Morality evolved first, long before Religion

February 10, 2010

Which came first, religion or morality? Listening to religious people, you'd hear how people need religion's instructions, or else we'd be morally clueless. God comes first, then God's Law comes to humanity, and only then can people be good.

But there's no good evidence for any part of this fable. Such a religious fable itself is a relatively recent creation, reduplicated in many forms all over the world. Different religions talk about all manner of strange supernatural agents perpetually obsessed with correct human conduct. (You'd think any actual self-respecting deity would have more interesting things to do.) Yet basic morality itself is remarkably consistent across human societies. Long before humans had language complex enough to spin stories of heaven, our distant ancestors had to deal with their own problems on earth.

We are a highly social species, using social structures like monogamy, family, clan, and tribe. Our ancestors were using these structures at least 500,000 years ago. If you were suddenly plucked from your life and sent back in time to live with people in Indonesia about 15,000 years ago (or even Ethiopia 150,000 years ago), you would be able to figure out what is going on. The basic social roles, responsibilities, and civil rules would seem somewhat familiar to you, and you'd fit in pretty fast. How is that possible?

Cultural anthropologists have long recognized how all human societies have similar basic norms of moral conduct. Marc Hauser, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has just published a paper about additional studies showing that people’s moral intuitions do not vary much across different religions all around the world. From an evolutionary perspective, that means that human morality is very old -- old enough to pre-date any religion that exists today. Furthermore, basic morality is highly resistant to religious influence -- most people easily reject religious rules that violate their basic moral intuitions. Rather, religions all tend to confirm and support human morality, because that essential morality sustains our schemes of social cooperation.

Hauser concludes that

"... religion cannot be the ultimate source of intra-group cooperation. Cooperation is made possible by a suite of mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion. Moral judgments depend on these mechanisms and appear to operate independently of one's religious background. However, although religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation, it can play a role in both facilitating and stabilizing cooperation within groups, and as such, could be the target of cultural selection." [ read the entire article here... ]

The rich diversity of supernatural fantasies hides their common function: to enhance willing obedience. Religion did not evolve independently from, or earlier than, our moral capacities. Morality is independent from religion, while religion is dependent on human morality. And that's a good thing.


#1 Kathy Orlinsky on Wednesday February 10, 2010 at 10:35am

There’s also the fact that non-human primates and other animals display behaviors that are indistinguishable from what we’d call morality.  Clearly, they did not get those behaviors from any kind of religion.

#2 Ophelia Benson on Thursday February 11, 2010 at 12:16pm

“The basic social roles, responsibilities, and civil rules would seem somewhat familiar to you, and you’d fit in pretty fast.”

No I wouldn’t.

“studies showing that people’s moral intuitions do not vary much across different religions all around the world.”

Well that depends what you mean by “much,” I guess.

“Furthermore, basic morality is highly resistant to religious influence—most people easily reject religious rules that violate their basic moral intuitions.”

I wish.

I can’t help wondering if when you say “you” you’re unconsciously assuming “you”=male.

I’m a woman, and I emphatically would not “fit in pretty fast,” nor would I find that the basic social roles, responsibilities, and civil rules would seem somewhat familiar to me.

Have you simply lost sight of the fact that in many many places the basic social roles, responsibilities, and civil rules mandate that women be entirely powerless and dependent, and subject to violent punishment up to and including death by torture for even the smallest infraction or even suspicion of infraction of this mandate?

And then there’s the question of Other races, inferior castes, treatment of criminals and prisoners of war, etc etc etc.

No, sorry, I think what we take to be basic morality is very much a cumulative, acquired set of ideas that we have to argue for and defend, not something we can rely on biology to provide - or religion, for sure, which has historically backed what we (we liberal secular types) take to be gross injustice.

#3 JohnnyCrash on Thursday February 11, 2010 at 1:29pm

Interesting point Ophelia.

I think gender roles and gender morality do have that basic genesis and motivation mentioned in John’s post though: “monogamy, family, clan, and tribe”... well, except for monogamy.

As an example, the Old Testament’s “god”-approved abortion mentioned in Numbers 5 was not about protecting a woman’s health due to pregnancy complications, it was about the husband suspecting, but not being able to prove, that his wife had cheated on him.  The priest’s magic concoction would then, presumabley, abort the other man’s child and make the wife ill.

In this, John’s point is that morality is humanity’s attempt to protect the family and the tribe.  This often meant an immoral suppression of women and a woman’s sexuality was often viewed as dangerous and a mysterious trap… this abortion protected the man’s “family” and genetic line, but humiliated and harmed the wife and ironically could have terminated a faithful wife and her paranoid husband’s fetus.

I do take exception with the thought on monogamy.  Many primitive cultures allowed for multiple wives, concubines, purchasing of wives as slaves, and temple prostitutes.  In many of these cultures divorce is not a right for any wife, but the man holds that sole right.

In these two examples, the suppression of women and a man dominated morality, religion is much at fault… but as John said these ugly things were also around before religion.

Evolution of species is one thing, but the evolution of social behavior (including morality) is very different and less Darwinistic.  I agree that morality generally had the same trajectory and familial/tribal motives long before religion, but I wouldn’t call it a good morality… especially when it came to the treatment of women.

Considering how third-hand religion is also shows how these artifacts were just being passed down to the next generations instead of questioned, refined, or disposed of.  Conquerers too often borrowed and renamed annexed nation’s gods/moral codes.  For example, Moses’ law borrowed heavily from pre-existing, “pagan” laws.  “Eye for an eye” is one such plagiarization from Hammerabi.  What we need is skeptical inquiry of these relics and a revising of human morality… not more blind borrowing.

