Let’s grant the creationists this much: on the face of it, the story of evolution isn’t terribly flattering. We evolved most recently from apes, much earlier from fish (human fetuses, like all vertebrates, have gill slits in early stages of development, reminders that all life, including ours, came originally from the sea). Before that, we came from single-celled animals, and before that, going back to the beginning of life on earth four billion years ago, some sort of microscopic slime about which we don’t much care. This isn’t the sort of picture we want to post on Facebook. To be descended not only from apes, but also something like slime mold and bacteria – this isn’t an exciting picture. Nor is it intuitive: we came from something the size of bacteria, and now we have over a trillion bacteria on each foot. It’s hard to get our mind around such a scale of size or time, and harder still to feel our hearts warmed by the prospect.
Evolutionary sciences say this deep history is a measure of how completely we are creations of this Earth, how deeply this is our home. All right, but what’s to be gained from a humiliating pedigree? All in all, this isn’t an interesting way to understand what kind of creatures we are, what potential we have, and what might reasonably be expected of us.
Where it does get interesting comes from looking not at our physical, mechanical structure, but at our behavior, related to the behavior of other animals. Ethology – the science of comparative animal behavior – claims that our morality, empathy, compassion and the rest of our virtuous behaviors may come through religion, but not from it. Consider just a few of the many behaviors ethologists have observed, and feel how easily you can identify with them:
– Crocodiles evolved two hundred million years ago, long before mammals appeared (they’re much smaller now). Like all reptiles, they lack our “limbic system” of emotions. Yet though reptiles are usually finished with “parenting” after they lay their eggs, the mother crocodile adds a level of maternal care. After her young have hatched, the mother carries them to the water in her mouth, then guards them for most of the first year of their lives. Sometimes the hatchlings get to ride on her back, too. She will threaten or attack any predator that lurks too close, and in some species she will call the hatchlings to swim into her mouth for protection—making it look like she’s swallowed them. Yet we recognize something very fundamental here: the mother crocodile cares for the young lives for which she feels responsibility. We’d call these behaviors empathetic and compassionate.
– We all know instinctively to play much more gently with young children, but so do our family pets. So do rats. People who study rats playing have said rats will also restrain themselves when they know their actions would cause pain to another individual.
– Frans de Waal, today’s most influential ethologist, tells the story of how a troop of monkeys treated one of their infants, who was born blind. The infant was born into a free-ranging population of rhesus monkeys released onto a Caribbean island. Apart from being sightless, the infant appeared perfectly normal: he played, for instance, as much as other infants his age. Compared to his peers, he often broke contact with his mother, thereby placing himself in situations that he could not recognize as dangerous. His mother responded by retrieving and restricting him more than other mothers did with their infants. In other studies of blind infant monkeys such infants were never left alone, and specific group members stayed with them whenever the group moved.
– One of the earliest recorded stories showing the strength of an ape’s empathic response comes from a Russian woman [Ladygina-Kohts], who wrote in 1935 about her young chimpanzee, Joni, saying that the best way to get him off the roof of her house (much better than any reward or threat of punishment) was by arousing his sympathy:
If I pretend to be crying, close my eyes and weep, Joni immediately stops his plays or any other activities, quickly runs over to me, all excited and shagged, from the most remote places in the house, such as the roof or the ceiling of his cage, from where I could not drive him down despite my persistent calls and entreaties. He hastily runs around me, as if looking for the offender; looking at my face, he tenderly takes my chin in his palm, lightly touches my face with his finger, as though trying to understand what is happening, and turns around, clenching his toes into firm fists.
– Scientists have learned that rats are reluctant to press a lever to get food if doing so will also deliver an electric shock to a companion. They will invariably press the lever that will not deliver the shock, and some will even forgo food rather than hurt their friends. Similar experiments with rhesus monkeys had even more dramatic results. One monkey stopped pulling the lever for five days, and another one for twelve days after witnessing shock delivery to a companion. These monkeys were literally starving themselves to avoid inflicting pain upon another. They felt an identity with that other life, and automatically volunteered for discomfort or danger to protect it.
These are just a few of the thousands of observations of animals preceding our evolution by millions or tens of millions of years, exhibiting sympathy, empathy and the behavior we have named the Golden Rule. If life has given us even more awareness and sensitivity than these other species, can we in good conscience be less caring than crocodiles, apes, monkeys and rats? This is the long evolutionary pedigree of our morality, coming not from a god above, but from nature around and within us.
Frans De Waal makes this case directly in his 2009 book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. To those in religion who wonder if we could be good without God, the answer is that thousands of other species have been doing it since long before any of our religions or their gods were constructed.
This is where the Creationists are most deeply wrong, because they teach that what’s good about us comes not from nature, but only from (their) God. If it were true, they would be right in calling us to establish a life-giving relationship with the God of the Bible. But it isn’t true. The pedigree of our morality doesn’t come from above. It comes through us – as it also has come through thousands of other species, from behavioral developments in our four billion year evolution from life on Earth. Our best ethical and moral behaviors are variously shared with thousands of other species. These behaviors include a sense of fairness, honesty, mutual support, sexual “courtship” behavior, jealousy, territoriality, empathy, compassion, altruism, grief, mourning — even burying their dead in some species — and some examples of the Golden Rule that may put ours to shame.
We are the species with the greatest potential for both creativity and destruction, but our place in evolutionary history can be seen as asking more of us than our gods do. If so many “lower” forms of life show caring behavior, they have set the bar we are equipped and expected to exceed because, to quote some wisdom from the Bible, much is expected from those to whom much has been given (Luke 12:48). Whether or not we care about a god, the compassionate legacy of life is present in all of us, and has equipped all but the very worst among us with a greater sensitivity toward other life than any other species. If we see ourselves as superior to all other animals on Earth, it’s fair to say we have a moral obligation to walk the walk. The moral tree is known by its fruits.
But what might “call” us to these high moral demands?
Throughout our history, religions have murdered people who didn’t believe in their God, tortured them, burned them alive, stoned them to death for having sex, killed women because a man raped them, besmirching their family’s honor in a way that murder apparently doesn’t. Catholic Popes have covered for priests who sexually abuse children for their entire 2,000 year history, in addition to their murderous Crusades and Torturous Inquisition. Ethnic violence of European settlers against native Americans, whites against blacks, Israelis against Palestinians, black genocide against white Afrikaans.… Once we define ourselves by anything smaller than “living beings,” we slide into a smorgasbord of murder more easily than we slide into peace. Our gods and national or ethnic identities are among the causes of these bloody behaviors, because they give us identities far too small to serve civilized life in a pluralistic world. If the “trees” of our beliefs are to be known by their behavioral fruits, we need a larger and more inclusive identity than our religions, ethnicities or nations.
Now for the interactive part:
These questions are too large to permit clear and easy answers. What can empower and challenge us to rise to more empathic behavior than religions, ethnicities and nations can? What’s your candidate, and why?
2 (Church 1959, in Marc Bekoff, “Wild justice and fair play: cooperation, forgiveness, and morality in animals”, in Biology and Philosophy 19: 489-520, 2004. P. 498.
3 Frans de Waal, Good-Natured, pp. 51-52.
4 Ladyginia-Kohts, 2002 : 121) (Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers.
5 Jeffrey M. Masson, Dogs never Lie, p. 95
6 Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, p. 29, from Masserman et al. 1964