27 May 2007

Essay: Biology and morality

My new favorite podcast is Radio Lab, from New York Public Radio. It's sort of Nova plus This American Life, with a heavy dose of the Douglas Adams sensibilities that I've come to associate with co-host Robert Krulwich. And it's awesome.

What's on my mind right now is the episode of 28 April 2006, "Morality". It delves into emerging studies of the biology of human morals - what parts of the brain are involved in moral decision-making, and how evolutionary history shaped them. A key point is that there are two kinds of moral thinking, rules-based decision-making ("Thou shalt not kill") and calculating ("the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few"). And these two kinds of moral thinking take place in different parts of the brain. When they come into conflict, maybe because you're thinking about killing someone in order to save several other people, a third area of the brain kicks in to decide between the two. This third area is (apparently) entirely unique to humans - not even chimpanzees have it.

But chimpanzees (and other apes) do have the rules-based moral thinking area. It helps them get along with other chimps. Which means that rules-based morality is evolutionarily primitive. If they could write, chimps could probably come up with most of the Ten Commandments! Where does that leave Christian morality? Is it all just pre-programmed behavior wrapped up in unnecessary mysticism?

No. As it happens, I've just finished reading Michael Ruse's excellent book Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? (Cambridge University Press, 2001), which addresses exactly this question. And, as Ruse points out, Christ's teachings call us to live beyond the Ten Commandments - those moral principles that seem to crop up in every human belief system.
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet those who greet you, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.
--Matthew 5:46-8 (NIV)
In other words, Christians are to exceed the dictates of morality that everyone already follows. We're to transcend our biology, using that part of our brain that sets us above the rest of the animal kingdom.

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