Science can’t prove the existence of gods, but science does offer clues for why humans tell god stories. (More)

The Righteous Mind, Part II: Why We Judge

This week Morning Feature explores Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Yesterday we examined how we make moral judgments, and the respective roles of conscious reasoning and unconscious intuition. Today we consider why we make moral judgments, and why we evolved to seek affirmation over truth. Tomorrow we’ll see the different moral models of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, and how we can better discuss our differing moral judgments.

Jonathan Haidt earned his Ph.D in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where his research includes applied social psychology, culture, ethics, and social cognition. Dr. Haidt was the principal developer of moral foundations theory, and is presently a visiting professor teaching business ethics at New York University. He also authored The Happiness Hypothesis, published in 2006.

Alone on the Savanna

Ahh, it’s nice to be out of those trees, and away from those other Tree Apes. They just don’t understand you. You tried to make friends, but that’s hard to do when they are all stupid. You figured out you could use a sharp rock to break open those nuts. Did anyone listen? Of course not. They ignored you and went right on banging their nuts against big rocks, and hurting their hands. Stupid.

It wasn’t just that. You had lots of other ideas too. In fact, if any of those other Tree Apes had the sense of the bugs they pick out of each others’ hair, they’d have put you in charge. But no. That other guy runs things. When you showed him your spiffy new sharp rock, he just grunted at you and turned away. When you tried to grab him and explain how it worked, he bared his teeth and hooted at you. And when you turned to your siblings and cousins, they just looked at the other guy. Because he’s in charge and you’re not. Stupid.

Well, you’ve had enough stupid. The trees are far behind and you’re out here on the savanna. You even brought your sharp rock, in case you find some nuts. Because you are not stupid. You are a genius. They may not realize it, but they will someday. Or they won’t. In fact, who cares what they think? Who needs them? You’re better off on your own. They spend a lot of the day trying not to upset the head ape and figure out who’s next in line. Stupid.

What’s that sound? A low growl, like the sky makes before it flashes, but not as big. Still big, though. Did the grass must move? Hard to tell. Maybe you should head for some trees. Not the old trees; they’re too far away. But there are some others ahead up there. Time to run. But you can’t outrun the growl. A massive paw smacks into your back, knocking you to the ground. Your sharp rock goes flying. You try to reach for it, but the paw slams you down again and the fangs in those huge jaws sink into your neck. The last sound you hear is other Tree Apes warning each other to stay in the trees. Like you should have done. Stupid.

Group selection

That story was mine, but it helps to explain one of Dr. Haidt’s key points about the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens. Yes, we can be selfish, but we are a social species. Indeed Dr. Haidt says we are an “ultrasocial” species, able to form and sustain huge groups that reach far beyond biological kinship. That may be because our earliest rugged individualists met fates much like the one I described above. To survive as Plains Ape, we had to stick together … and Dr. Haidt argues that our righteous minds evolved to enable more cooperative groups.

This is evolution by group selection. Although Charles Darwin proposed that idea, it fell from favor after World War II for a variety of reasons. The scientific consensus was that only genetic changes that favored an individual and his/her own offspring would give enough survival advantage to propagate. Thus, the consensus held, there was no biological basis for altruism or for adapting one’s own behavior – and one’s own desires – to conform with a group. Yet humans routinely do change our behavior and desires to fit in. Are such acts irrational … or are they grounded in group-seeking impulses that evolved based on survival advantages?

Recent research has begun to revive group selection. Social insects account for over half of the insect mass on our planet, and some biologists now think that’s because their social structures gave them survival advantages over solitary insects. Much of that research has focused on direct conflicts between competing groups, and much of Dr. Haidt’s discussion focuses on that. Yet as one of his colleagues told him after reading an early draft of his chapter, group selection is not all about war. If a genetic change helps a group “turn resources into offspring” more efficiently, that group is more likely to flourish … and that genetic change is more likely to propagate.

Selfish and Groupish

While group selection is not yet a consensus, it offers the best scientific explanation for a paradox of human behavior: we are both selfish and groupish. The parts of our brains that do conscious reasoning – the “rider” atop the “elephant” of intuitive cognition – evolved as early hominids began to use language. Yet as we saw yesterday, the “rider” seems more concerned with telling stories that justify decisions the “elephant” has already made.

Why would our “rider” evolve as a press secretary seeking approval, rather than as a scientist seeking truth? Dr. Haidt hints this may be because group approval offered more survival advantages than lone truth-seeking. (Note: I asked Dr. Haidt about this specific point, and invited him to join us here this week. He replied that the book’s release has him swamped, and apologized for being unable to participate or answer questions.)

Consider the Tree Ape in the story. He had devised a primitive tool, and may have been a somewhat better scientist than the other Tree Apes. Yet alone on the plain, he was still no match for big cats and other predators. Early hominids who had the genetic spark to develop tools and other rudimentary science did have advantages, but only if they remained in groups. Genius offered an edge, but when The New Idea offered only a slight advantage … cooperating with others in the group still offered a bigger edge. The rider-as-press-secretary helped us more than the rider-as-lone-truth-seeker.

Stories of External Authority

Yet groups that endlessly debated points of conformity would face other challenges. With every suspect behavior up for debate, cohesive cooperation could break down. Even if the group did not devolve into fratricide, or fragment into groups too small to survive, the time they spent debating suspect behaviors was time they might have spent hunting or gathering, weaving or cooking, making or tending to babies.

Consider the advantage gained by a group who could believe a story of an external authority: an idea they could not prove but on which they could still agree. Whether gods or ‘natural’ principles, this story of external authority could be told in a way that covered most of the common disputes, with rules for sharing resources and assigning roles and tasks. The story might also include other information, such as which foods were safe or unsafe, or which signs of physical illness must not be touched lest the disease be spread.

A group whose members could believe and conform to an external authority story like that would spend less time debating, and more time hunting or gathering, weaving or cooking, and making or tending to babies. They would “turn resources into offspring” more efficiently, and flourish in conditions where other groups failed. And the genetic change that enabled them to believe and conform to an external authority story … would propagate.

Dr. Haidt’s thesis of sacralization – sacred stories and rituals about external authority – does not prove or try to prove the existence of gods. It does not prove or try to prove the existence of ‘natural’ moral laws. As we’ll see tomorrow, moral codes vary widely among cultures.

Yet Dr. Haidt does offer a scientific explanation for why we evolved righteous minds. Rather than parasites that feed on and corrupt the host of pure reason, Dr. Haidt suggests that religions and other stories of external authority offered real survival advantages to the early hominids who could believe and conform to them.

While he can’t quite prove that story, it fits the evidence reasonably well. Morality seems to have evolved at the intersection of selfishness and groupishness … and tomorrow we’ll see evidence for both in our moral toolbox.


Happy Friday!