Making Moral Claims: Evolution and Other Animals

Making Moral Claims: Evolution and Other Animals May 20, 2019

“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.” – attributed to Oscar Wilde


Five centuries later, we remain embroiled in debates about the role of religion in society. As in Bosch’s days, the central theme is morality. Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? Don’t think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss. [The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, Chapter 1 (Kobo E-Reader), Frans de Waal]

This is the second part in my now three-part series setting out how moral behaviours emerge in humans. This is in response to a post that someone I know on Facebook made, tagging me in. My first part sets out the following conclusion:

…you have to start from the bottom and work your way up. I am having to do this again for the purposes of establishing why this commenter and myself disagree so often… I maintain that abstract ideas are conceptual (existing individually only in our minds and the minds of any sentience, higher-level thinking creature) and if we want to establish any abstract claims (such as morality and thus politics and regulation and law), we need to do so by consensus. This is both descriptively true, but is also evidenced by point of fact that no philosopher has fully and completely coherently established any moral value system.

Morality only exists in our minds and has meaningful impact on us in complex society when we codify it into law. I wrote a piece called “Human Rights Don’t Exist until We Construct and Codify Them” in which I talk about this, and it is entirely pertinent to this debate (particularly part one in this series).

Let me remind you of some of the original comment that I am debating:

However, the very distinctive, statistical behaviourist approach strangely excludes a vital element from the phenomenon we are supposedly examining and one with which, being human ourselves, we are all familiar. It excludes moral interiority, responsibility and agency in the carrier of the knife, the very things that differentiate us from animals and because of which every sophisticated society has courts assuming moral accountability. Strange things to blink at you might think. The interesting this is that a person who has no expertise in behaviourist data collection and statistics can see this from the viewpoint of their simple humanity. So what value the statistical approach if the statisticians haven’t even considered the full nature and parameters of what they are studying?

I don’t want to discuss the causes of knife crime here. I don’t want to insist on proving the existence of moral responsibility. I simply want to point out the faultiness of the argumentative methodology. Those who adopt the purely statistical, behaviourist approach (which may garner some interesting information) should have the good manners to ask if their interlocutors feel this method is satisfactory and addresses the whole picture. The very adoption of that model shapes the conclusion by excluding key avenues in human nature at the outset. What value, then, does the experiment have? It’s studying a phenomenon by assuming at the outset that it has a different nature from what it actually has.

I simply use this as an example of how the behaviourist approach to the problem is as much up for discussion as its conclusions are. To exclude the moral may be one of the reasons for the problem.

What Guy Walker, the commenter, is really espousing is human exceptionalism. As he sets out in our Facebook argument:

What we see in animals is not moral behaviour it is simply the surface appearance of moral behaviour. For something to properly qualify as moral it has to be done from a conscious sense of responsibility or irresponsibility. That’s the only way moral behaviour can be properly moral in the sense of being accountable. No animal has a conscious awareness of moral responsibility. One can christen surface appearance as ‘moral’ but that is simply an arbitrary and unjustified imposition of the term on something that does not truly have the quality of being moral in any useful sense of the word


We are animals but very special ones as we, uniquely, have meaning available to us being sapiens. One can detect vestigial things in animals that resemble our morality but to christen those things with the word ‘morality’ is forcing the anthropomorphicon them.

I don’t deny evolution and we certainly emerged from it, but there is no important self-awareness of a kind that gives access to the realm of meaning in other animals. Hence their failure to create any kind of edifice based on reason.

The main points appear to be that humans are categorically different, have (deontological) morality and other properties that no other animals have and yet he still supposedly adheres to evolution.

As a local academic to me (the University of Winchester), Anne Benvenuti, states (“Evolutionary continuity”, Animal Sentience 2017.092):

The principle of evolutionary continuity states that all animal capacities and behaviors exist — with variations in degree — in continuity with other species. Rather than assuming discontinuity, we should ask why any behavior observed in humans would not be found in at least some other sentient animals under similar conditions….

