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Here’s a short clear article on the science of morality by Dick Swaab published in NRC Handlesbad. Swaab is a professor of neurobiology at the University of Amsterdam and is associated with the Nederlands Institute for Neuroscience. He writes a weekly column for NRC Handelsblad. (See the original at The evolution of human morality).

Moral laws were not invented by religions but taken over by them, after they had evolved for social animals, including man. These rules promote teamwork and mutual support within a social group. They act as a social contract imposing many restrictions on the individual.

Darwin’s moral psychology (1859), consequently, was not based on an egotistical competition between individuals but on social involvement within the group. During the course of evolution, the benefit of helping each other developed from the loving care exhibited by parents towards their offspring. This was then expanded to apply to others of their kind according to the principle: do unto others, as you would have others do unto you. At a certain moment sympathising with the other became a goal in itself. Finally, this product of millions of years of evolution turned into a cornerstone of human morality that was recently, a couple of thousand years ago, incorporated in religions. It is thus rather cynical to ascertain that having a common enemy is the strongest stimulus for community spirit, a mechanism that many world leaders have exploited.

Preferential treatment

Inherent in the biological aim of morality – promoting cooperation – is the notion that members of your own group receive preferential treatment. First of all, there is the loyalty to one’s own family, the blood relatives and the community, as a moral duty. Once the survival and health of the nearest and dearest are assured, then the circle of loyalty can be expanded: ’First food, then morality,’ as playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote. Nowadays, we are doing so well that the circle of loyalty has expanded to include the EU, the West, the Third World and animal welfare, and even our enemies since the Geneva Convention of 1949. The necessity for doing so was, however, already noted much earlier. In the third century BC the Chinese philosopher Mozi sighed when he saw all the destruction caused by war: ’What is the path to universal love and mutual benefit? When no one covets other countries as his own.’

Although tests show no significant difference in the moral choices made by atheists or believers, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement claims that moral behaviour is something unique to man and derives from religion, especially Christianity. In professor Cees Dekker’s book about Intelligent Design (2005) the ID-adherent and editor of books on theology and science, professor Jitse van der Meer says, ’(…) humans are the only primate which can think about moral standards’. Biologist Frans de Waal, an expert in this field, has shown that people don’t usually think at all about moral acts. Action is taken quickly and instinctively from a strong biological basis. Then humans think up a reason for what they unconsciously did in a flash.


Our moral values evolved over the course of millions of years, based on unconscious universal values. Moral behaviour is evident already early in development, which together with the moral behaviour of animals forms an argument for the biological basis of this behaviour. Young children comfort family members in pain before they have developed the ability to talk or to think about moral standards, just like primates comfort each other. When adults pretend to be sad, a child of 1-2 years old will comfort them. And not only children; pets also displayed comforting behaviour during the same experiment.

Chimpanzees can display altruistic behaviour, just like children 18 months old, without being rewarded in the short or long term. They can pass another chimpanzee a stick or give a child a pencil, simply because the other can’t reach it. They will also repeat this action, without receiving any reward. So the roots of our altruistic behaviour extend a long way back.

There is thus no basis for what the ID-adherent Van der Meer says (in Dekker et al., 2005): ’Good behaviour has no biological basis, but has to be learned because it is not inborn and thus things can go wrong.’ It is incomprehensible that the wonderful primate studies conducted by De Waal and others on the biological basis of social behaviour fall under what ID-adherent and molecular biologist professor Henk Jochemsen in Dekker’s boek (2005) describes as ’the reduction of the life sciences and social sciences into specialties of biology’. Putting your viewpoints a little more into perspective wouldn’t hurt, ID-adherents!


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