Our morality is rooted in evolution


MONKEYS and apes have a sense of morality and the rudimentary ability to tell right from wrong, according to new research.

In a series of studies scientists have found that monkeys and apes can make judgments about fairness, offer altruistic help and empathise when a fellow animal is ill or in difficulties. They even appear to have consciences and the ability to remember obligations.

The research implies that morality is not a uniquely human quality and suggests it arose through evolution. That could mean the strength of our consciences is partly determined by our genes.

This isn’t exactly news, though I suppose the studies are recent. As expected, they go to confirm that “evolution could not have evolved” is a patently stupid statement made without basis. It’s a favorite of creationists and is just a variation on the God of the Gaps argument – “It’s soooo complicated! I can’t explain it and I’ve insolated myself from all forms of science because it is SATAN so I don’t know about any evidence, so it couldn’t have evolved! It just couldn’t have! LA LA LA LA!”

Anyway, off the creationists and on the science:

The animals were asked to perform a set of simple tasks and then rewarded with food or affection. The rewards were varied, seemingly at random. De Waal found the animals had an acute sense of fairness and objected strongly when others were rewarded more than themselves for the same task, often sulking and refusing to take part any further.

Another study looked at altruism in chimps – and found they were often willing to help others even when there was no obvious reward. “Chimpanzees spontaneously help both humans and each other in carefully controlled tests,” said de Waal.

Other researchers, said de Waal, have found the same qualities in capuchin monkeys, which also show “spontaneous prosocial tendencies”, meaning they are keen to share food and other gifts with other monkeys, for the pleasure of giving.

“Everything else being equal, they prefer to reward a companion together with themselves rather than just themselves,” he said. “The research suggests that giving is self-rewarding for monkeys.”

Ancestral environments and reverse evolution

There’s been a long debate regarding whether evolution can be reversed or not. The general trend has been that it can not. The idea goes that once one evolutionary pathway has been crossed, it cannot be retraced back to its origins. It turns out that is not entirely true.

Says [researcher] Henrique, ‘In 2001 we showed that evolution is reversible in as far as phenotypes are concerned, but even then, only to a point. Indeed, not all the characteristics evolved back to the ancestral state. Furthermore, some characteristics reverse-evolved rapidly, while others took longer. Reverse evolution seems to stop when the populations of flies achieve adaptation to the ancestral environment, which may not coincide with the ancestral state.

What the researchers did was subject fruit flies to various selection pressure for multiple decades, i.e., they changed their environment over and over. The ‘end’ result was fruit flies that were markedly different in their traits as compared to the original specimens. That’s evolution. Children should understand that. What happened next was the researchers mimicked the original environment of the fruit flies from decades gone by. In response, the fruit flies adapted to those environments, possessing many of the same allele frequencies they originally had. What I find particularly interesting is that they did not evolve exactly the same, but they still evolved in a way that was similar to the original phenotypes. This helps to explain why sharks and horseshoe crabs remain so similar for so long: the gene pool of the population centers around certain allele frequencies because, well, they work. Change may happen – in fact, it certainly does – but ancestral pheno- and genotypes can evolve to such similar future counterparts as to make little difference in show, even though we know there to actually be differences, at least in contigency. It’s a bit like how two people of very different backgrounds and even different alleles can come to have the similar tones to their skin. Their evolutionary contigency, or histories, are different, but the result is virtually the same.

Another point of note here is that evolution can produce similar things, but it will almost never produce the exact same thing. The history of life, if rerun, would be much, much different in all likelihood. When exolife is discovered, we’ll have indirect confirmation of this. Until then, it should be important for people to realize that nothing in biology is inevitable – including humans.

Shared errors

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers has a post which first destroys some creationist misconception, but then, far more interestingly, goes on to interpret a recent peer-reviewed paper on copy number variants, or CNVs. The whole piece is worth reading, but what I think is worth of a little extra attention is the brief point our shared errors.

An architecture does not imply intent or purpose, but they often imply a history. The pattern described — that chimps and humans share some common structural elements in their genomes — is better described as evidence of common ancestry than of well-designed function. An intron, for instance, is a piece of random, usually useless DNA inserted into the middle of the sequence of a gene that must be excised from RNA before it can be used to make a functional protein. It’s a little piece of garbage that must be cleaned up before the gene product can do its job. That a human and chimpanzee gene has identical introns is an example of an architecture, true enough, but it is of a shared error. Some all-knowing god—he seems to be consistently making the same mistake.

Okay, let’s take the recent hoo-hah with Coldplay and Joe Satriani. Basically, Satriani is claiming Coldplay ripped off one of his songs. There is some fairly compelling evidence to this claim, but it is far from airtight. What we have are four of the same chords repeating through parts of the songs, but only three consecutive notes are truly in common. We can potentially call this one a coincidence (especially since this song has been around forever and Satriani is only suing now that after Coldplay has won a slew of awards. Essentially, we see two instances of people creating similar things.

Now let’s consider someone learning the Satriani song. I don’t feel like finding the actual chord progressions, so let’s just say it goes A, B, C, D. The person begins to learn things, but is apparently a horrible musician and substitutes an F# for the C. Okay, fine. So we have a version of the song out there which is now A, B, F#, D. Now let’s say this person has a friend who wants to rip the song off. But instead of listening to the original Satriani version, he listens to the mutated version with the F#. Now we have some evidence of a copycat. It isn’t very strong evidence because there is just one error. In both instances, we have just four chords. But let’s say another error is made further along in the song. A chord in the bridge is misinterpreted by the original person learning the song. And, naturally, the copycat makes the same error. As we go deeper and deeper into errors, we begin to get better and better evidence of a common origin – the friend was learning from the interpreted version of the song, not the Satriani version, because it is unlikely he would make, say, 5 of the same errors as his friend. The chance for coincidence shrinks while the odds of identifying the correct source rise.

The way this is like CNVs is that we are seeing common errors being made again and again – and these errors are present in both human and chimp genomes. Of course, it should be noted that it isn’t entirely clear if these errors were directly inherited from a common ancestor or if it was the hotspot for ‘making’ errors is what was inherited, but at any rate, it is evidence for our common ancestory with the other apes. There are far too many common errors being made to simply file this under ‘God did it’. The evidence says that is – still and again – superfluous.

Great New Tiktaalik Research

Details of Evolutionary Transition From Fish to Land Animals Revealed

So the jist of this new research is that Tiktaalik roseae has been vetted a bit better. Researchers viewed several Tiktaalik fossils and discovered some interesting new information on its internal anatomy. Of specific interest is the hyomandibula. Its function has changed significantly from its early arrival in fish to its current use in mammals. As it stands, this bone functions as part of the ear for mammals. It also functions as part of cranial motions for fish, namely it is very important to gill respiration. In Tiktaalik, it had a transitional function. That isn’t to say it acted as a sort of ear-gill. It didn’t. It had a function that resulted in better cranial movement, inherently giving it less importance toward gill respiration.

What’s really important here is to realize that this is the exact same bone in mammals as it is in fish. If Tiktaalik lies somewhere between fish and most land animals, we should see quite a few features lying in between. That’s precisely what we see. What’s further, this should help to demonstrate that when scientists speak of transitional features, they do not mean hybrid phenotypes like ear-gills or the silly crocoduck