The assumptions of human exceptionalism are wrong on at least three counts. The first error is the notion that humans are distinct from all the other animals when we are in fact biologically and psychologically continuous with other animals. The second error is the notion that we are superior to all the other animals, a concept that has no biological meaning outside a false comparison across adaptive behaviors and ecological niches. The third error is the highly questionable belief that human behavior is motivated by reason and free moral choice. Assuming evolutionary continuity between humans and other animals resolves these errors and gives more accurate direction to our study of both ourselves and other animals (Griffin 1976). Biologically, humans are not distinct from all the other animals apart from the taxonomic definition the species itself; we are in various ways and to varying degrees continuous with them on the evolutionary tree of life. Cumulative scientific evidence indicates that there is no empirical justification for human exceptionalism (Benvenuti 2016).

The classical form of human exceptionalism is scientifically indefensible not least in that it fails to describe humans accurately. Human cognition is far more implicit (i.e., less conscious) than the philosophers of rationality and moral freedom assumed. Cacioppo and Decety (2009) describe a contemporary understanding of human unconsciousness: “It is now widely recognized that cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes often unfold unconsciously and that this unconscious processing frees up limited processing resources.” Affect is also central and inseparable from human cognition; affective assessment is necessary to behavioral decisions (Damasio 1995). Even the “self” is an ongoing cognitive construction to account for the experiences of living (Damasio 2010). Developmental and social neuroscience have shown that the idea of a free and rational human underestimates the extent to which our sense of self is inhabited by our sense of others (Schore 2001, Cacioppo and Patrick 2008, Ravven 2013).

With regard to nonhuman animals, study after study has reported not only physical but psychological continuity, including tool making and use, reasoning and problem solving, cooperative and competitive social relations, communication, bonding, love, fear, rage, friendship, and grief. Penn (2011) has noted: “Hardly an issue of Current Biology or Animal Cognition goes by without some effigy of human cognitive uniqueness being torn down and dragged through the mud . . . from tool use to metacognition, from deception to death, much of comparative psychology over the past 35 years has been driven by the single-minded goal of demonstrating that nonhuman animals are capable of human-like cognition.” Penn contends that it is the preferential treatment and assumptions about human cognition that are especially problematic.


While my first piece dealt with the foundational philosophical building blocks of reality, this piece will deal with much more empirical, scientific ideas. The first one is evolution. Guy claims that he believes in evolution, except that he doesn’t, really.

There are four approaches to evolution:

  1. Evolution fully and naturalistically explains speciation and life on Earth (but not abiogenesis)
  2. Evolution fully explains speciation etc., though it was started by God. (See my piece “The Evolution of Morality and Theistic Evolutionists”)
  3. Parts of evolution are true, but parts are not true and/or there is something else that adds qualities to humans, for example.
  4. Evolution is in no way true (e.g creationism).

Evolution is a naturalistic theory that explains how all life diversified from a single instantiation of life way back when. It is really important to fully understand evolution here and its ramifications. If you really do adhere to the theory of evolution, and not some cherry-picked, half-cocked version, then you have to fully agree with its conclusions. And the conclusions are simple: all life evolved from a much simpler lifeform and each successive evolved organism builds on the building blocks of what came before.

But this doesn’t just mean bones, skeletons, and body shape. This is a really common misunderstanding of people who don’t properly engage with evolution. This means brain, too. And this means behaviours, emotions and everything that is entailed by the given organism one is investigating. Everything about an organism is evolved. All evolutionary biologists adhere to 1) or 2) (e.g. Kenneth Miller of Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District fame as the most famous theistic evolutionist); none adhere to 3) or 4). And, remember, evolution is one of the most coherent and evidenced scientific theories in the world. The number of scientific disciplines that support it is pretty staggering, from biochemistry to biodistribution, immunology to genetics and epigenetics, so on and so forth.

