Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Transcendent Values?

I would like to begin the new year with an evolutionary insight I just had. The one aspect of religion to which some religious people cling even after they have given up many conventional doctrinal beliefs is that there really is such a thing as transcendent good and evil. No matter what planet in the universe, it is always good to treat other sentient beings with love and respect, and it is evil to harm or oppress them. (Of course, this does not apply to non-sentient beings such as the bacteria I just showered away.) That is, goodness is not simply something that worked for our species; it transcends evolutionary contingency.

Then I started thinking about dogs and cats. Dogs and cats are both altruistic, at least to the extent of having kin selection, which means that they cooperate with their close genetic relatives. But for cats, that is about as far as it goes. Housecats can be affectionate, but only because they identify us with their kin. Dogs are a different matter. They can devote themselves selflessly to the leader of the pack, whether a human or another dog. They have a very strong sense of direct reciprocal altruism. That is, cats use us, but dogs really do like us.

And this pattern relates to their method of catching prey. Cats hunt alone, whereas dogs hunt in packs. Pack altruism has evolved in dogs as a matter of survival; the only altruism cats have is a temporary affection for other animals they perceive as kin. What we consider to be transcendent values of goodness—such as mutual respect and aid—are adaptations for social animals like dogs, but not for individualistic animals like cats. If dogs were intelligent, they may even have altruistic as excessively developed as it is in humans.

Therefore, what I considered transcendent values might only be an evolutionary adaptation found in social species, such as humans and dogs. Therefore, maybe there are no universal, transcendent morals. This is not a happy insight for someone who wants to be religious, as I still do.

Of course, this makes no difference in how we actually live. Love, peace, mutual respect, and cooperation remain essential evolutionary adaptations for social species such as humans. Regardless of the theology, there is no question about how we should live during the upcoming year.

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