The Evolution of Morality

We know that we carry inside us the history of our bodies—the chemistry and bones and nervous systems that have evolved over the millennia. But we carry with us another history as well. Our morality, our capacity to harm, help, or ignore each other, began with our earliest ancestors as well.

I divide this inheritance into three stages. To take them in reverse order, the most recent stage is roughly the last several thousand years during which humans have developed the laws and social codes that we live by and violate. We make and break laws, we love and hurt each other. We distinguish right from wrong and we act on the difference inconsistently.

The stage prior to this one might be dubbed the “old brain” stage. We inherited it from the reptiles and mammals whom it prompted to hunt, labor, and raise young together but also to go on the attack and to defend territory to the death. We act from our “old brain” at many of our best and worst moments.

The first stage of this moral evolution is also the least familiar. The earliest bacterial cells and later the plants, our remote cousins, live with little connection at all to other organisms. They may do some basic sharing, but they don’t hurt or help each other. Mostly, they fill their own needs. They reflect the stage in our moral development of indifference and autonomy. Let me explain.

The first stage: Vegging Out

Plants and animals diverged a billion years ago or more, when living things were still no bigger than single cells. The first plant cells took the path of using their chemicals to turn light into food. Later they put down roots and anchored themselves in one place. Animals, on the other hand, took the very different paths of moving and eating.

When we humans (and animals too) concern ourselves mostly with our most basic physical needs and almost not at all with other people, we are, I think, living out a bit of our microorganic and plant heritage. This is a heritage of physical self-sufficiency, nutritional fundamentalism, and social indifference. Plants do connect with other organisms but in only the most essential ways. They spread their pollen to remote plants and they can send out danger signals of sorts through the air and through root systems. But mostly they are specialists in autonomy and disinterest. At those times when I’m feeling lethargic, hungry for comfort food, thirsty for wine or water, and oblivious to people or problems, I dip ( to the extent that a human can) into our original amorality.

The second stage: Old Brain

Plants, while they are morally inert, can go it alone. But animals move, find food, chase each other, and raise offspring. They interact according to the instincts and reflexes without which they couldn’t survive. My inner animal comes to the fore when I seek out family and friends for the pleasure of their company. And this “old brain” rears its head also when I feel threatened by someone, when I get angry, when frustrations have been eating away. We’re no strangers to our nastiest impulses and rigidities, for they are our quickest defenses.

The third stage: New Brain

I share in the complex morality and immorality of all clever humans. I value laws and justice and in uncertain situations I think about how to do the right thing. I make a point of trying to help someone everyday. I also think about what I wish I had said to win an argument or out-maneuver someone. I strategize politically to promote my party’s sane political views over the irrationalities of the opposition. Make me much richer and more influential than I am and no doubt power would corrupt me.

So my moral world may be up-to-date in some ways, but I carry along the primal moral worlds as well. We may think of our bodily evolution as a long biological process and our moral evolution mostly as a separate, shorter history of human culture. But we can join a little closer to nature by seeing that our morality is not a totally separate story. It is here in our bodies along with the stories of our bones and our brains.



7 thoughts on “The Evolution of Morality

  1. There is, though, a small flaw in your logic! Plants are actually quite considerate about their neighbours. In fact trees always allow enough space for other trees to grow. And trees which are beseiged by caterpillars or other pests will send out a chemical signal to other trees to increase a certain chemical in their leaves, but they will do this long before increasing the chemical in their own leaves, even though they understand this must be done. This gives the other trees a chance to build their defences while the bugs are kept away from them – the plant is literally sacrificing itself for the welfare of its neighbours.

    But self-sacrifice for the common good goes back much further than plants. The research work of Valter Longo on bacteria was refused publication for many years because the bacteria were violating Darwinian theology. The bacteria hadn’t read Darwin and were instead free to behave as Nature intended. Under certain circumstances, 95% of them would sacrifice themselves so the remaining 5% could live – and they all had identical DNA. This 5% would grow in number to the point where a similar sacrifice needed to be made – and they did.

