16 February 2009

Biological Origins of the Soul Pushed Back to 30 Million Years Ago ...

The molecular biologist Francis Collins has suggested that the human soul with its capacity for ethical decision-making is evidence for the existence of God:
Ultimately, Collins offered his own way to reconcile faith and science: Theistic Evolution. In this vein, God created the universe 13.7 billion years ago with its “parameters tuned to allow the development of complexity over time,” meaning that God planned to include evolution, including the evolution of human beings. After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul. God used DNA as an information molecule; thus DNA is the language of God. (as quoted from The Stanford Review)
A recent paper presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention documents the appearance of ethical behavior in chimps and monkeys.

Chimps and humans last common ancestor was approximately 5 to 7 million years ago. The last common ancestor for chimps, monkeys, and humans was approximately 35 million years ago.

These non-human primates are demonstrating a wide range of ethical behaviors:

Here's an excerpt from the news coverage on this research in the Irish Times:
A session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting debated the evolutionary origins of morality yesterday, the closing day of the event. While many held that morality was invented by human society, it was far more likely that it emerged as a result of natural selection, Prof Frans de Waal, professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, Atlanta said.

Altruism had long been assumed to exist only amongst humans, but many apes, monkeys and even birds displayed what could be taken to be altruism. This suggested that there was a natural selection pressure towards the behaviour that today we view as moral.

Prof de Waal has done extensive work with primates. “We have evidence for empathy, we have evidence for reciprocity, we have evidence for pro-social tendencies and we have evidence for fairness principals,” he said.

He described a range of studies involving chimps and monkeys that demonstrated these tendencies. One of two monkeys was offered the option of receiving a treat for itself or a treat that could be shared with the second, with sharing almost always the option chosen.

“They actually have a preference for choosing the pro-social option that rewards both,” he said, although there was no immediate benefit to the monkey that chooses to be generous.

In a trial that demonstrates a sense of fairness, two chimps are taught a task and rewarded with pieces of cucumber which they readily accept. The task is repeated, but the reward for one chimp is upgraded to grapes. This chimp continues to perform the task, but the second, receiving only cucumber will throw away its reward and stop performing the task, Prof de Waal said.

“I can equate it to the bonuses being given on Wall Street,” and the strong negative public response to them, he quipped.
If the human soul (the source of free will and knowing the difference between good and evil) has biological roots extending back up to 35 million years ago among our primate cousins, perhaps we should entertain the possibility that what we call ethics, morality, and free will all have their roots in natural selection.

As reported in The Times:
Some researchers believe we could owe our consciences to climate change and, in particular, to a period of intense global warming between 50,000 and 800,000 years ago. The proto-humans living in the forests had to adapt to living on hostile open plains, where they would have been easy prey for formidable predators such as big cats.

This would have forced them to devise rules for hunting in groups and sharing food.

Christopher Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center, part of the University of Southern California’s anthropology department, believes such humans devised codes to stop bigger, stronger males hogging all the food.

“To ensure fair meat distribution, hunting bands had to gang up physically against alpha males,” he said. This theory has been borne out by studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes.

In research released at the AAAS he argued that under such a system those who broke the rules would have been killed, their “amoral” genes lost to posterity. By contrast, those who abided by the rules would have had many more children.

And the biologist PZ Myers makes the following observation about these findings:

It's a little glib and speculative, but it's enough to shut down the claim that morality couldn't have evolved.

And now we can say that being ethical is an all-natural additive-free organic behavior that we share with some animals.

1 comment:

Joel Monka said...

One big flaw in the theory: "...to a period of intense global warming between 50,000 and 800,000 years ago." Come on now, the sole and only cause of global warming is human pollution; that is established science. To propose any other possible cause is RightWingnut anti-science holocaust denying.