November 15th, 2015
RECENT advances in evolutionary biology applied to the field of morality have given us invaluable insight into why we might be naturally wired to form strong cooperative bonds with those that we identify as fellows. There is a growing body of evidence pointing towards morality as a set of evolved psychological mechanisms that enable individuals to knit themselves together in communities that facilitate inner group cooperation and suppress selfishness. While these altruistic feelings might be some of the most righteous of our evolved nature, they also have a powerful dark side that emerges when the groups that we identify with compete with other groups. As we will see in what follows, it is in our nature to fundamentally adhere to the ways of our groups. Let me elaborate.
Our ability to be driven by norms and emotions through judgements on how people ought to act (what we call morality) is best interpreted as a series of biological adaptations
Viewed from this evolutionary perspective, the multitude of emotional automatic responses that accompany our basic moral intuitions can then be understood as nature’s evolutionary endowment to us hominids in order to facilitate cooperation—which in turn promotes the propagation of the genes of the cooperators. Even before we get into the business of evaluating rationally what is good and what is right, most of us display strong automatic sentiments that alert us that some things simply cannot be done and that other things simply ought to be done. Moreover, as Greene documents, there is also evidence that these automatic moral emotions arise in a different part of the brain than episodes of levelheaded moral reasoning. This topological finding at a brain level strengthens the view that irrespective of our efforts at autonomous moral thinking, we are already wired with certain moral emotive responses that fire automatically. If cooperating is good for strengthening our reproductive chances, then it is no surprise that adaptations that quickly do the job for us are now bundled into our nature. But are these emotive responses all there is to morality? Encouraged by experimental evidence, some evolutionary biologist—Jonathan Haidt being the leading voice in this respect—have even gone as far as to say that moral philosophy is nothing but an exercise of rationalization—i.e., an exercise in trying to furnish our moral intuitions with the semblance of rational justification. According to this ‘window-dressing’ view of reason, when it comes to morality, nature has already done most of the heavy lifting, and the instances of actual autonomous moral thinking leading us beyond our emotive responses are rare at best. Not everyone agrees with this extreme stance and a more modest and plausible view is that, although evidence does seem to indicate that evolutionary factors play a causal role in conditioning our moral sentiments, we still have enough latitude to exercise independent judgement to grasp moral truths or at least to form reflective commitments towards shared goals.
The important takeaway I want to stress is that psychological dispositions that promote advantageous cooperation do seem to have evolved blindly in our pre-historic past, when forming cohesive groups conferred biological advantages
Evolutionary biologists argue then that as social animals we have evolved a deep psychological structure that shapes our universal capacity for morality. This structure furnishes us with a variety of mental and emotional mechanisms that enhance social cohesion and cooperation amongst otherwise selfish individuals and promote our group’s interests when in competition with other groups. While the details on how exactly these psychological mechanisms evolved remain highly controversial, there is certainly a growing appreciation for how intergroup competition favors groups with strong cooperators where incentives for selfishness are suppressed. It is important to insist here that evolution does not promote cooperation for its own sake; it does so only insofar as it confers a biological advantage to help spread the genes of the cooperators. If groups of cooperating individuals manage to outcompete groups of free riders then, in time, the psychological traits that favor cooperation should come to dominate the gene pool.
The common propensity of moral codes to emphasize group identity, cohesion and loyalty and our obsession with reputation and social standing seem to have evolved as adaptations favoring beneficial group cooperation
In sum, the very righteous genes that shape our moral nature prefigure our fundamentalist impulses. In a very real way, we are natural born fundamentalists
The echoes of our groupish nature have also been recently highlighted by the work of behavioral economists detailing our widespread cognitive biases. Of these biases, ‘ingroup bias’—the tendency to favor members of one’s group and develop hostility towards out-group members—and ‘confirmation bias’—the propensity to look for and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm your existing beliefs—are the most relevant for the present discussion. As Cass Sunstein has argued throughout his recent work, “when people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes.” So it seems that we are not only wired to strongly knit ourselves together to our groups: we also proactively seek confirmation of our own group’s beliefs—disregarding contrarian evidence—and when surrounded by like-minded individuals cheering for the same ideas we tend to turn up the ante of our initial beliefs.
Our groupish, biased and extremist-prone nature is for the most part beneficial for parochial cooperation, but it is also one of the key factors behind the current rise of fundamentalism at a global scale
Believing has this peculiar asymmetry by which in order to believe or disbelieve something we want to believe we just need a tiny bit of evidence to feel justified, but on the contrary, we need plenty of evidence to disprove something we already hold or to convince us of something new. In this respect, the internet is a confirmatory machine: We rarely go online to challenge ourselves; we connect to surround ourselves with like-minded ‘friends’, to see what is new with those we ‘follow’ and to google for stories on what we already ‘like’. Our internet experience gets quickly downsized by algorithms and by our own curating habits into a tailored experience that fits our worldview like a pair of new skinny jeans.
Moreover, the internet, and in particular social media, facilitate the formation and proliferation of groups of like-minded individuals at a global scale. And as Sunstein’s research work shows, “members of a deliberating group usually end up at a more extreme position in the same general direction as their inclinations before the deliberation began.” We live in a world that enables the creation of interconnected global super-groups of congenial individuals while at the same time facilitates a constant clash with incompatible outsiders. Our digital world has taken something that was a peripheral phenomenon for the longest part of the evolution of our species and turned it into our everyday condition: the constant encounter with radical alterity. Unsurprisingly, our emotional moral compasses are reacting quickly by pointing inwards while our biases send us online probing for allies and confirmatory ideas.
I am not implying that is only a matter of time before we all take arms and become radicalized fundamentalists. But I do want to highlight that this growing sense of moral balkanization, rising tempers and incapacity to converse with those that we regard as outsiders is in a crucial manner explained by the hazardous mix between our tribalistic nature and our digitally-interlinked reality. An honest look at the vast gulf between the type of beings that we were shaped to be and the type of beings that our global society requires is a good place to start if we are to move beyond the current tragedy of rising fundamentalism.