Morality Without God: A Biological Perspective

by Megan Bridges

The following article originally appeared in Brainstorm:

Chimpanzees engaging in consolatory behavior.

Chimpanzees engaging in consolatory behavior.

According to a recently published study, more than half of Americans believe that moral behavior requires the existence of God. In other words, without God, humanity has no sense of right or wrong. Current empirical research, however, suggests quite the opposite–that morality and religion can be independent of one another. Morality is not derived from the teachings of God, but is an innate capacity that is vital for the survival of social mammals.

At the forefront of this research is Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University and the Director of Living Links at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. I had the privilege of hearing Dr. de Waal speak at the University of Pennsylvania in late October 2012, after he was invited to Penn’s campus by the Center for Neuroscience and Society. Sitting in the third row, I listened intently to his lecture, confounded by his claims that animals are empathetic creatures. Just that summer, I had read Howard Bloom’s The Lucifer Principle, in which he argues that organisms are inherently evil. Mr. Bloom’s argument corroborates the popular belief held by many biologists and anthropologists that natural selection favors self-interested individuals. The new and convincing evidence Dr. de Waal presented, however, contradicted my own opinions on the cruelty of animal nature, as well as those held by much of the scientific community until roughly a decade ago.

Unlike Mr. Bloom, Dr. de Waal offers an alternative take on natural selection. He argues that natural selection produces pro-social behaviors, marked by reconciliation, empathy and consolation, and fairness, that enhance cooperation within a group necessary for its survival. Dr. de Waal’s research on elephants and non-human primates, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, reflects the capacity for complex empathy that motivates moral behavior in animals capable of mirror self-recognition.*

During his lecture, Dr. de Waal shared many astounding anecdotes demonstrating the empathetic nature of animals, one of which takes place in a Swedish zoo. A juvenile chimpanzee was near death after it had become entangled in a rope, which wrapped twice around its neck. Noticing the chocking juvenile, the alpha male of the chimpanzee troop approached the juvenile, lifted it, and successfully unwrapped the rope. This required two essential criteria necessary for experiencing empathy: self-other distinction and perspective taking, which allows an individual to understand the situation of another. The alpha male understood that the proper way to save the juvenile was to lift it to relieve the pressure of the rope, rather than pull at the rope or the juvenile, because he was able to take on the perspective of the younger chimp. While the story provided demonstrates a sophisticated form of empathy found in animals capable of mirror self-recognition, less cognitively complex animals have also been found to show signs of empathy. For example, if a rat is given the option of saving its comrade who is trapped in a container or munching on a piece of chocolate adjacent to that container, it will choose to save its friend half of the time, after which they both enjoy the chocolate.

While human morality is arguably far richer than solely pro-social behaviors found in the animal kingdom, the creation of moral rules would surely be impossible without an innate moral capacity. Additionally, as Dr. Frans de Waal poses in the opening chapter of his recently published book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, “Does anybody truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion?” (de Waal 2). Morality is an ancient capacity, predating religion and even the existence of mankind, and evidence is quickly mounting to explain its origin. What scientists are finding  is that that origin, the origin of human morality, does not include religion.

*Mirror self-recognition, or the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror, has been positively correlated with empathy. In human children, mirror self-recognition is critical for the development of moral character.

If you enjoyed this topic and want to learn more about Dr. Frans de Waal’s findings, listen to the lecture, accessible here, that he gave at the AAAS 2012 Annual Meeting in Vancouver. It is remarkably similar to the lecture he gave at Penn, and it is the source of the information I present in this post.