Week 8 (5/21/19) – A Natural History of Human Morality chapters 1 through 3

This week we begin discussion of Michael Tomasello’s book, A Natural History of Human Morality.

10 thoughts on “Week 8 (5/21/19) – A Natural History of Human Morality chapters 1 through 3

  1. Tomasello presents morality as complex cooperation (2), with two levels: a morality of sympathy that features altruistic helping and a morality of fairness with a motive to help projects that serve the greater good (1-2). To serve this coordinated effort, people evolved to be able to inhabit a “joint” consciousness (52). People are able to seamlessly transition into sacrificing their own interests for the sake of inhabiting joint interests with a companion.

    This idea of an integrated consciousness with a peer seems like a positive reframing of the ideas from Sapolsky about empathy being selfishly motivated, to relieve one’s own suffering. Instead, the joint interests perspective posits that people are able to see themselves functioning as a unit with another. This kind of cognition requires complex cognition that has turned into/combined with feeling from its evolutionary history, as one person “imagines being in the partner’s role and perspective” (55). Are there points where this perspective taking can go too far? For example, when women are socialized to accommodate and meet the needs of those around them, especially of men.

    This process of “socially normative self-regulation” (73) has lead people’s emotions to be heavily tied to the status of their close relationships. They feel guilt when they are not fulfilling their joint roles well and calculate deservingness of themselves and their partners within these roles (6), highly sensitive to when their partners are slighting them. This idea helped explain empathy from a more resonant point of view than either extreme that had been presented before: either people acting selfishly to relieve the stress they feel when they see another person suffering, or that people act entirely altruistically, spontaneously. In cultivating a joint perspective, people have personal stakes in investing in relationships but also genuinely care for their partner’s well being.


  2. Tomasello discusses collaboration as a pathway to fairness. He describes an experiment where three year old’s were paired together and ended up with unequal reward quantities. They tested how the three year old’s shared/didn’t share their rewards based on how the rewards were given to the children. There were three cases: 1) the children are simply presented with the unequal reward 2) the children pull separate ropes to get the rewards 3) the children have to pull the rope together to get the reward. They found that in condition 1, the children rarely shared. In condition 2, children sometimes shared. And in condition 3, children almost always shared. Tomasello notes that this occurs because “in the context of a joint intentional activity, young children feel that they and their partner both deserve an equal share of the spoils” (71). These children will “give up resource[s]…in order balance things with, and only with, their collaborative partner” (71).

    Given that collaboration leads to fairness, this brings us to interesting questions about how we should structure society to take advantage of this phenomenon. One of the most direct implications seems to be income inequality. Perhaps increasing collaborative practices in society as a whole could lead to more equity in regards to the reward, which in this case is a certain income level. As society stands right now, each person typically works for their own income. This is not to say that everyone should collectively work and then split their income, but perhaps if we increased collaboration between groups of different income levels, we could increase positive sentiment towards less income inequality across groups. Tomasello does not explicitly state his opinion about this, sticking to mostly the experimental facts, but perhaps he will expand on this in future sections of the book.


  3. (Kindle version: I will refer to subchapters when helpful)

    Tomasello identifies three distinct moralities that humans obey: kin-based cooperation, collaboration with “specific individuals in specific circumstances”, and impersonal collective morality in which all members of a cultural group are equally valuable (ch.1). Something I have been grappling with throughout the course is whether selfless, truly altruistic acts are possible. While Sapolsky made a case for self-interest driving even the most saintly, Tomasello argues that humans have transitioned from “strategic cooperation to genuine morality” (ch1). While I agree that humans are capable of genuine morality, I do not find Tomasello’s arguments in support of this claim very convincing. Specifically, I cannot find strong evidence that the “genuine morality” proposed is not more than a form of self-interest.

    Tomasello does not have a satisfying argument when considering collective morality,. He writes that “helping others comes naturally to young humans” (ch3. Concern for Partner Welfare), suggesting that we are intrinsically motivated by feelings of sympathy and an understanding that others are deserving of our help. So far, so good for genuine morality.
    However, in other studies children were found to help another “child more, and stole from her less, when they were being watched by a peer than when they were alone” (ch3 Partner Choice). This suggests that even young children are driven to help only when it may be socially advantageous, not because of an innate sense of what is morally right. If the children studied truly had genuine morality that suggested that their fellow participant was equally deserving of reward, the presence of a third child should not have made a substantial difference on stealing. We would only expect it to make a difference if the subject was driven primarily by self-interest, trying to get away with as much as they can without being sanctioned.


  4. (Kindle edition for Sapolsky’s book)

    In chapter 3, Tomasello discusses how human collaboration has evolved beyond the coalitions described in chapter 2. I will focus on page 49 where he states that “humans, but not great apes, will help another more when that other has previously been “harmed” by a third party than when he has not.” He then states that “This suggests the possibility of a qualitatively different form of sympathy,” but rather empathy and “putting one’s self in her shoes.” In the context of the chapter, it is implied that this is a uniquely human trait.

