Morality evolved first, long before Religion

February 10, 2010

Which came first, religion or morality? Listening to religious people, you’d hear how people need religion’s instructions, or else we’d be morally clueless. God comes first, then God’s Law comes to humanity, and only then can people be good.

But there’s no good evidence for any part of this fable. Such a religious fable itself is a relatively recent creation, reduplicated in many forms all over the world. Different religions talk about all manner of strange supernatural agents perpetually obsessed with correct human conduct. (You’d think any actual self-respecting deity would have more interesting things to do.) Yet basic morality itself is remarkably consistent across human societies. Long before humans had language complex enough to spin stories of heaven, our distant ancestors had to deal with their own problems on earth.

We are a highly social species, using social structures like monogamy, family, clan, and tribe. Our ancestors were using these structures at least 500,000 years ago. If you were suddenly plucked from your life and sent back in time to live with people in Indonesia about 15,000 years ago (or even Ethiopia 150,000 years ago), you would be able to figure out what is going on. The basic social roles, responsibilities, and civil rules would seem somewhat familiar to you, and you’d fit in pretty fast. How is that possible?

Cultural anthropologists have long recognized how all human societies have similar basic norms of moral conduct. Marc Hauser, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has just published a paper about additional studies showing that people’s moral intuitions do not vary much across different religions all around the world. From an evolutionary perspective, that means that human morality is very old — old enough to pre-date any religion that exists today. Furthermore, basic morality is highly resistant to religious influence — most people easily reject religious rules that violate their basic moral intuitions. Rather, religions all tend to confirm and support human morality, because that essential morality sustains our schemes of social cooperation.

Hauser concludes that

"… religion cannot be the ultimate source of intra-group cooperation. Cooperation is made possible by a suite of mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion. Moral judgments depend on these mechanisms and appear to operate independently of one’s religious background. However, although religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation, it can play a role in both facilitating and stabilizing cooperation within groups, and as such, could be the target of cultural selection." [ read the entire article here… ]

The rich diversity of supernatural fantasies hides their common function: to enhance willing obedience. Religion did not evolve independently from, or earlier than, our moral capacities. Morality is independent from religion, while religion is dependent on human morality. And that’s a good thing.