Of course, characteristics exhibited in organisms, including humans, aren’t just genetically or epigenetically heritable, from genotype to phenotype. The environment and learning are crucially important. It is what Adrian Raine calls the biosocial jigsaw and what is at play when we develop our moral characters. Scientists like David Pisarro have looked at the brain regions and evolved physiological emotions and reactions of things like disgust and have shown how closely related they are to moral judgement and even political choice to the point that they causally affect it. Morality is far more than mere rational thought and judgement; it involves the whole body:

With evolution, it’s an all-or-nothing affair. Just look back to my previous piece and the image on top-down thinking. You can’t massage evolution to fit your conclusion, dropping bits here and adding bits there. Epistemology doesn’t work like that. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.

What Guy gets frustrated at is my linking to other experts rather than making the arguments my own. I can’t not do that, because, for example, three of my favourite books on the matter that I so often quote take up a staggering 2000 pages: Behave by Robert Sapolsky; The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime by Adrian Raine; and How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. And that’s not to mention all the others I’d like to bring in, from Frans de Waal, to Neil Shubin and Jerry Coyne, Daniels Dennett and Kahneman to Antonio Damasio. I simply cannot endlessly list evidences and references here. At some point, the honest debater will have to do the research themselves if they want to continue holding their position with epistemic warrant.

Guy’s appears to be a case of denying the empirical findings of an amazing number of people doing real work in their fields in order to allow a conceptual idea about morality that has not been evidenced in the same way (and that has been found to have great philosophical problems of its own) to trump them. Guy’s claim of my position is:

That’s a philosophical position in itself and a weak on


What we see in animals is not moral behaviour it is simply the surface appearance of moral behaviour. For something to properly qualify as moral it has to be done from a conscious sense of responsibility or irresponsibility. That’s the only way moral behaviour can be properly moral in the sense of being accountable. No animal has a conscious awareness of moral responsibility. One can christen surface appearance as ‘moral’ but that is simply an arbitrary and unjustified imposition of the term on something that does not truly have the quality of being moral in any useful sense of the word…

Properly self-aware consciousness has extraordinary consequences. Whole sophisticated civilisations based on the operation of reason spring up. They don’t in other animals. They shag, eat and die

In a sense, the first sentence of the second quote is correct, but doesn’t go far enough because everybody has the surface appearance of moral behaviour because we apply the labels to such behaviour. This was the point of my first post: we navigate the terrain, this complex world, by creating maps. But we must not confuse the map with the terrain.

The problem is that Guy’s claims do not accord with the evidence. The accumulated knowledge of people working in the field is that we can clearly observe moral behaviour in other organisms, particularly primates. This is where Guy diverges from science and he is so hellbent on assuming the world works towards his conclusion that he is willing to mentally and presuppositionally handwave away anything that contradicts his position. Indeed, he really reminds me of biblical presuppositionalists.

And what is moral responsibility? Is it a post hoc rationalised epiphenomenon? Does it really exist? As mentioned previously, it can only exist conceptually at best. See:

What does it mean to be “properly” self-aware? We know other animals pass the self-awareness tests, such as the mirror test, and that they must have a theory of mind in order to be able to plan and suchlike.

Morality and Other Animals

Mammalian neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (2012) makes a similar point about affective and motivational continuity between humans and other animals: “Why the weight of scientific evidence remains to be accepted by most neuroscientists is a cultural-historical issue, not a scientific one. By sharing a neural platform for diverse affective experiences, the core SELF can be considered to be a ‘nomothetic’ (universal) brain function.” Psychopathologies like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder have been found in nonhuman animals (Bradshaw et al. 2005). The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness concludes that a preponderance of evidence supports continuity of consciousness between humans and other animals (Low 2012). Humanism and human exceptionalism, remnants of philosophy before the age of science, were embedded unquestioningly in much early science. But science is capable of self-correction. [Benvenuti, Ibid)

A good number of scientists spend an awful lot of time observing, recording and theorising on moral behaviours and emotions in other animals such as primates. Accordingly, these animals exhibit morality, compassion, sympathy, empathy, justice, reciprocity, reconciliation, values and other emotions. Heck, even rats, mice and birds have empathy. Seeing the yawn experiments on animals is fascinating (and with humans who don’t suffer from the yawn complex not having empathic feelings, either).

