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

When scientists look at morality purely from an empirical perspective and wonder why is it that we have this capacity for normative guidance or why we possess emotional dispositions such as empathy or a sense of fairness, the best explanation seems to be an evolutionary one: 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, i.e., attributes that evolved through natural selection due to the advantages they confer towards greater reproductive success. As Joshua Greene puts it succinctly in his book Moral Tribes “morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation.”

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

The debate amongst evolutionary biologists as to how much of our moral nature is hardwired and how much room is left for reasoning seems to rehash a longstanding dispute in moral philosophy: is it the passions or is it the autonomous will guided by reason that dominate our moral judgement? While the roster of philosophers on each side of this debate is ample, it can be simplified as the battle between David Hume’s famous quip that reason is but the slave of the passions vs Immanuel Kant’s view that only a good will—one that acts according to the universal moral law—is intrinsically good. In an interesting way, the results of evolutionary biology seem to vindicate both views by clearly distinguishing, even at the level of the brain, between the emotions—as manifestations of our moral evolutionary baggage—from reason—as our autonomous thought process that puts us above the fray of evolutionarily-adapted automatic responses. A thought-provoking thesis has been advanced in this respect by Greene, who argues that deontological views of morality—which emphasize binding moral obligations—are tied to our evolutionary past, whereas utilitarian judgements—which emphasize the greater good—are driven by reason and are detached from sentimental impulses. Irrespective of the degree in which reason and philosophical reflexion end up influencing our moral lives at the expense of alarm-like emotive responses, 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

Evidence suggests that over a long period of time, the dynamic of intergroup competition worked its magic to favor the psychological traits that turned us into ‘groupish’ beings, not withstanding our primordial selfish nature. As Jonathan Haidt puts it in his book The Righteous Mind, “When I say that human nature is selfish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers. When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups.” In order to reap the reproductive benefits of cooperation we evolved a variety of reactive moral sentiments—such as guilt, resentment and shame—and developed psychological attitudes that promoted and enforced group loyalty and social cohesion. The advantages of group membership shaped our strong sense of duty and reinforced social compliance, since those who displayed such altruistic tendencies gained the reputation for being valuable coalition partners and team players. From this perspective then, 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

Yet here is the rub: our moral psychology did not evolve to facilitate widespread cooperation. Quite the contrary, it evolved as adaptations for successful intragroup synergism. Cooperation strengthened by moral sentiments and adherence to normative guidance is fantastic for building the ultimate super-groups. But when super-groups are pitted against each other our fundamental allegiances take control. Borrowing from Greene again, “Our social impulses take us out of the frying pan of personal conflict and into the fire of tribal conflict.” The tighter we knit ourselves together to our group, the more successful our group will be but the more difficult it becomes to cooperate with alien groups. In the words of Haidt, “morality binds and blinds”. 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

That we are experiencing an unprecedented clash of conflicting belief precisely in this new digitally-interconnected era is not a bug, it’s a feature of our new reality. Our groupish, biased and extremist-prone nature is for the most part beneficial for parochial cooperation, but as I anticipated early on, it is also one of the key factors behind the current rise of fundamentalism at a global scale. While in principle the internet provides a trove of plural beliefs that should foster everyone’s exposure to diversity, in reality what happens is that we end up encasing ourselves inside digital “information cocoons” or “echo chambers” that provide confirmation to the beliefs we already hold. And once we find our band of like-minded netizens, heightened interaction with congenial fellows pushes us to epistemological extremes.

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.