    This statement seems to contradict chapter 14 of Sapolsky’s book on page 524. “As shown by de Wall and colleagues, chimps show third-party “consolation” behavior. ” Sapolsky later states that this consolation (grooming) is not given out equally but is “instead the consoler is preferentially affiliative to the victim over the initiator of the fight.” He then states that this behavior is also present on wolves, dogs, elephants, and corvids.

    Although consoling and helping may be very different behaviors, it does cast doubt on Tomasello’s hypothesis that helping a harmed party is what humans have evolved beyond other primates. Tomasello would probably respond that the chimps’ consoling behavior is done for self-interest as described in page 29 that “grooming is rewarding not only to the one being groomed but also to the groomer.” Sapolsky, on the other hand, would probably be more neutral on whether this behavior is done for self-interest. This is shown on page 525 when he describes the study about rats helping each other: “Maybe it is something resembling compassion. On the other hand, maybe it’s just self-interest.”


  5. (Kindle version)

    Within the 2nd chapter of Natural History of Human Morality, Michael Tomasello comes to the conclusion that our last common ancestor, “was at least somewhat prosocial” (end of II), and that humans have developed upon this from a sense of sympathy to one of obligation, which he begins to explore in the 3rd chapter. I am curious how much of these developed differences are due to biological causes and how much are due to interactive, psychosocial causes.

    It is too simplistic to say that the human experience is the human brain minus the great ape’s brain. And yet, the differences are likely some of the most notable. Taking the prefrontal cortex for instance, it is likely one of the most responsible areas of the brain for much of what we discuss when talking of the differences between a 6-year-old child and a chimpanzee or bonobo. Therefore, what of morality is conducted within this prefrontal cortex? While Tomasello touches briefly on biological markers of human experience in terms of pupil dilation in children as a moral indicator of pleasure in helping, this is not further explored neurologically.

    Likewise simplistic would be to say that the human experience is the result completely of interactions with other humans. Were it not for drastic biological differences, we would still be evolutionarily much closer to the great apes. These aspects Tomasello touches on often however, in such cases as pair bonding, big-game hunting, and collaborative child care. These aspects bring us closer to one another, make us more sympathetic, and allow for further collaborative moral activity.

    The relationship between biology, neuroscience, and social psychology as it pertains to the evolutionary history of morality (and evolutionary psychology) is complex, and the biological component seems to not often be touched upon to this point.


  6. In explaining the origins of early humans’ morality, Tomasello argues that the advent of collaborative foraging was crucial. Following ecological change, “early humans obtained the vast majority of their food… through collaborative efforts” (44). Because alternative food sources were scarce, humans were compelled to collaborate or starve (44). As a result of collaborative foraging, they grew interdependent and a “wider… sympathetic concern… emerged” (46). Tomasello further argues that collaborative and joint intentional activities led to the emergence of the joint agent ‘we,’ (51) the “recognition of self-other equivalence,” (56) and “fairness (stemming from) mutual respect and deservingness” (80). Consequently, early humans’ urgent interdependence “for their most basic needs” (82) precipitated a “limited and local” morality (84).
    These roots of morality have intriguing policy implications. We learn that self-other equivalence, fairness, and mutual respect and deservingness developed in societies with interdependent, collaborative members. I believe these principles are prosocial and engender social harmony; societies should cultivate them beyond their evolutionary foundations. How might we do so? Tomasello has not discussed this matter but may later on. While “hunter-gatherer groups are… egalitarian” (43) and likely possess these principles, let us assume the U.S. will not return to hunter-gathering. In our post-hunter-gatherer society, how can self-other equivalence, fairness, and mutual respect and deservingness be encouraged? In the U.S.’ individualist culture and capitalist economy, interdependence and collaboration for survival are not dominant. This is concerning given Hume’s insight that there is “no fairness or justice among individuals who are… self-sufficient” (37). Nonetheless, policy remedies exist. Extreme policies like mandatory conscription and moderate policies like mandatory school sports and group-work could encourage citizens to collaborate and be interdependent. I do not know what policy is best. I merely propose that we develop policies promoting collaboration and interdependence given the positive externalities of such interpersonal dynamics.


  7. Tomasello discusses the way that “collaborative foraging” was the foundation of the divergence towards the cognitive expansion of a new moral consciousness (44). He uses the findings from various experiments involving children as indirect evidence to support his claims. He emphasizes that “helping others comes naturally to young humans” and that they are “intrinsically motivated by feelings of sympathy” (47). These experiments do display how young children are motivated to help others even without external incentives. Although this is valid evidence, I don’t think that all these experiments are strong enough to completely support Tomasello’s argument. By claiming that this ability is innate, he fails to account for other environmental factors that could influence this type of behavior. These experiments lead me to believe that we have some sense of innate moral understanding, however, I think that observing behavior from parents or caretakers who have a sense of kin-based prosociality could also instill this concept into very young children. During such an intense developmental stage (0-3 yo), children learn a great deal from observing. Experiments such as the bobo dolls study show the ways in which children construct their behavior through observational learning. It would make sense that young children are prosocial and enjoy interdependence partly due to their recent full dependence on another human being. If a child just spent the past three years being nurtured and loved, it would make sense that they show similar behavior. In addition, children still act out, fight with their siblings or hog all of the blocks during play time. Adults often have the responsibility of shepherding children towards their society’s own definition of good moral behavior. Therefore, although evolution may predispose children to prosocial behavior, childhood experience and environmental factors are what shape us towards our full capacity of moral consciousness.


