Are altruism and morality artificial outgrowths of culture, created by humans to maintain social order? Or is there, instead, a biological foundation to ethical behavior?
In other words, are we inherently good?
“But sociobiology and individual selection do not explain ‘unselfish’ unselfish behavior. By this I mean behavior that benefits others but potentially leaves the individual no opportunity to pass on his own genetic legacy,” says Sussman. “To explain that, we must give more consideration to group selection and the benefits of sociality.”
Charles Darwin himself believed that morality plays a role in human evolution by natural selection. A high standard of morality may give the individual and his children no advantage over other group members, Darwin wrote, yet it works to give his tribe an advantage over other tribes.
Thus, over time, groups whose members value morality or practice unselfish altruism are more likely to survive and thrive, passing on the genetic traits that encourage ethical behavior such as empathy, fairness and generosity.
Brain scans have shown this genetic legacy in humans, Sussman says, and it’s probably present in other mammals as well. Unselfish behavior stimulates pleasure centers in the brain sensitive to dopamine, which is associated with addictive behavior, and oxytocin, which is associated with mother-child bonding.
“It feels good to be nice,” he says.