Breaking my promise: Evolution and morals yet again…

Via New Scientist:

We are figuring out how the brain and its chemicals give rise to moral and social values, says Patricia Churchland

WHERE do moral values come from? Not from Plato’s heaven, nor from any other. Aristotle, Confucius and Darwin all recognised valuing as a basic function of biological creatures generally, and moral valuing as a basic function of highly social and intelligent animals like humans. Until very recently, however, science could not explain how brains, built by gene networks interacting with the environment, give rise to morality.

Natural selection being what it is, caring for others must serve the fitness of the animals involved. Evolutionary biologists have developed models to show how this might work, but it is only now that neuroscientists are catching the first glimpses of how altruistic behaviour happens in the brain.

Morality seems to be shaped by four interlocking brain processes: caring, rooted in attachment to and nurture of offspring; recognition of others’ psychological states, bringing the benefit of predicting their behaviour; problem-solving in a social context, such as how to distribute scarce goods or defend the clan; and social learning, by positive and negative reinforcement, imitation, conditioning and analogy. These factors result in the emergence of a conscience: a set of socially sanctioned responses to prototypical circumstances.

These four interlocking brain processes result in the emergence of a conscience

Social values, real as they are, depend on an evolutionary modification of the neural circuitry involved in basic survival. In all vertebrates, brain-stem circuitry keeps crucial parameters such as temperature and carbon dioxide and glucose levels within the right range. In order to maintain this homeostasis, the brain deploys motivations such as pain, hunger, thirst and fear, as well the complementary pleasures of food, water, sex and safety.

As the mammalian brain evolved, the homeostasis network enabling “me” to survive expanded its scope to embrace “mine”, at first meaning one’s own helpless offspring. Pain and anxiety responses were triggered by separation or perceived need; pleasure and comfort came with being suckled, licked and cuddled. In some species, additional adjustments in attachment circuitry widened the circle to include mates, kin and others in the group, depending on selection pressures.

At the hub of the neural circuitry of attachment are ancient peptides: oxytocin and its sibling, vasopressin. Along with other reproductive hormones and neurotransmitters, these peptides organise the circuitry in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain stem involved in attachment to “mine”. Though much remains to be discovered, vasopressin seems to be related more to aggressive care, such as defence, while oxytocin dampens fear and anxiety, which feels good and is associated with trust.

The neocortex – the six-layered mantle covering the brain’s hemispheres – is unique to mammals. The high cost of mammalian dependency at birth is offset by the singular advantages of new forms of learning made possible by the neocortex. In primates, the neocortex appears to be responsible for an enhanced capacity to predict others’ behaviour. It also enables more abstract learning and problem-solving, as well enhanced flexibility in impulse control and social skills. These skills paved the way for the emergence of cultural institutions such as trade practices, criminal justice systems and religions – all of which served to regulate trust among non-kin and allow for a wider range of trusting relationships than isolated hunter-gathering groups could offer. In short, the brain’s regulation of attachment and bonding is what makes us want to be together, to care for one another, and to value our family, friends and community. The interplay of our neural and cultural institutions comprises our moral history.

Patricia Churchland is a philosopher of neuroscience at the University of California and the Salk Institute, both in San Diego. Her book, Braintrust: What neuroscience tells us about morality, will be published by Princeton University Press in March 2011


About Armin

Hermit, free-lance monk, laughing pessimist, hopeless optimist, standing upright after being bowled over too often, crawling when he should fly and flying without a pilot's licence. Clinging to bushes and grasses in his free time.
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2 Responses to Breaking my promise: Evolution and morals yet again…

  1. Armin says:

    Maybe I need to explain why I keep harping on the evolutionary side of morality…
    I remember reading a book on elementary physics at the age of maybe 10, and coming across the concept of atoms for the first time: I had no trouble accepting that everything was made up of atoms, except myself of course. I’m solid, eh? No doubt about this. The tought that is an agglomoration of atoms is hard to bear even now!

    Later on it became more and more clear that there is a brain/body system thinking thoughts, acting acts. Another deep and ongoing punch to the “I’m solid syndrome”.

    One of the last bastions seems to be our intrinsic value system, and while it is quite possible to relativate nearly everything and come away “solid”, once we get down to the most basic affects, like love; unconditional will to have our off-spring survive; aversion to what we see as “wrong”, we again have the feeling of an impenetrable “solidness”.
    Showing that morality is relative, evolved, conditioned is a straight attack on this core of assumed self.
    The problem is that many people will see this as an attack on the value of morals, like understanding WHY we love our children would invalidate that love. I deeply love my sons, even though I know how this love is created in an evolutionary and hormonal sense.

    The word science comes from an indo-germanic root meaning “to cut”(scissors, sky, ski have the same root, amongst many others).
    I use science as a tool to cut open and cut apart my “certain certainties”, examine them as closely as my limited intelect permits, and see what is left.
    —-well, what IS left after the solid self crumbles to bits?

    Blackbird singing in the dead of night
    Take these broken wings and start to fly……..

  2. Jim Hegarty says:

    I have been reading the various articles on morality and science that have been posted. Personally I found Armin’s comments on science, and evolution more useful and thoughtful than the vast majority of articles on “neuroscience” and the brain. I have always found it quite disturbing the way many of those involved in Buddhism, and various meditation practices seem to pay so much attention to findings about the brain and correlations between neuronal activity and experience. Maybe that is partly because having some knowledge of the area I am aware that the claims made about what we actually know regarding brain-behaviour/brain-experience relationships are widely exaggerated. Sure there are some interesting correlations. However, from a scientific perspective correlations are far from proof. Also, having certain areas of the brain appear to be active during certain activities, such as meditating, feeling empathy, laughing, and so on tell us almost nothing of practical import. You do something and your brain chemistry changes. Drink a beer and your brain chemistry changes. Your mother dies and your brain chemistry changes. Have a fight with your boss and your brain chemistry changes. This is of course interesting, and it is not a level of analysis that is useful for most people or for most situations. In fact this level of analysis, the neuronal, is not currently that useful as a level of analysis at all if you look at the true efficacy of most pharmaceuticals for emotional problems. The field where the science of the brain interacts with most people’s lives.

    One of the great problems in reading about scientific research is then thinking that we understand something. The “neurosciencetist” will talk about findings in their field as if they are very meaningful. Of course this is what they know about and are interested in. However I will look at the inferences they draw from a different perspective, say a cognitive psychology or behavioural perspective, and say I can explain morality for example in terms of the way language works as a system of symbols (look up Relational Frame Theory if you are interested), and the system of symbols used by the group a person belongs to. I would say that not only does this explanation provide a more useful level of analysis, but that it rests on a firmer body of research. Typically a neurosciencist then tends to look confused and bemused. It is not in their universe of understanding. It does not seem relevant to them.

    The problem is that each scientific discipline has a little bit of the picture. Even some one who can see across several different disciplines has only a small slice of the pie. One of the problems that lead to grandiose, and ultimately ill-informed statements made by those who consider themselves neurosciencists, or moral philosophers, or philosophers of neuroscience is that they are bound by the limits of their field of study, and by their current level of understanding. They are also bound by the tyranny of words. Words by their nature give a feeling of concreteness. They lead us to believe that there is a solid thing, or state that we can grasp; that we actually understand something. That this is it! The final word. Science is infinitely variable and minutely subtle. As Armin has suggested one of its great strengths is that it shows us the various interactions of phenomena at all levels. The contextual nature of experience. Beyond that, it doesn’t really explain a lot.

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