This is of course no reason to call such behavior “selfish” as it would make the word totally meaningless. A selfish individual has no trouble walking away from another in need. Someone is drowning: let him drown. Someone cries: let her cry. These are truly selfish reactions, which are quite different from empathic ones. Yes, we experience a “warm glow,” and perhaps some other animals do as well, but since this glow reaches us via the other, and only via the other, the helping is genuinely other-oriented.

The idea that god separates us from the animals and makes humanity human, meaning that without a god people would revert to savagery … or never would have left it … is addressed very well, right after this quote from Al Sharpton that echos a wide belief in religious circles: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.”

Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.

Nope … it’s not just you Doc!

Even Martin Luther King Jr. … a man of the cloth and professionally religious … appeared to understand that we’re equipped the at least some of the right stuff when he said, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness,” although he may well have gone on to insist that can only be done under certain well-dictated formulas.

I get it that ignoring the science is a huge part of the system that keeps the faithful from questioning, as Dr. de Waal puts it: Deep down, creationists realize they will never win factual arguments with science. This is why they have construed their own science-like universe, known as Intelligent Design, and eagerly jump on every tidbit of information that seems to go their way.

What I don’t get is how that continues to happen in a modern world with high literacy rates. Sure, we once filled in the gaps of our knowledge with fantastical fairy tales … that was a function of language … but eventually learned that the world is round, that thunder isn’t anyone yelling at us, that smoking really isn’t good for a body and where babies come from.

We’re nowhere near the end of our learning, but it is interesting how some choose to cherry-pick what science they buy and what gets rejected out-of-hand. Our brains are bigger than those of other primates, (but don’t have any extra parts, so it’s plain enough our relation), yet they seem to have a better handle on what it takes to form and maintain cohesive societies with no need of some dude sitting in judgement to keep them from annihilating each other and the world around them. We started at the same place, so where did we screw it up?

It’s a human thing, as Dr. de Waal points out: Humans are so sensitive to public opinion that we only need to see a picture of two eyes glued to the wall to respond with good behavior, which explains the image in some religions of an all-seeing eye to symbolize an omniscient God.

We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.

So, that’s what it’s all about: justification, monitoring and punishment. That says a mouthful, don’t it? It takes a human to us/them, and doesn’t that just work out so well. Not. Why anyone would choose to deny common roots with non-human primates is as puzzling to me as why some insist that homosexuality is a choice without wondering why anyone would jump into that very difficult life. Apparently humans on the whole need to relinquish person responsibility, need to judge and be judged and base actions on results.

I leave the summation to Dr. de Waal:

I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

I can just hope we eventually evolve to be a bit smarter ….

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