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Moral Emotions and Creative Forces in Evolution

Some of the most peculiar things are also the commonest. Every day people give to complete strangers, anonymously, with no hope of future repayment or reputation gain. In other ways though, our generosity seems oddly constrained. The philosopher Peter Singer has discussed some of these limitations. He poses a thought-provoking juxtaposition. Donned in a new suit, most of us would jump into a lake to save a drowning child, even if it meant the suit would be ruined. In fact, most of us would probably feel anger towards the person who omitted saving the child to keep the suit. Why then, Singer wonders, do we not equivalently feel the need to help starving children in distant places (further, why do we not similarly condemn those who are able but unwilling to help in this case)?

Constraints aside, look around the rest of the animal kingdom and you will find morality mostly absent from most species. The capacity to experience empathy and compassion for non-kin seems against the red tooth and claw of nature, and it usually is (hence the absence). It is for this reason altruism presents a paradox for evolutionary thinkers. Defined as any act that reduces an individual’s fitness for the benefit of another, altruism should, on first glance, have a difficult time evolving. Some acts which look like altruism are not altruistic at all. For example, a mother nurturing her young is not an act of altruism because the act increases the likelihood of the survival and reproduction of those offspring (which is directly related to design for passing on genes well).

Is altruistic behavior towards strangers just the brain misfiring?  Was this circuitry shaped for kin? What creative selective forces shaped our moral emotions?

On the surface, moral emotions seem to benefit the group. But as George C. Williams notes in his book, Adaptation and Natural Selection, it is necessary to distinguish between what he calls a population of adapted individuals and an adapted population of individuals. Williams goes on to raise some theoretical problems in ascribing group selection as a major creative force of adaptation. He writes,

“Just as the evolution of even the simplest organic adaptation requires the operation of selection at many loci for many generations, so also would the production of biotic adaptation require the selective substitution of many groups. This is a major theoretical difficulty. Consider how rapid is the turnover of generations in even the slowest breeding organisms, compared to the rate at which populations replace each other. The genesis of biotic adaptation must for this reason be orders of magnitude slower than that of organic adaptation.” (1996/66, pg. 114)


To me this means that any benefit for the group at cost to an individual is constrained by the more frequent within-group selection of alternative alleles for benefit of individuals (and ultimately those alleles) at expense of (or at least indifference towards) the group.

If we are looking at a population of adapted individuals, the experience of moral emotions should have an adaptive function that benefits the individual’s fitness. Also, any cognitive shifts, if adaptations, in witnessing the expression of emotion should benefit the perceiver, even when it seems only of benefit to the expresser. If a reaction to an expression was a hindrance to the perceiver I see no reason why perceivers should “buy in” to the expression.  Because humans live in complicated social groups, adaptations to the group environment are likely to have arisen, but the creative force behind them, I suspect, is within-group selection and because of that I do not think many, if any, of our moral emotions will turn out to be altruistic, in the evolutionary sense.

Discussion (1 Comment)


Hey Conor–
I agree with you that moral emotions are likely to have evolved in the genetic (individual) sense, and that they are adaptive (and thus do not indicate altruism). That said, I have been pretty convinced by Joe (Henrich) that group selection can and does occur– this is how cultural evolution works. You might want to check out Richeson & Boyd’s book on cultural evolution…(or read some of Joe’s stuff on this, or David Sloane Wilson’s for that matter).

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