    Longo’s work was peer reviewed and all his methods quadruple checked and the experiments were easily replicable, but as the bacteria had rudely violated Darwinian theology their heroic story was banned for ten years. Ten years!

    Nature works as a whole – not as a billion billion selfish elements all cutting each other’s throats. This might not sit well with the theorists but in the forest, and in the soil with the bacteria.. it seems to be what actually happens!

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  2. I’ve read mixed views about the chemical signals and I didn’t know about Longo. But I agree that there is a case to be made that bacteria can be viewed in various ways as working together–for example, in colonies. But I opted for some simplification about “higher” plants; maybe I’ll rethink that. Thanks.

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    • Yes, it’s fascinating how scientists attack new ideas that conflict with theirs – thus the “debate” rolled on since 1983 when the first evidence was found that plants could talk to each other. Accusations of heresy “”we don’t believe it’s possible, so you’re wrong, and your experiments were wrong, because of our belief!”) silenced them for a while but then more and more researchers found the same thing!

      There’s a great Wired article which explains hjow 40 out of 48 studies – and all the evidence from the field itself – show that plants communicate:

      But looking at it from a natural perspective, of course plants must communicate. Because life communicates! For example, in my own battle with cancer I found a very surprising thing which explains why injecting chemicals to fight cancer can never work. The reason is that tumour cells, when exposed to chemicals, have a chance to study the molecules – only 15% of a tumour is trying to grow at any one time, so 85% of the tumour is unaffected by chemical injections (chemo) and can study the irritant chemical molecule at thier leisure – so what they do is come up with a fantastic pump that ejects the molecule.

      And then – amazingly – they share the dna design for this pump with their neighbours, sending out the dna pattern through the cell wall somehow, with a “must read!” flag attached! And so, the entire tumour becomes MDR (multiple drug resistant). Darwinian scientists vainly try to fit this in with “more fitted cells taking over”, but research shows this isn’t what happens, or else the tumour would almost completely melt away and grow back – the cells must communicate because it’s millions of times faster, so that the entire tumour can become MDR very quickly – as it would need to do to survive. And this is what happens.

      The lump gets a little smaller and then grows again, and before long the doctors are sighing and shaking their heads sadly, and putting their expensive chemicals away for next time, as if they didn’t know this would happen (because darwinian theory means they still don’t believe it) from the last 200 million cases they tried to treat in which the exact same thing happened in the same way.

      Life communicates.. our blogs are just a more refined way of doing what bacteria and plants have done for probably.. let’s see – 3.8 billion years!


      • That’s a good article. Thanks. Definitions come into play; I like the suggestion in the article that “eavesdropping” in some cases might be a better word for the absorption of chemicals than communication. But I want to take more time with all this and I appreciate your pressing the point. There is a new book called Plant Behavior and Intelligence by Trewavas that sounds worth looking at.


      • Cool. I will enjoy eavesdropping on your blog, and I hope you will enjoy eavesdropping on mine! After all, as Stephen Hawking said in the Pink Floyd song: “..all we have to do, is keep eavesdropping…”


  3. I just found your cool blog! We have a lot in common – you might want to check out my posts on Humanistic Paganism (name “Stardust, contemplating”). Regarding the post above – Yes, great! Seeing the parts of our brain, and how each evovled, is very useful. A couple small things. First, we don’t have any Ancestors who are plants, so whatever plants do is not relevant. Second, I use the idea of evolved parts of my brain often – to help clarify internal conflicts, and so on. No model is perfect, but one that I find useful is the four part brain below. Start with this link to see the reptile brain, and use the links at the very bottom of the page to see information on the others (paleomammal, monkey mind, and neocortex).


  4. Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll check them out. About the plants, while it’s true that animals are not descended from any plants we may see around, it’s also true that our earliest ancestors are the small simple cells that gave rise in the water to both swimming things and sunlight-loving vegetative things. Maybe I’m using the word plant too broadly. But I think that this pre-nervous- system, vegetative condition remains a part of us. (Although, as you can see, the first comments above by Iain Carstairs argue that plants are very communicative.)
    But again, thanks. See you on Humanistic Paganism.


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