This free Information Age Education
Newsletter is written by Dave
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project.
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available online. In
books based on the newsletters are available: Creating an Appropriate 21st Century
Education and Common Core State Standards for Education in America. This newsletter is the third of a series of five on recent
research developments on the culturally important issue of morality.
Morality is a human issue because we are a social species. The articles
explore the issue of whether morality is something that emerged as
mammals discovered the values of cooperative behavior (this article and
the next), or if it emerged only when humans evolved into a social
species (the final article in the series).
Morality: Recent Research Developments.
The Neurobiology of Morality
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The brain sciences as we now understand them are only about 100 years
old, and the major discoveries have been made during the past few
decades. Two major mysteries that remain relate to our understanding of
consciousness and the moral behavior that can emerge from it. The two
previous IAE Newsletters (Given,
2013) reported on Porges' Polyvagal Theory. The articles
argue that the extended evolutionary development of the vagus nerve
also profoundly enhanced the social development and thus the moral
potential of humans. The vagus nerve is the most extensive single
neuron within humans, connecting most brain and body systems.
Patricia Churchland is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the
University of California, San Diego. Among many other honors, she was
awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_Churchland).
She began her career as a philosopher, but then realized that the
emerging cognitive neurosciences were beginning to provide useful
answers to questions that philosophers had deductively struggled with
for centuries. She and her philosopher husband Paul thus took a leave
of absence to study cognitive neuroscience, and their work now combines
philosophy and neuroscience. Brain
Trust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality (2012) is
her latest of several books.
A major exploratory focus of Churchland's work has been on the
relationship between the organization and function of our
brain's subcortical/unconscious level and
its cortical/conscious level. Consciousness and morality are
basically cortical/conscious level phenomena, but they also often draw
on subcortical processes.
The principal hypothesis of the book Brain
Trust is that morality originates within the neurobiology of
attachment and bonding. It emerges out of the actions of selected
mammalian hormones and neural networks that combine to get us beyond
concerns for self and our juveniles and into complex behaviors that
manage an extended and appropriate social life.
We are a highly interactive social species, very dependent on the
acceptance and support of others. Humans therefore must learn from
childhood on how to behave appropriately in order to provide and
receive such social support. Knowing how to do something and deciding
whether or not to do it are two separate but seemingly related
behavioral issues. They are central to understanding and responding to
the true/false and right/wrong dichotomies that play such important
behavioral roles in our lives. True/false questions tend to have only a
single correct response (such as 1 + 1 = 2 in a base ten system), and
right/wrong issues may have multiple responses that emerge out of
personal preferences and resultant choices (such as what to wear
to a party). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuzzy_logic for more
information about fuzzy (multi-value) logic.
Most practical and social problems thus involve constraint
satisfaction. This means that various values and probabilities interact
to produce what is not necessarily the best solution but rather one
that is suitable. Over time, early human tribes codified specific
successful solutions into moral and ethical decisions. Morality focuses
on the general culturally defined principles of right/wrong, good/bad,
fair/unfair and so on, and ethics focuses on the development of
specific behavioral codes that folks should follow to act morally.
Historically, a combination of parents, play, and interactions with
others taught children such appropriate behaviors. Cultures emerged
over time that embodied these behavioral codes (Sylwester, 2010).
Deities provided a sense of moral and ethical authority within a
culture. Since certain kinds of tit-for-tat solutions seemed to
resonate within the human brain, the various scriptural documents
across the world often show remarkable social similarity. “Do unto
others as you would have them do unto you” is a common example.
However, even that has its complexities: Soldiers seek to kill their
enemies while hoping that their enemies don't kill them. Churchland
suggests that the belief that spiritual forces communicate appropriate
moral and ethical decisions probably emerged from doubts that a
biological body/brain can unilaterally care about or value someone else.
Churchland's book is focused on the biological base of morality. Is
morality something central to how a human brain functions or is it a
spiritually imposed metaphysical phenomenon? She argues that
scientists actually now know a lot about how human cooperative behavior
emerged. She thus considers our brain to be the biological
platform that leads to moral thoughts and choices. We behave as our
brain determines, and her book is about how our brain arrives at
culturally acceptable and unacceptable moral decisions without the felt
need for spiritual support. Morality is more about the biology of
empathy than it is about following a set of theologically
Although 69% of U.S. adults claim to be moderately-to-very religious,
only a declining 30% regularly attend religious services that are
typically focused on moral issues (Worthen, 2012). Contemporary society
thus seems similarly conflicted about the underlying base of morality.
Morality's Biological Platform
All known species of mammals are social to the extent that they
come together to mate. The mothers also care for the young, sometimes
with assistance from fathers. Some mammals are considerably more social
than others. Further, an abundance of resources usually reduces species
competition, which generally increases cooperative behavior.