In a similar vein, animal (or human) sacrifice is also a commonality among many cultures.  To the ignorant primitive human without scientific understanding, when natural disasters happened, crops were decimated by natural causes, and bacterial/viral sickness/plague swept through a community - they were not able to attribute the basic, explanable, and scientific reasons to these things.  Instead early man, grasping for some cause-and-effect blamed invisible gods.  The only way that seemed logical to satiate these angry invented gods and protect yourself and your tribe was to offer him/her/them blood for blood.

Also consider strange rites of passage customs.  Egyptians circumcized themselves long before Abraham came into the picture.  Some tribes tattoo their faces, others elongate their necks with brass rings, others elongate their lips with plates.  What is sad is that these primitive, superstitious rituals, as well as the primitive anti-woman/pro-man morality clung on long enough for later religions to borrow and make more entrenched and philosophically sophisticated.

Whether it is morality or ritual, the ghosts of the past are tenacious.  The only thing that can make morality better is to drop the superstitions and use rational, logical, and scientific inquiry to decide a better, new morality - one not enforced by ancient and arbitrary texts filled with fables, violence, and immorality - especially against women as Ophelia said.

Another interesting and thought provoking article John.  Thanks!

#4 Ophelia Benson on Thursday February 11, 2010 at 2:02pm

Johnny, yes, but I think John was saying more than ‘these are the facts about the origin of morality’ - in the three bits I quoted, in particular.

I emphatically deny that if I were “sent back in time to live with people in Indonesia about 15,000 years ago (or even Ethiopia 150,000 years ago)” then “basic social roles, responsibilities, and civil rules would seem somewhat familiar to [me], and [I’d] fit in pretty fast.”

The amount of autonomy and freedom I have, and the things I can do with it, are a novelty for women, and are entirely unavailable today on much of the planet. This is not some minor deviation from a general pattern of universal morality - it’s a major change. If I went (dragged kicking and screaming) to Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan now, never mind 15 or 150 thousand years ago, I would not “fit in pretty fast.” I would be imprisoned, and I would be utterly and entirely furious and miserable.

#5 JohnnyCrash on Thursday February 11, 2010 at 4:41pm

Yeah, I guess I agree with John on some generalities and with you on other points.  Generally speaking morality about murder, theft, and stuff like that had been around before the big religions… sure.

But I’m definitely with you on the flipside - general immorality that existed universally as well.  Stuff like gender inequality, marriage laws, etc, was abyssmal then, and as you said, today too in places where religion has been able to maintain those old, borrowed, primitive moral codes.

I think I’d avoid Afghanistan too… and I’m a guy HAHA!  Unicef’s photo of the year for 2007 shows a 40 year old man and his new bride… an 11 year old girl.  I don’t think I could handle seeing that type of thing without going berserk.  The results of the morality of following in old Moe’s footsteps with 9 year old Aisha.

The tradition of marrying cousins has been a problem for the occurances of genetic disorders in many Arab communities as well (another carry-over from Old Testament and Islamic patriarchal moralities).  The BBC has interesting reporting on the problem in Pakistani communities in England and I think CNN recently did a report on it in Palestine.

#6 John Shook on Friday February 12, 2010 at 10:55am

Since Ophelia utterly misrepresents my simple point, I must reply. She depicts my words as woman-hating and utterly unjust, and seems to imply that I endorse that.

And all resting on my words “you’d fit in pretty fast.”

In common English, “fitting in” can mean “happily accepting the social scene”.  But that was not my intended meaning.

No, Ophelia, you would not be pleased about living in bygone days. Nor would I. Much of bygone society is now regarded as grossly unjust. However, the common morality that Hauser studies goes deeper than male-female power structures (which are quite culturally relative). You can read his studies without my help and he can defend himself.

What I simply meant by “fitting in” was that you would be able to figure out the local social structures and be able to survive with bygone humans. You wouldn’t enjoy it, but you wouldn’t starve. Hauser credits a basic moral sense which he claims is very pervasive and very old. If you dispute his evidence, I’d like to hear your specifics.

#7 Ophelia Benson on Friday February 12, 2010 at 12:41pm

John, I didn’t intend to misrepresent your simple point - all I could see was what was on the page, and I disagreed with some of that. I don’t think I did “depict [your] words as woman-hating” and I certainly didn’t intend to; I thought they overlooked the implications for women, but that’s a different thing.

I don’t know what it means to say that the common morality that Hauser studies goes deeper than male-female power structures. And yes of course I can read him without your help (and I have read some Hauser), but I was replying to your post.

#8 David (Guest) on Thursday March 04, 2010 at 2:20pm

Since it seems morality is essentially evolved behaviour, the issue of gender is extremely unlikely to be consistent with modern views - sometimes the imperative to reproduce - an extremely powerful one in evolutionary terms - is going to cut across liberal views of the role and rights of women. If the survival of the species is at stake, does that consideration override the rights of an individual? If morality is evolved then yes.

#9 MsColleen on Saturday March 06, 2010 at 11:14pm

It might be helpful to think on several things that would be familiar, just as there are several things that we have had to develop from whole cloth, as it were.

Think kinship relationships such as the clan assisting in the raising of children, or the practice of altruism which counters the notion of selfishness.  These are traits that our species seems to have evolved, and which to some extent or another we share more closely with the bonobo but less closely with the other great apes.  Female bonobos are not subjected to the terror that child brides are subjected to, and male bonobos are not documented to be as misogynistic as many men today.

So I am comfortable with what you’ve said Ophelia, but I also recognize that while local traditions will be grossly unfamiliar, there will be traits that I would no doubt recognize, such as the mutual raising of offspring or altruistic behaviors.  I think the lack of specific examples was the weakness in the original statement.

... but I wouldn’t be happy in such a setting either ...

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