Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Multiple evolutions of morality

We humans have a moral sense (at least those of us who are mentally healthy).  We feel love and we feel empathy for those who we see suffering.  Biology should leave us in no doubt that this moral sense is a product of evolution, as empathy has been seen throughout the mammals - rats will put effort into decreasing the suffering of other rats, for example.

Is a moral sense unique to mammals?  If it's not, and if it has evolved independently in another group of animals this may point to morality being an expected aspect of intelligent organisms.  Not universal, perhaps, but not an unreasonable assumption.

So has a moral sense appeared in another animal group?  Yes, it has.  It's appeared in the dinosaurs.  Modern birds at least do seem to show recognisable empathic behaviour. The common ancestor of mammals and dinosaurs lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and was almost certainly not the brightest of animals, and so the existence of empathy in dinosaurs, if true, is a separate evolution.

So much that we have thought to be unique to humans - problem solving, recognition of self, a moral sense, tool building - has been found in many species of mammals.  Their discovery in dinosaurs could be an indication that self-aware intelligence is common in complex animals.

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