Two molecules play key roles in the social behavior of mammals.
Oxytocin is a very ancient peptide that is central to the complex
adaptations involved in caring for others. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin.
It is found in all vertebrates, but mammalian brain evolution adapted
it and several related hormones (such as vasopressin) to new tasks
relative to caring for the young, and eventually also to wider forms of
cooperative sociability. Similarly, serotonin probably had only a
single assignment in ancient simple organisms, but it now helps to
regulate human moods, many of which are associated with moral/ethical
decisions. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serotonin.
Two other interdependent evolutionary mammalian brain modifications
also enhanced moral development. The first led to negative feelings
from threats, plus the special motivation to take corrective action if
offspring were in danger. For example, parents and offspring that were
safely reunited experienced pleasure and relief. The second
evolutionary modification was an increased capacity for learning to
solve problems within the group; this was initially linked to pain and
pleasure, and eventually to empathetic understanding of how others in
the group felt about the problem.
Expanded memory led to both the anticipation of and the planning for
the avoidance of trouble. These evolutionary modifications supported an
awareness of appropriate social behaviors and the urge to want to be
together. Mammals thus became motivated to learn appropriate social
practices because social misbehavior typically led to the pain of
exclusion and disapproval, while appropriate social behavior tended to
lead to approval and affection.
Our growing understanding of mirror neurons seems to suggest a powerful
biological link to the development of the neurobiology of morality.
Mirror neurons in the premotor cortex and elsewhere activate when we
carry out an action and also when we observe someone else carry out the
action. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron. For
example, think of the tendency to yawn when we observe someone else
yawning. Although many think this system helps to develop moral
behavior, Churchland suggests that solid evidence is still lacking
(although she does predict that the relevant neural systems will be
Are humans the only mammals with basic social behaviors that should be
considered moral? Churchland suggests that other mammals care for their
offspring, and some also care for mates, kin, and affiliates. They
cooperate, punish, and reconcile after conflict. They may groom each
other. Bonobos and chimpanzees provide well-studied examples. Humans
share about 98.7% of their genetic blueprint with bonobos and
chimpanzees. Although bonobo and chimpanzee morality are not the same
as human morality, Churchland argues that there is strong evidence to
support the existence of a powerful non-spiritual biological base for
mammalian and human morality. The next newsletter in this IAE Newsletter series will focus
on the probable moral behavior of bonobos and chimpanzees.
From Personal to Social Platforms
Our basic biological platform faced a new social behavior
challenge starting about 10,000 years ago as many humans moved from the
unpredictability of hunting and foraging to the greater predictability
of agrarian life. Agriculture led to cooperation and bartering beyond
immediate kin and tribe. The joint effort implicit in cooperation led
to the concept of fairness and the social procedures to insure it.
Shared religious beliefs may have advanced such social stability, since
shared beliefs enhance predictable behavior. Those who behaved unfairly
could anticipate an unwelcome angry response from those around them and
also fear of punishment from deities that were believed to become angry
at immoral behavior.
Moral behavior is not necessarily biologically innate. Churchland
suggests that much of it may also be just a generally accepted
intelligent solution to a common problem. For example, truth telling is
considered morally appropriate because false information often causes
personal and social problems. Although no evidence exists that we
are innately truthful (and most of us occasionally tell
socially acceptable white lies) most people typically consider
deliberately hurtful falsehood to be immoral.
The large and still ill-understood human prefrontal cortex (PFC)
located behind our forehead has been called the organ of
civilization. Its connections to our emotional and motor systems
provide much of what we consider the intelligence that is implicit in
predictive social behavior, such as the self-control of deferred
gratification. To deliberately reject one's PFC advice could lead to
behavior that most people would consider immoral.
So, to Churchland, morality is neither an illusion nor necessarily
spiritual, but is rather firmly grounded in the biology of empathy. We
have the biological capacity for compassion and the practical knowledge
of how to figure out things. Some social practices and organizations
are better or worse than others, and folks are equipped to make genuine
assessments of how well or poorly other folks are served. For example,
consider the contentious issue of how to regulate stem cell research.
We have to understand both human nature and science in order to have a
reasonable belief about who is likely to be trustworthy on the larger
and technical details of the issue. Democratic societies tend to take a
free and open discussion approach to dealing with such complex problems.
References and Resources
Churchland, P. (2012). Brain trust: What neuroscience tells us
about morality. Princeton NJ: Princeton University.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent
books are A Child's Brain: The Need
for Nurture (2010, Corwin) and The
Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin); and
co-authored with David Moursund: Creating
an Appropriate 21st Century Education (2012, IAE) and Common Core State Standards for K-12
Education in America (2013, IAE). He wrote a monthly column for
the Internet journal Brain Connection
during its entire 2000-2009 run.
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