“Competing is intense among humans, and within a group, selfish individuals always win. But in contests between groups, groups of altruists always beat groups of selfish individuals.”
- E. O. Wilson
On Thursday night I started to write a post about eating meat. It is still saved in my box of drafts, but it will remain there for the time being because I became mired in issues of morality I don’t think my fledgling blog can cope with at this stage. Nevertheless, ever since that failed effort at writing clearly about a ethically sensitive issue, I have been thinking about why it was such a difficult piece to write. The answer is two-fold, I think. Firstly, it seems that morality is an area that demonstrates the extent and depth of variety in human understanding, belief and emotional responses in relation to an issue. Secondly, because we are what we are – a highly social, empathetic species – morality seeps into almost every aspect of our life.
What relevance does this have to a blog that claims to be about interactions between species? Well, ethics are fairly well inescapable in any field of study (just ask any researcher who’s had to fill in an ‘ethical approval form’). That aside, I think a consideration of morality in its fundamental form is informative in understanding any interaction, be it between species or just between individuals.
My understanding of ‘morality’ and ‘moral actions’ is that where social groups exist, there also exist rules and norms of social interaction which are built on a combination of emotion, experience and reasoned thought. I see morality, at its simplest level, as the WD40 of society; we agree not to kill one another and things tend to go more smoothly. I am not of the philosophy that morality exists outside of the social and interactive sphere (‘transcendentalism’): alone in a desert, it doesn’t matter what your morals are. Although I am convinced that forms of morality and altruism exist within and between many species, I do not think there is one universal morality. I will try and explain how I have reached this stance in this blog.
This, then, is where E. O. Wilson’s quote (above) comes into play. When Wilson speaks of altruism, he is referring to an interaction in which one party ‘self-sacrifices’ for the other’s benefit. As with all of these terms, there are various types of altruism. ‘Kin altruism’ is self-sacrifice that benefits a relative, and is relatively common across a variety of species (including eusocial insects such as termites and ants, birds like the chestnut-crowned babbler, meerkats, wolves and, of course, humans). Particularly noteworthy for this blog is ‘reciprocal altruism’: essentially mutualism in the short term. This is an interaction in which everyone benefits, in the long run, from their sacrifice; the classic example of this is the principle of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.
In some cases, the benefit may not be immediately apparent, but it is normally there somewhere. There are occasions or associations in which ‘true altruism’ is demonstrated – self-sacrifice with no benefit, or even negative consequences, for the altruist. This is fairly rare, however, even in the highly morally-conscious human (the Friends episode, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” is a nice demonstration of how hard it is to find a truly selfless act).
Essentially, altruism is rarely advantageous in an individualistic or competitive society; if everyone is out for themselves except you, you will lose out. Because the natural world is so often seen as “red in tooth and claw” (thanks for that one, Tennyson), it has become ‘common knowledge’ that selfishness and competitive success is the key to evolution. Indeed, this often holds true; it is clear that, for example, the winning male in a fight between bull elephants is more likely to mate with females and pass on his genes. Similarly, kleptoparasitism – the stealing of food, as seen in a number of spiders, cuckoos, coots and hyenas – is demonstrably a successful strategy for survival. However, ‘the Selfish Gene’, as Richard Dawkins famously refers to it, is also likely to be the foundation of altruism – and of morality.
If you have a moment, please take the time to watch this 15-minute presentation by one of my heroes, primatologist Frans de Waal. It shows some great examples of how the basics of morality can form in social species and how it can be evolutionary beneficial to be beneficent.
“If you ask anyone, what is morality based on? These are the two factors that always come out: One is reciprocity, … a sense of fairness, and the other one is empathy and compassion.” – Frans de Waal
The suggestion – and one that makes me less dispirited about the nature of the world in general – is that morality is itself adaptive, just a different way of doing things. We can be just as successful if we work together and demonstrate cooperation and compassion than we can through competition.
Of course, normally animals (humans included, most of the time) are not thinking about the long term evolutionary advantage of cooperation and compassion when we act in this way. It has not been suggested that we are, rather, that we have evolved a tendency towards developing positive social behaviours which benefit others and ourselves. As ever, we are not alone in this: this video, released this week, is a touching example of compassionate behaviour in dolphins. Many primate species have complex rules governing their interactions that can take years for infants to learn. This sort of cooperative behaviour doesn’t even require a big brain; recent studies suggest that rats demonstrate empathy-driven behaviour too (should we try this with the Masked Bandits?)
Humans, with our extensive demonstrations of communication, cultural transmission and cognition, have then hit the snag of disagreeing amongst ourselves about which moral system is the ‘right’ one and what types of behaviours are acceptable in our societies. We generalise, too, which means that we apply our own moral values outside of our immediate (human) group to other species and choose the level of moral consideration we think they should receive; note that the animals that receive the most human protection are often those ones considered most similar to humans (something I’ve done a bit of research on). Sometimes, in our generalising, we attribute moral behaviour to animals who may not have the same values as we do; how often have you heard a fox called ‘wasteful’ for killing a cage full of chickens, or a pig ‘filthy’ for bathing in mud?
The upside (or another downside, depending on your moral stance…) is, of course, that many of us widen our compassion and our moral sphere to include nonhumans and even whole ecosystems, so much value do we place on being ‘good’.
However, conflicts between individuals, between societies, between species and between the opposing evolutionary powers of selfishness and altruism make the moral world, in every sense, a dangerous one to walk through.
Nb. If you’re interested in this topic, Prof Marc Bekoff often blogs about morality in animals in his Psychology Today blog.