Platek says that yawning is contagious in about 60 to 70 percent of people—that is, if people see photos or footage of or read about yawning, the majority will spontaneously do the same. He has found that this phenomenon occurs most often in individuals who score high on measures of empathic understanding. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, he found that areas of the brain activated during contagious yawning, the posterior cingulate and precuneus, are involved in processing the our own and others’ emotions. “My capacity to put myself in your shoes and understand your situation is a predictor for my susceptibility to contagiously yawn,” he says. [Source]

Primatologist and renowned expert on animal morality Frans de Waal would say that Guy falls into the “indoctrinated” group of human exceptionalists, as previously mentioned. “The biologist doesn’t believe that.” He talks about the Humean approach that morality has grown out of our sentiments. This is not only what is evidenced in the world around us, but it is also a necessary corollary of a proper understanding of evolution.

He has also been involved in work to show that other animals must have consciousness.

The basic reason that social animals live in groups is that opportunities for survival and reproduction are much better in groups than living alone. In order for any social animal to succeed in evolutionary terms, they have had to adapt their behaviour. And show adaptive social behaviour in just as valid a way as complex primates. In fact, one can argue that ants are the most successful species on Earth, given their biomass. However, the altruism of worker ants is not often seen as a truly moral behaviour given their lack of higher-level consciousness. On the other hand, when elephants and primates show empathy and altruism, there is more pause for thought. As de Waal states:

“I am not saying that a chimpanzee or an elephant is necessarily a moral being the way we are, but I would argue that we would never have been capable of developing morality if we didn’t have particular capacities in place. Morality cannot be a completely top-down construct.. There need to be certain mechanisms and certain psychological tendencies in place for you to care about fariness, to care about others…” [Source]

As many primatologists and biologists bemoan, there is an underappreciation of the level of behavioural traits that other primates show. These traits include high intelligence, a capacity for symbolic communication, a sense of social norms, realisation of “self”, and a concept of continuity (e.g. “Barbara J. King – What Binti Jua Knew”, Barbara J. King).

Someone like Frans de Waal think that humans differ to animals in terms of morality is that we enforce our society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building than other animals and that we also apply a degree of judgment and reason not seen to that degree elsewhere in the animal kingdom. This isn’t a categorical difference, this is a difference in degree. Humans are still building upon the basic tenets of genotype and phenotype observed in the wild.

No one argues that other primates morally reason in the sense of cogitating consciously on their decision in the way that humans do, because you need language to do that. But they feel all the emotions and have the same brain structures that are necessary for morality on a pragmatic level – feelings of caring for others, fairness and all those other things I mentioned earlier. Language is massively important to the development of ideas, philosophy and culture.

As I discussed in my free will book, language is coextensive with the development of ideas. You can’t fully understand the notion of pride or love or devotion or loyalty etc. without having a language with which to express these ideas and the ideas upon which they are built. This, in turn, helps to build the scope of language as the ideas emerge. As an elephant, you can feel the expression of these concepts in a physiological sense but there is no internal monologue or discussion with other entities about these ideas and what they mean. For this, you need language.

I’ve long argued that the two most important things that happened in our evolutionary past that are responsible for humans being markedly different to other species is the evolution of opposable thumbs and the evolution of complex language (that needed both the brain and the larynx, etc., to gain traction). I even had a long and protracted debate with Guy about this subject some years ago. Again, thumbs and language are the purviews of evolution.

I can’t begin to properly reference the 2000 pages of work that I mentioned earlier and more). At some point, you have to go and do the required reading. Not to do so is to do a disservice to science, philosophy and reality. I simply can’t list all the evidence here, it is too voluminous. And to pick arbitrary selections would be…arbitrary. The search term “evolution of morality” returns at least 750,000 results. Ignore them at your peril.

Morality, like literally every other aspect of human existence, is built on the foundational bricks that came before us in the long line of evolutionary history. To disagree with this is to simply disregard the evidence and to throw out evolution.

