February 10, 2008
Sometimes I Just Can’t Help Doing the Right Thing - I Guess It’s in My Genes
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
- Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, 1944
Charles Darwin was born Feb 12, 1809 and his monumental book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, was published in 1859. Thus, 2009 is both the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species. The Inamori Center will participate in the 2008-09 Darwin Year Celebration, by hosting Robert Richards September 18-19, 2008. Dr. Richards is Fishbein Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Chicago and his interests include the evolutionary basis of ethical behavior.
Which brings us to the matter of whether morality, ethics, altruism, sympathy, fairness, cooperation, and the like evolved in Darwinian fashion. Increasing evidence, beginning with speculations by Charles Darwin himself, and accumulating since, indicate that, yes, these high-minded qualities of human thought and behavior indeed have evolved to the benefit of individuals and the community of humanity. Recent research has been aided by such sophisticated machinery as positron-emission tomographic scanning (PET scan) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can localize and characterize brain activity in correlation with mood, emotion, problem solving, writing, other mental activities, and even perhaps religious experience.
Is “doing good” simply a matter of conscious, unconscious, or even genetic selfishness? Do we do good things to make us feel good or to be repaid in kind later? Are we engaged in some sort of Darwinian contest that pits our genes against those of others? The answer certainly has to be a qualified yes, but “selfish goodness” is not the whole story. To feel good about doing something good and attending to one’s reputation, perhaps even with an eye that others will do good to us, are easily recognizable and usually acceptable human behaviors. Is not this really a corollary of the Golden Rule? From an evolutionary perspective, evidence supports the notion that those who act within a set of moral principles, cooperate with others, and sometimes sacrifice for others are favored. It takes little imagination to understand why protecting our children, family, and others like us and sacrificing ourselves for them, propagate our genes. But selfish goodness does not fully explain why people behave ethically or altruistically. How do we account for behaviors of kindness, fairness, and personal risk, sometimes death, for complete strangers, people whom we will never see again? Is this something that is hard-wired in there?
This subject is vast and rich. I recommend one or more of the following to get you started on a fuller inquiry.
Steven Pinker. The Moral Instinct. New York Times Magazine, January 13, 2008; p 32.
Solomon H. Snyder. Seeking God in the Brain - Efforts to Localize Higher Brain Function. New England Journal of Medicine 2008;358:6-7 (January 3, 2008).
Michael S. Gazzaniga. The Ethical Brain. The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2006.
Antonio Damasio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, Florida, 2003.
Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Harvard University Press, 1998.