Is There a Moral Gene?

neuronsFor many years now, the quest for the evolutionary basis of our moral behavior has been quietly underway.  Science is beginning to explore territory once reserved for philosophers and priests.  Tantalizing evidence is accumulating from research studies in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and, more recently, genetics that humankind is inherently moral.

The basic thinking goes something like this.  Social caring emerged during the evolution of mammals as a way to care for their young and ensure their survival.  A combination of brain circuitry and hormones drive this caring behavior.  Renowned geneticist and author, Richard Dawkins, proposes that this combination of social survival mixed with a physically based empathy, provides the foundation for our human morality.


Richard Dawkins – On Morality

In her new book, Braintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland (of UC San Diego and the Salk Institute) describes the “neurobiological platform of bonding” that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behavior. The result is a genealogy of morals that asks us to reevaluate the priority given to religion, absolute rules, and pure reason in accounting for the basis of morality.

Patricia Churchland

Patricia Churchland

Moral values, she argues, are rooted in a behavior common to all mammals–the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves–first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring circles.” Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is provided, conscience shaped, and moral intuitions strengthened. A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality.

Does this research mean that religion is irrelevant when it  comes to our moral development?  Actually, it points to the source of our religious instinct.  Religion and spirituality fill the powerful human need for meaning, even if our morality is ultimately rooted in our physical being.  It is a tremendously hopeful prospect to be able to fully understand our empathetic nature and know that we are moral creatures at our core–and expressing it is our most naturally human act.

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