Guy’s quote above talks about animals not having moral responsibility because they are not consciously aware of their actions. The same can be said for a vast amount of moral behaviour in humans. Things are intuitive, with little or no cognitive dissection, and yet we ascribe morality to it, and thus moral responsibility, and thus praise or blame. See my piece “Cheating & Heroism: Automaticity vs Free Will“. There is a great deal of automaticity involved in our moral decision-making (as detailed, for example, in Behave).

These traits of morality have evolved over time to serve a purpose. They’re functional. We see them is functional in primates but the primates do not have the language to be able to investigate and understand their own actions. We look at our own actions and ascribe the term morality to them. We talk about them, we moralise them and so on. However, they are behaviours that are triggered in our brain, in our genes and contextually dependent on our environment; they have fundamentally the same basic reasons that primates have in behaving in the way they do. Power, sense of fairness, empathy and so on.

This could be a whole scientific piece on the causality involved in empathy and sympathy. If you are interested in that, go and do the reading. A great synopsis is, indeed, provided in Behave.


I simply cannot remotely summarise the work done on morality in animals. The point is, animal morality provides the bedrock upon which human morality is built, functional for the survival and success of this very social and complex species. In the words of Phil Rimmer, here:

Morality comprises those thoughts and actions that aid our mutuality.

That, really, really is it for me. Both virtue ethics and deontology are second order heuristics and rehearsals (personal and cultural) in preparation for moral work yet to be done. Like it or not they derive entirely from experience, though will be dressed up as absolutes for marketing purposes.

All minds are independent of each other but they have similar biological construction as well as cultural and historical similarities. Therefore, we often agree on things. However, we also often disagree.

This underplays our differences. Our genetically based cognitive skews give us widely different equipment to cognise and deal with moral perceptions. For instance our low empathy to high empathy, visceral judgment calls are astonishingly diverse person to person. (Zero Degrees of Empathy, Simon Baron Cohen.)

This is why culture has stepped in to model this useful visceral (genetic/cognitive) capacity and extend it into a potentially universal thinking tool, Rational Compassion (Against Empathy, Paul Bloom).

Through our crap mind-reading abilities, we always think we understand the motives and intentions of the other person. Nicholas Epley (Mindwise) shows us we are wrong four times out of five, but that this is often good enough in person to get us started with other processes of understanding and engagement.

All of which pretty much makes our top down moral modeling pretty hopeless. Not only are there not Platonic/theistic rules, but acceptable ideas of personal virtue must be variable, dependent on cognitive genetic endowment and compensatory cultural training, often highly variable. Our dismal understanding of others motivations tops off our poor understanding of specific moral dilemmas (polylemmas!).

The very best study on the roots of gun crime, “On the Run” by Alice Goffman, an eight year study where she lived in a particularly deprived black community, reads almost like an episodic novel. The sheer complexities of interactions, the cascade of unintended consequences of zero-tolerance policing, of dismal welfare and health provision, of lives stunted in a myriad ways by alienating young boys and men from their education and community support even their own families, smacks you in the face and the idea that simply promoting a more moral education, to inculcate moral interiority or whatever, is simply fatuous.

The problem with top down morality is that there is not the slightest proven infrastructure to support its existence. Morality is an emergent property of cultural behaviours and culture dictates the kinds of individuals we breed and train up. Morality (comprising those thoughts and actions that aid our mutuality) is a cost to both cultures and individuals, or rather it is a bilateral investment. The lessons of positively managing knife crime in Glasgow have indeed shown the virtue of better investing in its youth, enriching their culture and their prospects (a complicated and detailed task) and restoring this bilateral contract.

On the other hand, the infrastructure for human morality is plainly evidenced in other species and then built on.

To finish, can you imagine human morality without compassion, sympathy, empathy, justice, fairness, reciprocity, reconciliation, a sense of self, values and emotions? Because all of these are evident in other animal species to greater or lesser degrees. Human morality, as a meaningful concept, requires these foundational bricks. You couldn’t have such morality without them. indeed, without these concepts above, as evidenced in people with brain damage or in psychopaths, we have a lack of morality and moral behaviour.

In the next piece, I will discuss morality and the human brain.


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