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3/22/2007                                                                                       View Comments

Biological Basis of Morality

By Zachary Moore


A letter to Nature published yesterday by researchers from the University of Iowa and Harvard University (including Dr. Antonio Damasio, author of "The Feeling of What Happens" and "Decartes' Error") have shown that a particular region of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is responsible for mediating our moral judgments.

Specifically, for transforming what would be a simple utilitarian ethical calculus into something more akin to the Moral Razor. In the study, people with injuries to this part of their brain were more willing to sacrifice the lives of their fellows in order to save a larger number, even if it meant flat-out murder.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a region which is thought to allow for social emotions, like compassion. These emotions seem to be essential for correct moral decisions in high-stakes situations; they seem to provide the moral foundation for higher-level ethical analysis which preserve moral symmetry through subconscious feelings.

According to Dr. Damasio:
This area, when it’s working, will give rise to social emotions that we can feel, like embarrassment, guilt and compassion, that are critical to guiding our social behavior. A nice way to think about it is that we have this emotional system built in, and over the years culture has worked on it to make it even better.

21 comments:

eel_shepherd said...

This is a rather ambiguous result. All it measures is what people _say_ they would do, not what they would actually _do_ if/when it came down to it. Think Hurricane Katrina.

But it might give some insight into the schedule of the brain's development through the eons. Would we have survived as a species if we hadn't made some of those cold-blooded decisions described in the experiment, in the early days of proto-human existence? Is it a case of the brain protecting its overall integrity by throwing some of its frills overboard, the way the body core will protect its own temperature by sacrificing digits and limbs to frostbite?

Or is it the latter, apparently illogical, responses that provided the push into alpha species status for the humans? Or both? I don't know, maybe you do.

paul said...

Dear Zachary, your article shows the weakness of atheism. If a region in our brain is all there is to determine our morality, we owe our moral values, let us say not killing others, to evolution. But, suppose, evolution has developed 'kill your neighbor'network in the prefrontal cortex of our brain we would be legitimate to kill our neighbors. In other words, to borrow from Richard Dawkins, we dance to our DNA. There is no objective basis for morality in biology. Why should we eat our infants like our grandparents, gorillas do in Tanzania? After all we came from them.
SO, your ploy to bring biological basis for morality only shows that morality in atheism is a fool's errand who tries to find a water source which is independent of rain.

Jim Arvo said...

Paul said "...your article shows the weakness of atheism. If a region in our brain is all there is to determine our morality, we owe our moral values, let us say not killing others, to evolution."

Well, it's not quite that simple, as society also plays a role, but let's move on...

Paul continues "But, suppose, evolution has developed 'kill your neighbor' network in the prefrontal cortex of our brain we would be legitimate to kill our neighbors."

What do you mean my "legitimate". We would perhaps think that it was alright, yes.

Paul continues "...There is no objective basis for morality in biology."

If by "objective" you mean residing outside of biology, that is correct. Relative to our biology, it is objective, however.

Paul continues "Why should we [not?] eat our infants like our grandparents, gorillas do in Tanzania? After all we came from them."

Gorillas are not our grandparents; not even our millionth grandparents. We did not "come from them". We share an ancestor with them. But, to answer your question, you might just as well ask why we are not covered with fur and live in trees; the answer is the same. We followed a different evolutionary path than they did.

Paul concludes "SO, your ploy to bring biological basis for morality only shows that morality in atheism is a fool's errand who tries to find a water source which is independent of rain."

Come again? You just lapsed into complete incoherence. It is you who is insisting (assuming?) that morality is something that exists outside of biology, and the societal rules that we have codified with biology as a basis. If you make absurd assumptions, well... you get absurd results. Here's how to fix that. Stop injecting your own preconceived notions and just look at what is being said. You'll find that there is no contradiction.

Paul, as I pointed out to you before, all of your arguments exhibit the same pattern; they are extremely shallow, indicating that you have not examined them to any meaningful degree. Have you availed yourself of a single book written by a legitimate evolutionary biologist? Have you actually read Dawkins, or are you repeating a quote that your read in some creationist literature? If you decide to actually do some work, and educate yourself, you may just be able to formulate an interesting argument from time to time. As it is, that seems quite unlikely. Sorry to be so blunt, but you really need to do some homework if you want anybody to take you seriously.

preston said...

Where did the very first people get their morality? I'm pretty sure it didn't just show up in the brain. Most morality is based on religion and the culture you grow up in, that's the bottom line. How could some of the first people ever "evolved" know what religion is?

I don't know. Perhaps the first humans were smarter than us all! That these people, or apes, created their own set of rules that defined good and evil, and now we live by it today. Wait.. that doesn't make sense!

Being an atheist sucks.

.:webmaster:. said...

Jim, Paul has never read any creationist literature, outside of a two-page tract. He's parroting his preacher. I'd bet on it.

Preston, study the culture of South American native culture as documented by the Europeans who first arrived on the continent as well as later anthropologists. You'll find a complex, but completely foreign society, with a moral codes quite different from ours today.

