Nick Brewin and Patrick Richmond
If genes are “selfish”, why are some animals, such as meerkats, altruistic? And to what extent is human behaviour different from that of other social animals? This fascinating topic was discussed before an audience of over 60 people by Dr Peter Woodward, a theologian embedded in Cambridge University’s zoology department. At the talk in Norwich on July 3 organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk, Dr Woodward explored the interface between scientific, philosophical and religious interpretations of morality and ethics in human behaviour, particularly in relation to altruism.
He began by noting that Richard Dawkins’ famous description of genes as “selfish” should not be taken literally. It does not mean that genes have thoughts or intentions. Rather, in biology ‘selfish’ means benefitting the agent at the expense of others, while ‘altruistic’ means benefitting others at the expense of the agent. In fact, altruistic behaviour is very common in social animals such as ants, birds, baboons, and meerkats.
How is such “altruistic” behaviour to be explained, when it is costly and so might threaten to make the genes of the altruist do less well than others in the struggle to survive and reproduce? In such cases, the apparent “altruistic” behaviour, e.g. of meerkats, can help genes survive and reproduce because these animals tend to help their kin who share their genes, or because other members of the group will help them reciprocally. In this way, genes for cooperation will gradually become more common in social animals through the process of evolution by natural selection.
This leads to deep questions for philosophers and human behaviourists. Are cooperative and altruistic behaviours in humans also to be interpreted as the consequence of our genetic make-up – the end-product of our evolution as social animals over millions of years? Can the same principles by which we explain behaviour in social animals also explain human dispositions to help others and to care about their well-being? And where do ethics come from - our moral values and our beliefs about which actions are right and wrong?
As with most things in biology, our behaviour seems to be the outcome of an interplay between nature and nurture. On the one hand, humans and other social animals, e.g. monkeys and meerkats, are “hard-wired” to express some basic traits of empathy and even fairness and equal rewards; for example, Capuchin monkeys have been shown to object to a food reward if it is not equal to the reward that their peer had received for the same task.
On the other hand, it is possible to argue that humans are different from any other living species. Humans are the “animal with reason”, as Aristotle put it. In addition to our instincts to be “social”, we also possess a capacity for self-reflective and self-critical evaluation of our instincts, our beliefs and our reasons. Presumably, this ability to reason about our behaviour is distinctive.
Dr Woodward argues that our intellectual capacity, and not strictly our biology, has shaped the moral and ethical lives of humans and human societies. Thus, human altruism is quite distinct from other aspects of biological cooperation for genes, cells, insects, fish, birds, or even mammals and primates. Our moral judgments may be rooted in our biological nature, but they are also the product of our intellectual capacity to reflect on our experience and to reason critically about our desires and actions.
To put it another way, humans have a natural motivation to help each other and to develop altruistic behaviour. This is based on our socio-biology – the product of millions of years of evolution by natural selection. However, our natural “pro-” (and “anti-”) social dispositions are guided, enhanced, and channelled by self-reflective evaluation. This aspect of behaviour is based on our appreciation of ethics, religion and morality, which is the product of our cultural heritage. It dates back only a few thousand years in the cultural history of humankind, rather than in the millions of years of genetic evolution which preceded it.
In summary, we can ask the question: are moral and ethical beliefs and behaviours simply part of a biological strategy that will enable humankind to survive and reproduce more successfully, or do they help us to recognize values that transcend these biological needs? This is not a scientific question that can be answered with more empirical evidence and better experiments. Rather, it is a philosophical or theological question about God, evolution and ethics. Is our concept of cooperation and altruistic action as a moral good, overriding self-interest, an illusory by-product of evolution, “fobbed off on us by our genes”? Alternatively, is it the sign that the long course of natural evolution has prepared humans to recognise real moral goods and to take responsibility for realising them? Unsurprisingly, Dr Woodford’s interdisciplinary talk stimulated lively discussion and raised many further scientific and theological questions.
The meeting was organised by Science Faith Norfolk (SFN), a Norwich-based group affiliated to Christians in Science. The next open lecture/discussion will be held on Monday 6th November (7.30 – 8.45 pm). Dr Amanda Ogilvy-Stuart, Clinical Director of Rosie Hospital, Cambridge, will give a talk and lead a discussion entitled – “Caring for the weakest: Ethical challenges in managing sick and premature babies”. It will be held at Trinity Meeting Place, Holy Trinity Church, Essex St. Norwich NR2 2BJ. For further information contact Professor Nick Brewin (07901 884114); firstname.lastname@example.org.