Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What refs describe ethics evolving from human needs and instincts?

  1. Nov 29, 2011 #1
    I am looking for references that explain how ethics evolved from human needs (e.g., community) and instincts (e.g., fight/flight).
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2011 #2
    Please include works of fiction as references; I do not intend to publish--just curious.
  4. Nov 30, 2011 #3
    What you are asking for is known as "Social Darwinism" and is a highly speculative and controversial field. If I were you I'd start with something fundamental like the research done by the Yerkes Institute on primates and Jane Goodall's second ten years researching chimpanzees. Recent research has indicated that many species of animals have an innate sense of fairness and experience emotions such as guilt. Obviously such things evolved in humans in large part due to our being extremely social animals.
  5. Nov 30, 2011 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    No it isn't. Social Darwinism is a perversion of the principles of natural selection to society so as to further ideology.

    What the OP is asking for is how morality arose from our evolution, for this I would advise looking into the evolution of social behaviour.
  6. Nov 30, 2011 #5
    Yes, it must be speculative, as the earliest code of ethics was probably during prehistory.
    Thanks, I am familiar with Jane Goodall''s work. I think there are many examples in the animal world, including all the apes but especially chimps.

    Thanks for the Yerkes and Social Darwinism tips--I'll investigate.
  7. Nov 30, 2011 #6


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Do not confuse Social Darwinism with Evolution of Social Behaviour!!! The former will not help you in understanding what current research says about the evolution of morals, it is simply a political philosophy and is nothing to do with biological evolution.
  8. Nov 30, 2011 #7
    Thanks, I read Wikipedia on Social Darwinism; it was interesting but not exactly what I had in mind. I'll check Evolution of Social Behavior--thanks.
  9. Dec 2, 2011 #8


    User Avatar
    Gold Member


    The word “ethics” is commonly used interchangeably with “morality”. In my opinion moral behavior does have its roots in our instincts and has evolved in humans from our beginnings. I visualize the young child trying out various behaviors with his peers. He quickly discovers which type of behaviors cause others to ostracize him, and which behaviors engender harmony in the group. As a result of this simple test, cooperation, altruism, and care for the young are examples of traits which evolved to promote successful human societies.

    From Wikipedia “Morals”:
    “Some evolutionary biologists, particularly sociobiologists, believe that morality is a product of evolutionary forces acting at an individual level and also at the group level through group selection (though to what degree this actually occurs is a controversial topic in evolutionary theory). Some sociobiologists contend that the set of behaviors that constitute morality evolved largely because they provided possible survival and/or reproductive benefits (i.e. increased evolutionary success). Humans consequently evolved "pro-social" emotions, such as feelings of empathy or guilt, in response to these moral behaviors.” I agree with the sociobiologists’ viewpoints.

    I suggest these books:

    “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” by Sam Harris

    “The Origin of Virtue” by Matt Ridley

    “Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality” by Dr. Patricia Churchland. Abstract: What is morality and where does it come from?
    Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain: Moral values are rooted in family values displayed by all mammals — the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves — first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring” circles. Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality.

    Finally, you might check Wikipedia for these: Evolution of morality, Altruism, and Evolutionary ethics. These give excellent outlines of the subjects and have lots of references for you.
  10. Dec 3, 2011 #9
    I found Science of Morality in Wikipedia, which was the right topic of my search.

    According to the Wikipedia article, "Here, moral scientists purport to possess a more than adequate working definition: something is morally good if it promotes the flourishing of conscious creatures." On the other hand, my take is that scientific morals are those which increase the probability that a society will survive. Though, both are noteworthy. By positing an Increased survival rate as the goal of Scientific Morality, one can avoid arguments about good and evil.
  11. Dec 3, 2011 #10


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Science itself has no morality, it is a tool for learning about the world and utilising this to build tools. Regarding goals I would have increasing quality of life over survivability any day l the week.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook