Tuesday, October 13, 2009

evolutionary morals

This article appeared on Huff Post a couple of days ago. The author, Frans De Waal is a psychologist and primatologist who has a new book out called "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society."

Now, even as hippie-dippie as that title sounds, I was still intrigued enough to order a free sample, simply because of this article. In it he cites the recent appearance of Richard Dawkins on Bill O'Reilly's screamapalooza:

The video, as with anything from The Falafel Man's show is difficult to watch, not only due to his inability to listen or respond to new information (as with most people who fear/hate/deny evolution, O'Reilly presents an astounding ignorance of how it works) but also because of his sputtering as Dawkins points out why and how moralistic behavior must have come along long before religion. As De Waal says in his article:

'Perhaps it is just me, but I'd be wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior.'

And as Dawkins pointed out in "The God Delusion," (paraphrasing) it is an incredibly anti-semitic, rude and ridiculous proposal to suggest that in the thousands of years the tribe of Israelites existed prior to Moses handing down the commandments, their people would routinely murder, rape, and rob each other, all the while dishonoring mother and father. The proof that morals existed prior to the Ten Commandments lies in the fact that the Israelites still existed. They would most certainly have killed each other off long before, had they lacked moralistic behavior to such a degree throughout their existence.

Sidebar: And if you were a religious person, would you really want to claim to have descended from such an amoral, lascivious, murderous clan of people? And to have the totality of your religious thought stemming from their understanding of the world? Feckin' yikes.

Also, De Waal's discussion of observed cooperative animal behaviors goes to the right's simplisitc notions extolling the virtues of the individual over the collective. The simple truth--based on observations of our closest relatives--is that humans would never have been able to descend from the trees in the first place without some level of cooperation. Cooperation implies empathy, which implies a moral view toward your neighbors--not seeing them as objects to be gotten around, but rather as partners in facing a challenging and often deadly world.

In other words, the argument could be made that the animal kingdom, simply by dint of our long-term survival, and the survival of other species of primates shows us a true moral character that is much greater and grander than anything humans have proposed since religion was invented, much less lived up to.

Frankly, I'd trust a monkey to share food with me more than I'd trust some preachers to share anything, despite Jesus saying they should do so.

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