Zach and Jim are right-on. Our codes are part of our biology and have developed in response to societal complexity. For instance, is it wrong to exceed the speed limit while driving? Is it wrong to run a stop sign?

Why?

Or, why not?

Who makes the determination of whether it is right or wrong to do those things?

Think about it.

Is it right or wrong to experiment on human DNA, or human cells?

Why or why not?

Again, think about it.

dano said...

preston wrote:
"Where did the very first people get their morality? I'm pretty sure it didn't just show up in the brain. Most morality is based on religion and the culture you grow up in, that's the bottom line. How could some of the first people ever "evolved" know what religion is?"

Dan says:>>>The first people ever evolved were not people. They were hairy little creatures living on the savanna of Africa, after the dinosaurs got wiped out by the climactic changes brought about by a huge asteroid collision, but their ancestors were one celled animals that lived a couple of billion years before that, and their ancestors were molecules that had learned to replicate themselves over a period of a billion years or so.

Those self replicating molecules started to learn morality when they naturally selected traits for the survival of themselves, to the exclusion of other molecules.

I know you don't understand this Preston, but it is simply evolution 101, and can be mastered in one sitting with a Good book on the subject.

You are at a point in "this process" testing whether, having a dogmatic, impervious attitude about the existence of magical concepts, is superior to one of skepticism, reality, and a demand for empiricism.

A bunch of you believers in magic have control of a lot of things in our world today, and a bunch of us realists have control of other things.

When Mohammed Whatshisname, gets control of a country with atomic weapons, and says 'If Allah wills it, so be it", and then pushes the button sending a nuclear weapon towards us, or some other country with an overwhelming retaliatory capacity, then Mohammed Whatshisname, and all of the people in his country like him will cease to exist.

In this scenario a whole lot of people will not be able to reproduce anymore, or for that matter even breath, in the aftermath.

Any people who may survive will certainly have a different attitude about shooting off nuclear missiles, and they will be the ones, reproducing the next generation of man.

....to be continued.
Dan

HanSolo said...

Paul: "But, suppose, evolution has developed 'kill your neighbor'network in the prefrontal cortex of our brain we would be legitimate to kill our neighbors."

Your comment shows you don't use much of your brain.

Think about it again, if this would happen, that a tribe would evolve into a tribe of 10 people, where these 10 people would kill each other, how many people do you have left to breed new people? (It's a very tricky math question, you probably need about 2nd or 3rd grade math to really figure this one out).

Answer: No one.

So what does it teaches us? So what kind of species does survive evolution?

Evolving species must evolve into non-self-killing species or there won't be anyone left to procreate. It's called survival. He who can survive is the one that can survive, while the one that can not survive will not survive.

Spirula said...

First, this prefrontal cortex link to criminal behavior has been known for some time. See here for a nice summary (it's PubMed so I don't know how many of you can access the entire article)

http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1693445


So, Preston and Paul, before you show up here to prove how ignorant you are of the biological connection to "morality", you might want to actually read some of the scientific evidence (although, I doubt you'll bother, considering how ignorant you are about biology in general and evolution in particular).

Still want to hold onto the notion that we must get our morality from God? Then why did he allow it to be taken away from this guy through an accident? (A classic neurobiology example)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage

To add to the Dave's comment, the morality of Native American "savages" that the europeans encountered in the US was often more "rigorous" than the europeans in respect to truthfulness, trust, respect for others, the status of women, theft, and treatment of children (I might add that Native Americans thought europeans treated their children "worse than dogs").

Spirula said...

Forgot to add, the last sentence in that abstract is the key one.

ryan said...

preston, do you know what "sucks" means? Originally,it was a referrence to oral sex. In other words, when you said that something sucked, you meant "it sucks cocks." When directed at a person, it was a terrible insult.

Now, preston, you have shown your true colors, as all xristians will given enough time. You are morally no better than the rest of us.

And now preston, you suck. And I mean that in the original sense of the word.

preston, I want you to get down on your knees, which is a good position for sucking, and ask the jewzoo to forgive you for what you said. The jewzoo can overlook theft and murder, but you had better not be talking about cocks. That REALLY pisses him off.

I will be unable to hear your response, or any other insults you have, because my wife and I are off to Indianapolis for the weekend, there to visit my sister, her husband, and their three intelligent and charming children. All five are atheists. And they do not suck, in any sense of the word.

Audie said...

So Preston and Paul, there was no morality prior to the invent of the Jew god? So let me get this right- all the civilation before that were chaotic, lawless, societies? I don't think so!

What is the basis of our modern legal systemin the US? Is it the law of Moses? No. It is taken from Hammurabi's Code, a BABYLONIAN!!!! For Oden's sake, man, they are the "evil" people in the buy-bull!!

Besides, the god of the buy-bull isn't all that moral if you really take a closer look. Hitler could justify his actions by the example of the cruel, vicious monster you call the Judeo-Xian God!

And no I don't suck, but I heard that Ted Haggard sucks, and he claims to be a Xian!!!

Audie said...

