I was recently having a private conversation about humanity and whether we are uniquely different from all other creatures in such a way that naturalistic evolution could not explain the step change from primates to us. As a naturalist who has read a fair bit on evolution and evolutionary psychology, I obviously disagree with such a claim.
In a very simple approach, all one needs to is ask a few facile questions:
- What would humanity look like without any kind of morality?
- Thus, does morality have any function in human success (and in evolutionary terms, that would be survival and reproduction)?
- Can we see evidence of such morality that humans have in other species?
The answers to these questions should provide easy and ample confirmation that morality serves a really important function in the success of such a social species as ours. There is no doubt that ideas like reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, almost literally in some senses) play a massive role in social species such as ours. Such biologically evidenced altrusism can be seen in many species as a quick wiki google shows:
- Wolves and wild dogs bring meat back to members of the pack not present at the kill.
- Mongooses support elderly, sick, or injured animals.
- Meerkats often have one standing guard to warn while the rest feed in case of predator attack.
- Raccoons inform conspecifics about feeding grounds by droppings left on commonly shared latrines. A similar information system has been observed to be used by common ravens.
- Male baboons threaten predators and cover the rear as the troop retreats.
- Gibbons and chimpanzees with food will, in response to a gesture, share their food with others of the group. Chimpanzees will help humans and conspecificswithout any reward in return.
- Bonobos have been observed aiding injured or handicapped bonobos.
- Vampire bats commonly regurgitate blood to share with unlucky or sick roost mates that have been unable to find a meal, often forming a buddy system.
- Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked.
- Lemurs of all ages and of both sexes will take care of infants unrelated to them.
- Dolphins support sick or injured animals, swimming under them for hours at a time and pushing them to the surface so they can breathe.
- Walruses have been seen adopting orphans who lost their parents to predators.
- African buffalo will rescue a member of the herd captured by predators. (Battle at Kruger)
- In numerous bird species, a breeding pair receives support in raising its young from other “helper” birds, including help with the feeding of its fledglings. Some will even go as far as protecting an unrelated bird’s young from predators.
- Harpagifer bispinis, a species of fish, live in social groups in the harsh environment of the Antarctic Peninsula. If the parent guarding the nest of eggs is removed, a usually male replacement unrelated to the parents guards the nest from predators and prevents fungal growth that would kill off the brood. There is no clear benefit to the male so the act may be considered altruistic.
Examples in invertebrates
- Some termites and ants release a sticky secretion by fatally rupturing a specialized gland. This autothysis altruistically aids the colony at the expense of the individual insect. For example, defending against invading ants by creating a tar baby effect. This can be attributed to the fact that ants share their genes with the entire colony, and so this behaviour is evolutionarily beneficial (not necessarily for the individual ant but for the continuation of its specific genetic make-up).
- Synalpheus regalis is a species of eusocial marine snapping shrimp that lives in sponges in coral reefs. They live in colonies of about 300 individuals with one reproductive female. Other colony members defend the colony against intruders, forage, and care for the young. Eusociality is this system entails an adaptive division of labor which results in enhanced reproductive output of the breeders and inclusive fitness benefits for the nonbreeding helpers. S. regalis are exceptionally tolerant of conspecifics within their colonies due to close genetic relatedness among nestmates. Allozyme data reveals that relatedness within colonies is high, which is an indication that colonies in this species represent close kin groups. The existence of such groups is an important prerequisite of explanations of social evolution based on kin selection.
Examples in protists
An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body.
Morality as an evolved trait that serves our species beneficially is a coherent idea at the very least, and well evidenced to boot.