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The Evolution of Morality

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Are we humans essentially altruistic beings whose natural state is to care for others? Or are we ogres at heart, our moral codes the only thing holding us back from utter selfishness? A tour through the evolutionary history of morality and its precursors suggests a third alternative—that we are neither angel nor beast, but are by nature moral strugglers and deliberators. We are not programmed for altruism nor selfishness, but rather have influences in both of these directions, along with a refined ability to assess our social environments and make informed decisions. Humans tend to make moral decisions on the basis of two main variables: the anticipated effects of our behavior on our reputation, and the perceived stability of the social groups on which we depend. Moreover, the part of human nature we call morality is actually a conglomerate of tendencies and capacities, some of which are millions of years old and others just thousands. Many of its more recent features, including moral rules that are difficult for us to follow, are cultural surrogates for adaptation in an age when our social environments are changing too fast for us to adapt genetically to them. In the end, although we have inherited the tools of the moral trade and several important biases, the goals of our lives and the significance we place on morality and goodness are up to us.

This talk is part of the The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion series.

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