  8. In this week’s comment, I will highlight a key theme in Tomasello’s narrative—that despite the distal role of natural selection in shaping human morality, the proximal behavioral mechanisms that underlie it take on a life of their own—humans don’t act morally because of some reproductive fitness calculus but because they feel they should do so (7).

    Kin selection, for example, requires a proximate mechanism as simple as: “One has to be predisposed to do things that help others (without necessarily understanding cognitively that one is doing so), and one must direct this behavior selectively to kin” (11). Experimental evidence demonstrates that these and related mechanisms (12) exist in great apes—at least when food isn’t scarce and the behavior isn’t too costly (31)—suggesting apes feel genuine sympathy and act on it.

    There’s no reason to doubt that similarly genuine proximate mechanisms underlie human morality as well. In fact, young children in joint commitment studies “judge that [they] ought to behave responsibly with [their] partner because [the partner] deserved it,” and not just out of self-centered rationality (75). In effect, many of these moral attitudes around fairness and desert stem from “self-other equivalence” in the collaborative process (see Nagel, 1970, 1986), a phenomenon that Tomasello calls an evolutionary spandrel—arising out of the “cognitive structure of joint intentionality”—but one that nonetheless underlies much of the morality of fairness (80).

    The proximate mechanisms for human morality— sympathy, joint commitment, (and later) culture—might have evolved due to their adaptiveness in individuals or simply as spandrels of other adaptations. However, Tomasello effectively illustrates that—much like the textbook example of sex (7)—we don’t just help others to pass down more copies of our genes to future generations, but because it genuinely feels good.


  9. In this comment, I will examine how and why our great ape ancestors did not carry out the same process of “partner choice (18)” as early humans. Tomasello writes that “we may think of the kind of socially complex decision making that occurs in partner choice as a kind of ‘biological market’ (19).” However, our great ape ancestors did not carry out “the implicit contract (14)” of “calculated reciprocity (14)” and instead had a “propensity for forming long-term emotion-based social relationships (14)” based in emotional reciprocity.
    In the highly competitive world of bonobos and chimpanzees, “both chimpanzees and bonobos compete with groupmates all day every day (21)” and thus “competition frequently represents the driving force behind cooperation (23).” For chimpanzees and bonobos, “it pays to have good and powerful friends …therefore individual chimpanzees and bonobos cultivate friends, quite often through reciprocal coalitionary support (24).” Since, there is little coordination required for a coalition to function, as each of the two apes in the coalition “simply does her individual best in the fight as they act in parallel – the best coalition partners are simply those that are dominant in fights, full stop (25).” As “great ape patterns of reciprocity… are not underlain by any kind of implicit agreement or contract for reciprocity…but only by interdependence-based sympathy operating in both directions (25).” Unlike our great ape ancestors, early humans “had to collaborate with others on a daily basis or else starve (44),” which meant that “those who were the most successful over time were those who naturally shared the spoils among themselves in a mutually satisfactory manner (45).” Chimpanzees do not follow the same process of partner choice in the wild “since hunting in the wild is mostly opportunistic and by preconstituted traveling parties (27).” The lack of complete dependence on group hunting allowed individual chimpanzees to not be “interdependent with one another for obtaining food in general (27).”


  10. Tomasello immediately outlines morality for his readers in its two forms of intricate cooperation. 1. Sympathy as pure, altruistic cooperation, and 2. fairness as a, “cooperativization of competition,” finding balance for individuals in conflict (1-2). To further understand this notion of cooperation as it leads to human morality, Tomasello introduces interdependence and cooperative rationality, where, “individuals who did best in these new social circumstances were those who recognized their interdependencies and acted accordingly” (3).

    He later elaborates on this dual decision-making process in Chapter 3, that, “each individual is both the ‘we’… and at the same time an individual” (50). This dichotomy of jointness and individuality is reminiscent of what we read in “Behave” where Sapolsky poses empathy as arising from self-interest, giving empathy a more negative connotation that in certain cases, putting yourself in another’s shoes may overwhelm and thus prohibit you from taking any moral action. However, here Tomasello is able to frame the importance of individual perspective in a brighter way, highlighting that, “joint attentional engagement is what creates the notion of perspective in the first place” (52). In moments of cooperative rationality with a partner, taking the partner’s different perspective allows each to ensure that the other is cooperating well.

    According to Tomasello, individuals can understand what they are doing from an impartial “bird’s eye view” in which all persons involved in getting the job done are equivalent (55). Does taking a bird’s eye view differ from standing in another’s shoes? Could this metaphor be used in describing the difference between acting with compassion altruistically and acting selfishly on empathy to mitigate pain? Rather than say that one’s own personal perspective can block successful joint consciousness, Tomasello emphasizes that one can focus on their own role and simultaneously watch over their peer’s welfare.


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