Have we evolved to be Moral - are we hardwired for citizenship?

Along with sometimes widespread and disturbing amorality, there is strong evidence that human beings are fundamentally moral in their approach to how to live, make decisions, and generally organize themselves.  

First the dark side - Niebuhr’s “Children of Darkness”. 

There is ample evidence for what appears to be an almost total lack of morals through history and in the world of today.  We can see this clearly through individuals such as Roger Stone, Gary Cohn, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and many strongmen leaders throughout the world.  As David Brooks recently wrote in reference to a piece in the Wall Street Journal by McMaster and Cohn:  “in this essay, (they) make explicit the great act of moral decoupling woven through this Presidency. In this world view, morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest. We've seen this philosophy before of course. Powerful, selfish people have always adopted this dirty minded realism to justify their own selfishness.” Such individuals deny the entire moral realm: “by behaving with naked selfishness toward others they poison the common realm and they force others to behave with naked selfishness toward them. (They) “sever relationships, destroy reciprocity, erode trust and eviscerate the sense of sympathy, friendship, and loyalty that all nations need went times get tough.” (Brooks)

Second, the other side - the “Children of Light” (Niebuhr).  Despite the power of the Darkness, there is strong historical and scientific evidence that morality has been and is, essential to our evolution and continued survival as a species. History and of the world’s great religions are replete with examples and encouragement to be guided by a moral center - do the right thing, treat others how you would want to be treated. Kindness, empathy, and compassion in fact drive much of our behavior and decision-making. A recent article (Scientific American, “Why We Forgo Self-Interest for Others’ Sake”, Molly Crockett) explores research using brain imaging studies that begin to explain why people often do the right thing even when no one is watching: “across several studies, we've found that most people would rather shock themselves than others for money, despite the choices being secret. On the whole we avoid harming others for our own gain even when there is no way to get caught.”  In a new study in the journal of Nature Neuroscience, Brain imaging was used as a “mechanism for measuring aspects of moral decision-making that are inaccessible to conscious awareness.”  It has been previously established that when we make decisions a network of brain areas works together to calculate the value of available options.  This network “includes the striatum, a fist shaped structure buried deep in the center of the brain. In our new study, we found the striatum responds less to money gained from shocking others then to money gained from shocking oneself. Importantly, this was only true for the people who behaved morally - the people who were least willing to profit from others pain show the weakest striatum responses to ill-gotten gains.”  In addition, the study found a region within the prefrontal cortex that is activated when we judge others for their misbehavior. In the study, “this region tracked the blameworthiness of harming others for profit, responding most strongly when people have the option to inflict a lot of pain for a trivial amount of money. And when people refused to profit from harming others, the prefrontal cortex increased its communication with the striatum.”  The researchers conclude that “when we're making a moral decision like whether to take money from a lost wallet our pre-frontal cortex simulates how others might blame us and adjusts the values of our options accordingly, even when no one is watching. The construction of moral values in the brain seems to incorporate the anticipated or internalized judgment of others.”

Going (considerably and literally) farther afield, new evidence from the biology of lichens, provides a powerful metaphor (or precursor, since lichens as a form of life, arrived nearly 500 million years before our species).  In “The Meaning of Lichen” (Scientific American, June, 2017)   Erica Gies describes the groundbreaking work of the self-trained biologist, Trevor Goward.  Essentially, Goward’s insight has been to see Lichen in an entirely new way.  Lichen were initially viewed as plants and then fungi. By the mid-1860s, it was known that Lichen were actually a partnership between a fungus and algae - what has become a classic case of symbiosis in nature - now seen in increasing realms of biology.  So, here we have individual interest (the survival of the Lichen) served by a team-based complementarity between fungi and algae.  Building on this, Goward has discovered that there is more to Lichen than this. Lichen contain multiple fungi with different roles - lichen are best thought of as a system well beyond simple symbiosis: “ Thinking of lichens as systems fits with a larger shift in biology from viewing the fundamental unit of life as the individual to that of community or partnerships. “whether it is the microbiome within the human body or trees interacting with fungal partners belowground or lichens… we're seeing that networked relationships are more fundamental and persist longer within biological systems than individuals do.”(Haskell)…Systems only hold together in the long term if the parts consider themselves integral to the whole and if the whole protects the parts, as lichens do”.”

So here we see the essence of Citizenship, modeled by this new understanding of lichen.  Citizenship is the cornerstone and foundation of Democracy.  Citizenship occurs when individuals, in addition to looking out for their immediate interests, believe in and support a larger community and are in turn provided with support and benefits from this community. While LIchen have evolved the way they have without the benefit of the kind of consciousness that humans possess, we have the gift of empathy and compassion that is no less vital in the end for our survival over the long term.  If we cannot treat others how we would like to be treated, if our moral foundation decays, we will see our species tear itself apart rather than evolve and grow. 

To return to the above column by David Brooks: “of course people are driven selfish motivations - for individual status, wealth, and power. But they are also motivated by another set of drives - for solidarity, love, and moral fulfillment… people are wired to cooperate. Far from being a flimsy thing, the desire for cooperation is the primary human evolutionary advantage we have over the other animals. [except, of course, Lichen…?…] People have a moral sense. They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples. From their first moments, children are wired to feel each other's pain. You don't have to teach a child about what fairness is; they already know. There's no society on earth where people are admired for running away in battle or from lying to their friends. People have moral emotions. They feel rage at injustice, disgust toward greed, reverence for excellence, awe before the sacred and elevation in the face of goodness. People yearn for righteousness. They want to feel meaning and purpose in their lives, that their lives are oriented toward the good.”