The Evolutionary Roots of Human Moral Freedom

Pixabay – CC0 Public Domain

One of our strongest intuitions is that we are in control of our own beliefs and actions. For the philosopher and biologist David Lahti, this freedom is real but imperfect. Rounding off our series on the Faraday summer course, this is the first of two posts on Lahti’s work on different aspects of being human.

In his lecture on Evolution and Moral Freedom, Lahti said that in his opinion there are no scientific data that threaten the idea of our freedom to choose. There may be all sorts of factors that influence our feelings, but we do seem to be in control of our behaviours and what we think about them. Our freedom to choose is indeed an integral part of being human. Most of us won’t have been waiting for an academic opinion on a point that probably seems so obvious to us. On the other hand, it is interesting to hear that science is not just on the same side as our common sense, but it also has some things to add to the discussion of how our free will operates.

Drawing on insights from behavioural ecology, Lahti explained a few elements of the discussion so far. First, we are partly shaped by our genes, but we are also guided by the perceptions and ideas we learned during our lifetimes. So our learning is biased by our evolutionary history, but there is a plasticity in our learning that allows us to modify our behaviour. From this complex interaction of influences and abilities, comes morality.

Pixabay – CC0 Public Domain

Secondly, the precursors of our moral views probably came to us by degrees, and from many different sources. Some moral behaviours are very old and have deep genetic roots, for example a mother’s love for her child. At the other end of the scale are more recent beliefs, like the idea that all people are of equal value, which draw on those roots but are modified by other traits and cultural influences.

Pixabay – CC0 Public Domain

Next, the crucible of human evolution has been the battle between competition and cooperation. As our own species became more dominant in the world, we eventually became our own worst enemy – competing for resources with our own kind. Self-serving behaviour is probably the oldest trait, as people competed for social status and mates within a group. Later on came competition between groups, driving cooperation between members of the same tribe or clan. Both of these mentalities can lead to behaviours we would view as morally good or morally bad – there is nothing about either that can help us to derive a moral code from them.

Finally, we are influenced by our own physical makeup as well as our surroundings, but those influences may have been a driver for developing morality in the first place. If temptations didn’t exist, why did we develop a mechanism for dealing with them? There are certain situations that force us to think hard, decide what we value most, and make moral decisions.

So what does all this mean? The oldest driver for morality was probably weighing up personal goals with the overall interests of the group. Do I eat the food or share it with my family? Other factors can then influence those choices. Groups tend to work better together during a crisis. I might also wonder, how can I gain a reputation as a good person? How can I keep on the right side of a difficult leader or help a rather shaky group stay together? If I am part of two groups, where do I place my loyalty? If a threat comes along, is it better to stick with my morals or let them change?

The most interesting factor for Lahti is when a behaviour used to be useful, but is now harmful. For example, children are more likely to survive in the wilderness if they enjoy sweet fruit, but if they eat too many sugary sweets their teeth will rot. Or the idea that mating with many others will spread our genes around more, but monogamy seems to be the best basis for bringing up children. Moral codes can help us adapt and flourish in new situations, from diet to marital relationships.

Parable of the Good Samaritan by Giacomo Conti (Accascina) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is fascinating to see some of the evolutionary roots of our own behaviour, and find explanations for some of our abilities and limitations in this way. From my own point of view as a Christian, I am glad that we have an inbuilt ability to make choices, to develop moral codes, to care for others, and to be receptive to new ideas that make sense of our situations. On the other hand, the fact that we can decide to accept or reject a moral code, and even choose to act in ways that seem morally wrong to us, also makes sense in the light of theology. This scientific knowledge helps me to understand myself and other people more fully, and grasp the challenges of life as a follower of Jesus. To me, Lahti’s description of moral behaviour is one more example of how biology and belief can complement each other, and why we should keep on exploring the world using all the tools available to us.


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© Ruth Bancewicz, Nigel Bovey

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth arrived at The Faraday Institute in 2006, and is currently a trustee of Christians in Science.

5 thoughts on “The Evolutionary Roots of Human Moral Freedom

  1. Mick September 22, 2016 / 5:40 pm

    I would be fascinated to know what the evidence is that we do have the ability to chose. It seems to me to be a very difficult thing to prove that our behaviour really does involve “free will”. Personally I think it must do – but how can you distinguish between behaviour that is a result of free choice and behaviour that is determined by our history and environment?


    • Ruth M. Bancewicz September 23, 2016 / 2:57 pm

      Yes, interesting. I have searched Lahti’s academic publications list for anything relevant but I can’t find anything that obviously mentions this question. Hold on for a couple of weeks because there’s a post coming out that might address that for you!


    • David Lahti September 23, 2016 / 9:05 pm

      Hi Mick, if you mean scientific evidence corroborating our experience of choosing– evidence that we are correct in our feeling that we are in control of our decisions– I don’t know if such a thing is possible. It would be like (thinking of Descartes here) having direct evidence corroborating my experience of seeing the color red. The inner mentality of the experience seems to rule out scientific evidence that is by its very nature objective, in the sense of having a basis and method of adjudication that is interpersonal or shared. I could be wrong of course. But in any case I don’t make a distinction between behavior that is determined by our genes or environment on the one hand and behavior that is chosen on the other hand. To my mind, and as Ruth indicated, from my perspective as a behavioral ecologist, the very fact of our being influenced simultaneously by inheritance and experience is commonplace among organisms, and reaches tremendous levels of integration in cognitively complex organisms like mammals and birds. It seems to necessitate some faculty by which we adjudicate among various influences and “decide”, whatever that means. How this is possible is a mystery to me, I admit, and its mystery intensifies as the influences become more various and vague and the behavioral decisions nevertheless remain unitary and concrete. The whole “apples and oranges” cliché assumes that sundry influences are incommensurable. Yet we routinely compare such influences and reach behavioral verdicts. We funnel all sorts of orthogonal and conflicting directives into singular output actions. And furthermore we have a personal experience of being in control of this process. I think that those who do not find this experience a mystery do so because they have adopted a religion of eliminative reduction for their own peace of mind, their own consolation– we scientists don’t even like to say “we don’t know”, never mind being faced with the possibility that “we might never know”. Whatever the will is, it is certainly not free in the sense of being uninfluenced, unbiased– we know very well the powers that move us, sometimes even against what we consider to be our better judgment. And science has indeed been teaching us where those influences and biases come from and why. So I am not sure what the word “free” means in connection with the will. For me the will is mysterious enough, however pitched, yawed and rolled by experience and inheritance. But then again I’ve never been a good administrator– I have no clue how people make optimally effective decisions when they’re beset with contradictory demands from all over the place.


      • Mick September 27, 2016 / 8:13 pm

        Thanks for that – I like it. [But who am I?]
        On one level I believe passionately in free will. But with some scientific training I ask “What’s the evidence?” I think that your answer that we are not able to accumulate evidence (for or against) is very interesting.
        Some scientists complain that religious people should not put up barriers to scientific enquiry (and I agree). But surely this is a massive challenge to scientists (no, to all people who are interested) to design experiments to answer the question of whether we really can make choices.
        It seems to me uncertain whether this is a matter that is beyond experimentation or whether we have not yet been smart enough to design the appropriate tests.
        The other excellent point you make is that although we might think we are choosing in an unbiased way this is not the case as we are the product of our time and culture. We are to a greater or lesser extent controlled by the Spirit of the Age. So I agree that to a very great extent I cannot exercise Free Will because I am wearing 21st century western blinkers.


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