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Saturday April 19th 2014
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Chasing Demons

A year long search to understand mankind’s dark nature

Exclusive with 30 of the worlds leading experts in areas ranging from evolutionary biology and criminal psychology to sociology, psychology and philosophy

By Jesse Horn

Part Three: The biology of good

When considering the question of whether or not we as a species are innately humane, it is important to consider human nature itself. There have been many people who have suggested that morality is not something that can be quantified because it is socially relevant, and as such there are variations between time and culture. However, philosopher, author, and Doctor of Neuroscience Sam Harris explains that “…there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” Dr. Harris explained recently at the 2010 TED conference that although we may have varying cultural beliefs, there are things about our lives and how we interact with others that can be examined scientifically in such a way as to hold a universal value.

So where does this value and system of beliefs come from?

In order to understand the process of moral development we contacted Dr. Victoria Talwar, Professor of psychology at McGill University. For eight years she has been working in the area of developmental psychology and is founder of the Talwar Research team, whose goal is to understand the social-cognitive development of children.

“Moral development starts very early in the preschool years and can be affected by a range of social and environmental factors at any point.” Dr. Talwar revealed.  “In general, periods of transition can be the times children are most vulnerable (e.g., transition from elementary to high school, transition from one neighborhood to another).  There is no doubt that moral behavior is influenced by social factors, but there may also be an innate predisposition in ours to develop moral virtues.” Dr. Talwar indicated that  her lab has also been doing other research looking at spirituality and how it develops in children.

“We are finding that most children, regardless of their religious (or non religious) background, appear to have some sense of the world in terms of spiritual concepts and even young children talk about concepts like “forgiveness’ and the “spirit”.”

We also contacted Dr. Melanie Killen from the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland. Dr. Killen has worked extensively in social and moral development.

“My view is that the evidence conveys to us that children come into the world with a social predisposition.  There is an evolutionary basis for this with research by Frans de Waal and Marina Cords with nonhuman primates.” Dr. Killen continued by stating that children also come into the world developing an “ingroup” identity.

“This ingroup identity can be important for creating a sense of social identity. However, at times an ingroup identity can turn into outgroup negativity, which means that you might dislike a member of the outgroup.” This can be seen with social groups of different backgrounds, or physical appearance such as race or nationality.

“Researchers who study adults often view this ingroup/outgroup distinction as necessarily leading to prejudice and bias. Our research with children, though, shows that it depends on a number of factors. This is because children also have a strong sense of fairness and justice. Thus, my view is that children enter with a social predisposition (preference for human faces, for human interaction, for interest in peers) and that group identity can take different pathways, either increasing outgroup distrust or increasing a sense of greater community.”

So what then contributes to these pathways? Dr. Killen believes that there are “many variables including parenting, peer relationships, societal messages, societal constraints, and so forth.”

But what about the negative aspects of our biology, where does the behavior that society considers deviant as a whole come from when it is separate from a group?

We spoke to author and Harvard professor of Psychology and evolutionary biology Marc Hauser, whose research has been aimed at understanding the processes and consequences of cognitive evolution. One of his areas of interest has been exploring the nature of moral judgments.

“There is little to say that we are innately wicked,” Dr. Hauser explained, “but there are studies at the genetic and neurobiological levels that suggest that some aspects of the biology may predispose toward violent behavior.” Dr. Hauser continued stating that there are perhaps “physical differences in the brain that lead some people to be less emotional, more callous, to show less self-control, and thus, be more impulsive.” Hauser’s work has shown that there may be links between those with emotional deficits and individuals who lack moral judgment.

“Our work has shown that despite the fact that psychopaths know right from wrong, they don’t care about such knowledge.”

Yale Professor of Neuroscience, Dr. Steven Novella also confirmed that our developing connection to a group identity contributes to our ability to both strive to aid those around us, or lash out against those who are separate from us.

“You are venturing into the nature vs nurture debate.” Dr. Novella stated, “There is no one study or resource that will settle this complex and longstanding controversy. The research has shown that most people tend to be humane, moral, and even altruistic to those we perceive to be in our group, and progressively less so to people in more and more “outside” groups. To groups we perceive as enemies, there is no apparent limit to the cruelty and violence of which people are capable. History is replete with examples.”

With the long history of mankind’s ability to be virtuous and yet cruel in mind, we contacted historian, author, and television producer James Burke. Mr. Burke’s groundbreaking book The day the universe changed brilliantly demonstrates humanities capacity to understand the world around us in our ever changing perception of reality.

“I think in its natural state mankind is essentially not monstrous,” Mr. Burke points out optimistically, “any more than is any other animal.  Animals kill to only survive or to protect their young.   However, as human communities have, though history, become larger and more complex, the issue of survival has become increasingly a matter for the community at large.  In these circumstances, the individual may find it hard to resist cultural inducement to gratuitous ‘impersonal’ violence, such as war, ‘for the greater good.’”

In next week’s conclusion to this four part series we will take a difficult look at what humanity has done in our darkest hours, but also at what makes our species great. Again the Mogollon Connection would like to thank all those who assisted in the research and participated in this series.

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