2016, Books, Non-Fiction

A Natural History of Human Morality (2016) by Michael Tomasello

For the vast majority of recorded human history, we humans have believed that morality comes from somewhere outside of us; from “above,” from the ether, from some kind of benevolent creator, etc. Even as we have learned more and more about how humans evolved from apes who evolved from “lower” animals who evolved from “lower” lifeforms who evolved from, essentially, “ooze” we have still maintained that human morality comes from outside of human beings. The idea is that morality has been bestowed on us by something, or existed before we did, and we access it. When I was growing up in the early 1980s, this is what I was taught even though it was (more than likely) not supported by the scientific consensus of the time. It may never have been explicitly said to me that morality came from outside the species, but this idea underlies so much of what we believe that it was truly everywhere; not just in my church but in my family life, in my school, in my interaction with friends.

We’ve had plenty of hints, even before evolutionary biology, that this view was incorrect. As human cultures have encountered each other we have encountered different moralities. If, indeed, morality was bestowed upon us, or is accessible to us, then why do we all interpret it differently?

Fortunately, advances in the hard and social sciences now have a clear view of where morality comes from and that is what this book is about.

Tomasello’s history of morality is a review of data about chimps and bonobos, toddlers and pre-school children, and hunter-gatherer societies, to create a coherent theory of how human morality (really, moralities) evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Basically, what current human knowledge says is that human moralities come from us, via human evolution.

I say moralities because one of the most fascinating parts of this book is how at least three distinct moralities have been identified. They are:

  1. The morality of sympathy, i.e. not wanting some living thing to feel harm, which is present in great apes such as chimps and bonobos, and which is evolutionarily prior to
  2. The morality of fairness, i.e. wanting some other to be treated the same as you (or vice versa), which is not present in great apes but which was likely present in human ancestors as far back as hundreds of thousands of years ago, which is evolutionarily prior to
  3. The morality of justice, i.e. believing everyone in your society/culture should follow the same rules.

These three moralities all still exist within us, which is easy to see if we analyze any one of the many moral decisions we make each day, with one winning out over the others, depending upon the circumstance. Tomasello’s account of these moralities is a lot more complicated than what I have mentioned here, and the theory he presents, based on a review of tons of evidence, seems pretty compelling to me.

Tomasello argues that these moralities are all social and at least the latter two are based on the interdependence of humans within a society. The third (“objective” morality) is also very much culturally determined.

This is a thorough, dense account, taking both hard science (biology, psychology) and social science and philosophy into consideration. It’s hard for me to criticize it because I am not an expert in any of those areas, but it feels extremely comprehensive. It is also extremely well-argued, with a number of criticisms anticipated and shot down.

Though I am not up on the latest in evolutionary biology or psychology, I have a hard time imagining a more thorough, well-argued and convincing account of where human morality comes from (and why it is the way it is) than this book. (At least until further research improves the picture, as it is likely doing as you read this.)

Highly recommended.


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