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Is Religion or Morality the Exaptation?

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Francisco Ayala, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, is reported to have proposed how human morality might have evolved. Ayala is a former Dominican who left the order as soon as he had been ordained and instead studied evolution, becoming an eminent professor. Combining his religious with his science has recently won a lucrative Templeton prize for showing religion and science are compatible.

Now it seems he wants to claim credit for notions of the evolution of morality that have been gaining ground for about two decades, if not between one and two centuries, and which have been extensively covered on the AskWhy! pages. Darwin, in his book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, singled out “the moral sense or conscience” as the important difference between humans and other animals.

Along with many zoologists and evolutionary psychologists, Ayala defines moral or ethical behavior as being a human manifestation of empathy, a characteristic of vertebrates from mice to humans—“the actions of a person who takes into account in a sympathetic way the impact the actions have on others”. But Ayala sees morality as consisting of two parts:

  1. the capacity for ethics
  2. the specific moral codes that we follow.

He proposes that, while ethical capacity is a product of biological evolution, moral codes are products of cultural evolution. This more complex theory of morality’s origins is close to Darwin’s perspective.

Many biologists, including sociobiologists, argue that morality is a biologically determined trait. Most philosophers and theologians see morality as a product of cultural evolution and/or religious faith. I distinguish between “the capacity for ethics”, ’ which is biologically determined as a result of biological evolution, and “the moral codes or ethical norms”, which are largely outcomes of cultural evolution, including religious beliefs.

F Ayala

The capacity for moral behavior is not adaptive in itself, but it is a consequence of a higher intellectual ability that is adaptive, being directly promoted through natural selection due to its ability to improve survival rates, such as by allowing us to construct tools, develop hunting strategies, etc. Ayala identifies three abilities as necessary for moral behavior that could have evolved with intelligence:

  1. anticipating the consequences of our actions
  2. evaluating such consequences
  3. choosing accordingly how to act.

While overall intellectual capacities evolved gradually, the three necessary conditions for moral behavior only came about after crossing an evolutionary threshold, as they require abilities such as the formation of abstract concepts. And only after humans possessed all three abilities could we possess a moral capacity.

Morality is therefore not an adaptation but an exaptation, which is when a trait evolves because it served one particular function, but later comes to serve another function, which was not originally the target of natural selection. Once morality evolved as a by product of higher intelligence, it influenced individuals to behave in ways that increased co-operation, benefiting the social group and providing an evolutionary advantage, so that it eventually became an adaptation in and of itself.

Although a kind of natural selection, called group selection, is generally not considered an evolutionary stable strategy, Darwin argued that, unlike other animals, humans can understand the benefits of morality, co-operation, and altruistic behavior. It has inspired us to create laws that enforce the moral codes that benefit our society. The cultural evolution that drives these moral codes is a more effective and faster form of evolution compared with biological evolution, and also explains the diversity of moral codes in different cultures.

If human morality originated both biologically and culturally, it seems unlikely that other animals evolved the same degree of morality in the same way, if at all. Because morality relies on several evolutionary prerequisites that themselves seem unique to humans, it might even be considered one of the human traits that is furthest from the other animals, in accordance with Darwin’s original suggestion. Perhaps, this distinctively human trait could even provide a solution to a distinctively human problem, as Ayala quotes the prominent psychologist Steven Pinker:

Morality is not just any old topic in psychology, but close to our connection of the meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings.

Morality is a unique human trait, one of the most important and most distinctive traits that characterize humanity. Obviously, it is also overwhelmingly important in determining the welfare of human societies. The distinction I use in characterizing morality—behavior versus norms—can be largely extended to other distinctive human attributes, like religion. We are concerned about the meaning and purpose of life, as a consequence of our exalted intelligence, which came about by biological evolution and allows us to anticipate the future and to know that we will die. But the diversity of religions comes about as the result of cultural—not biological—evolution.

F Ayala

Maybe there is something missing in such a summary of Ayala’s novel contribution, but it is certainly confusing. Pascal Boyer wrote a book about religion that convered most of this ground in some detail from the evolutionary psychological viewpoint, eight years ago (Explaining Religion, 2002), and other scholars (Scott Atran, Jonathan Haight, and others) have also gone into it.

Morality is indeed an adaptation, not an exaptation, but one which supports human sociality, not toolmaking or hunting except insofar as these are improved by our social nature. Sociality, though, has benefits before we get to toolmaking and so on. There is no doubt that social animals generally have the “capacity for ethics”, for the same reason that humans have it. It is true that animals as far removed from us as mice are distressed by another mouse’s distress. That is empathy, and is the basis of morality, the capacity for morality!

Certainly once we were intelligent enough to wonder about our sense of morality, our feelings of guilt or gratitude, we began to rationalize them, and to devise different ways of upholding moral behavior. Religion was one way and law was another. Different cultures have somewhat different approaches. So Ayala is right that culture continues in the case of moral behavior where evolution left off. But there is nothing very profound in that. Religion is the exaption, not morality.

Several pages at the main AskWhy pages cover this, the latest being Religion: a Spandrel…. Original story reported in


Written by mikemagee

8 July, 2010 at 8:58 pm

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  1. […] Is Religion or Morality the Exaption? « Magi Mike's Blog […]

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