That last comment was not intended as a slam against gays, but againts the hypocrisy of most Xians today. I apologize if that offended any of my fellow ex-xians who may be gay.

preston said...

okay, i understand that i spoke out of turn. I understand that my beliefs can come across illogical, but so are the beliefs of atheists. Now i know that i can't talk about miraculous things, or even anything spiritual. Seeing how when either of the two happen, it completely defies logic, and atheists love logic apparently.

So what about evolution? How did all the worlds come to be? Space has always been there? I understand the big bang theory, but apparently i don't because it makes no sense. When that one planet crashed into our planet it just suddenly made a tiny, tiny organism? If that's possible, then it's very, very possible that there is life on other planets.

As an atheist, Are you saying you believe in aliens? Like even a bunch of other worlds with people or animals in the galaxy? OR, was it just a one in an octillion chance?

Astreja said...

Preston said: So what about evolution?

It's a science in development. It is a fact -- That is, evolution is taking place right at this moment as some organisms out-perform and out-reproduce others

It is also a theory, an attempt to explain why and how organisms are changing from one generation to the next.

How did all the worlds come to be?

Don't know. But I do know that cosmology and evolution are different sciences.

Space has always been there?

Don't know... Yet.

...it's very, very possible that there is life on other planets.

Yes, it is very, very possible. Personally, I think there is life out there on other planets. However, due to the vast distances between solar systems it is not yet possible to go out there and see for ourselves.

Are you saying you believe in aliens?

Belief has very little to do with it in my case; more like "it happened here, why not out there? If there are ten billion stars in the average galaxy, and ten billion galaxies within our observation range, what are the odds of there being another world capable of supporting life? Pretty darned good, I would think.

CyborgX said...

This leaves me wondering if the people who wrote the Bible, if that part of their brains were not that well developed as human brains have evolved to be today,and thus why the Bible turned out the way it did?

twincats said...

Preston, evolution has NOTHING whatsoever to do with "how the worlds came to be." That would be ASTRONOMY.

Evolution also has nothing whatsoever to do with how life began, that's pretty much a branch of CHEMISTRY.

Evolution only concerns itself with how life EVOLVED once it did begin.

Bunching the three together and questioning EVOLUTION makes you look more ignorant than you really have to.

And it really irritates the hell out of me!

boomSLANG said...

Preston: Now i know that i can't talk about miraculous things, or even anything spiritual.

As far as I'm considered, you can believe and "talk about" whatever the hell you wish, but if you expect us to give credence to said beliefs, you'll need some objective evidence for said beliefs....otherwise, they're just that--- a BELIEF. A belief is a belief is a belief is a belief.

If you want, though, you can start by telling us what a "spirit" is, and where said "thing" resides. And it would help your case greatly if you could provide any peer-reviewed science journal that delineates how we now "know" that there is life after death.

Preston: Seeing how when either of the two happen, it completely defies logic, and atheists love logic apparently.[bold added]

I would argue that you, too, "love logic".... because I presume you use it to dismiss the existance of the toothfairy, elves, Allah, Gumby, and Poseidon....no?

Jim Arvo said...

Preston, your comments are so infantile you're no longer even on my radar screen. Tootles.

Left of Center said...

Preston, morality is not based in religion. If anything, true religion is based in morality. Humans as a social species needed things such as altruism and compassion to maintain the cohesivness of our groups. Unlike other grouping animals, primate young are unable to do for themselves. When we play by the rules we succede as a group and individually. The study only points to the fact that there is a biological part of us that cares for others.

eel_shepherd said...

Preston wrote:
"...When that one planet crashed into our planet it just suddenly made a tiny, tiny organism? If that's possible, then it's very, very possible that there is life on other planets..."

Actually, I'm not quite sure why some of the members are dissing you for this one (speaking as someone who's done it himself, but in another thread), as this one strikes me as not all that bad a question. `Course, my knowledge of science is pretty sketchy.

As has already been pointed out, the topics of abiogenesis (how living things got started from non-living things [...or, at least, less-living things...]) and the topic of evolution are two separate fields of science. Evolution only concerns itself from a point in time when something that was alive had already registered its presence.

But there is at least a third possibility (prob'ly more) about what might have come in on some object from space. It might have been some molecule that wasn't organic in the environment that it was formed in, but had the right stuff to be organic in Earth's environment. Maybe it would have just sat there on its molecular ass for all of eternity had it not lucked into a temperate climate (by its standards), a yellow Sun, and some water.

Not one of the likelier possibilities, but you never know; it's a good sized universe.

dano said...

Jim Arvo wrote:
"Preston, your comments are so infantile you're no longer even on my radar screen. Tootles."
posted: March 23, 2007

Dan concurs: Yea Jim it looks like he scrolls down the thread, and any word or phrase that catches his eye, he incorporates it into another asinine question.

As you are aware, we have seen this behavior before. He makes no effort at critical thought. His only interest is in getting people to respond with thoughtful replies, and then completely ignoring them.

All he is interested in, is spotlighting, and restating, his infantile beliefs.
Dan