Monday, May 07, 2007

Is Human Morality a Product of Evolution?

This weekend I read a fascinating interview in Discover magazine with Harvard evolutionary biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Marc Hauser. (Sorry, Discover has not posted this interview online yet, but you can read a columnist's take on the piece at the St. Petersburg Times here.) In the piece, Hauser demonstrates how human morality may be a product of evolution, rather than something nurtured by parents or learned in church.

Consider the following example, explained in the Discover interview. If a doctor has five patients that will die if they don't get an organ transplant -- say, a liver, heart, lung and two in need of a kidney -- is it okay for the doctor take a healthy person, dice them up -- thereby killing them -- and distribute their organs to save the lives of the dying five? Most people would say no.

However, if a trolley was barreling down the track, about to hit and kill five people, but you had a chance to flip a switch and divert it to a track that would kill just one person, most people would say that's okay. But why? In both cases, you're exchanging one life for five. Fundamentally, what's the difference?

According to the article in Discover, "there appears to be some kind of unconscious process driving moral judgments without its being accessible to conscious reflection."

One possibility that I came up with is this. In our genetic moral compass, developed through eons of evolution, it's never okay to sacrifice a healthy life for sick ones, no matter how practical the math is on it. Think about that. If you have two groups of primates on the plains of Africa a million years ago, one allows the healthy to be sacrificed for the sick, the other never allows this, which one will survive longer?

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.