Please note, you can access all previous explanatory and inspirational WTM Emails at the end of this email. Wednesday’s explanatory emails and Friday’s inspirational emails are numbered in order of appearance, so one is odd and the other even numbered.
This is explanatory WTM Email 21
How did we humans acquire our all-loving, unconditionally selfless moral conscience?
Last week’s explanatory WTM Email pointed out that one reason the savage competitive and aggressive instincts excuse for human behaviour is not true is because we humans have cooperative and loving moral instincts, the ‘voice’ or expression of which is our conscience. As Charles Darwin recognised, ‘The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals’ (The Descent of Man, 1871, ch.4).
The great biological question this leaves screaming out to be answered is, if Darwin was right about us having altruistic, unconditionally selfless, cooperative and loving moral instincts, then how could we possibly have acquired them? Since unconditionally selfless genetic traits are self-eliminating and seemingly cannot develop in animals, then how could we humans have developed them?
The answer was through nurturing.
While a mother’s maternal instinct to care for her offspring is selfish (as genetic traits have to be for them to reproduce and carry on into the next generation), from the infant’s perspective the maternalism has the appearance of being selfless. From the infant’s perspective, it is being treated unconditionally selflessly — the mother is giving her offspring food, warmth, shelter, support and protection for apparently nothing in return. So it follows that if the infant can remain in infancy for an extended period and be treated with a lot of seemingly altruistic love, it will be indoctrinated with that selfless love and grow up to behave accordingly — and over many generations that behaviour will become instinctive because genetic selection will inevitably follow and reinforce any development process occurring in a species; the difficulty was in getting the development of unconditional selflessness to occur in the first place, for once it was regularly occurring it would naturally become instinctive over time. And being semi-upright from living in trees, and thus having their arms free to hold a dependent infant, it was the primates who have been especially facilitated to develop this nurtured, loving, cooperative nature. So this is how our primate ancestors developed our moral conscience.
The bonobo variety of chimpanzees who live south of the Congo river are the most cooperative and loving of all non-human primates, and they are the most nurturing, as this quote evidences: ‘Bonobo life is centered around the offspring. Unlike what happens among chimpanzees, all members of the bonobo social group help with infant care and share food with infants. If you are a bonobo infant, you can do no wrong…Bonobo females and their infants form the core of the group’ (Sue Savage-Rumbaugh & Roger Lewin, Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind, 1994, p.108 of 299).
These photographs illustrate how nurturing bonobos are.
As to how cooperative and loving bonobos are, the following quotes provide powerful evidence. Firstly, from filmmakers who were producing a documentary about them: ‘they’re surely the most fascinating animals on the planet. They’re the closest animals to man…Once I got hit on the head with a branch that had a bonobo on it. I sat down and the bonobo noticed I was in a difficult situation and came and took me by the hand and moved my hair back, like they do. So they live on compassion, and that’s really interesting to experience’ (accompanying film discussing the production of the French documentary Bonobos, 2011). And, as bonobo keeper Barbara Bell said, ‘Adult bonobos demonstrate tremendous compassion for each other…For example, Kitty, the eldest female, is completely blind and hard of hearing. Sometimes she gets lost and confused. They’ll just pick her up and take her to where she needs to go’ (Chicago Tribune, 11 Jun. 1998). Bonobos’ unlimited capacity for love is also apparent in this first-hand account from bonobo researcher Vanessa Woods: ‘Bonobo love is like a laser beam. They stop. They stare at you as though they have been waiting their whole lives for you to walk into their jungle. And then they love you with such helpless abandon that you love them back. You have to love them back’ (The Guardian, 1 Oct. 2015). (You can some exquisite footage of the nurtured peace in bonobo society that was filmed during Jeremy Griffith’s 2014 visit with Professor Harry Prosen to the bonobos at the Milwaukee County Zoo.)
The drawing below illustrates how similar our ancestor was to bonobos, which indicates that our ancestors followed a similar path of development to the bonobos — so the evidence is that it was through nurturing that we acquired our altruistic moral nature.
In fact, the nurturing explanation for our extraordinary unconditionally selfless, all-loving, social, moral instinctive self or soul is so obvious that only three years after Darwin tentatively ascribed the origin of our ‘social instinct’ to ‘parental’ ‘affections’ (The Descent of Man, 1871, ch.4), it was put forward as a developed theory by the philosopher John Fiske in his 1874 book, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy: based on the Doctrine of Evolution.
The outstanding question is, why did Fiske’s explanation for the origins of our moral instincts — that was described at the time as being ‘far more important’ than ‘Darwin’s principle of natural selection’ (Dorothy Ross, G. Stanley Hall: The Psychologist as Prophet, 1972, p.262 of 482) and ‘one of the most beautiful contributions ever made to the Evolution of Man‘ (John Drummond, The Ascent of Man, 1894, ch. ‘The Evolution of a Mother’) — virtually vanish from scientific discourse?
The answer is that this nurturing explanation has been an unbearably confronting truth for parents trying to nurture their children adequately under the extreme duress of the human condition — a competitive and aggressive state that developed when humans became fully conscious after this time when we lived cooperatively and lovingly in the metaphorical ‘Garden of Eden’ state of original innocence. Our present insecurity about our inability to adequately nurture our children is painfully apparent in this quote from the bestselling children’s author, John Marsden: ‘The biggest crime you can commit in our society is to be a failure as a parent and people would rather admit to being an axe murderer than being a bad father or mother’ (Sunday Life, The Sun-Herald, 7 Jul. 2002).
It is ONLY NOW that we can explain the competitive and aggressive upset state of the human condition and thus understand why the present human-condition-afflicted human race hasn’t been able to adequately nurture our infants that it becomes safe to finally admit that nurturing is what made us human — that it was nurturing that gave us our moral soul and created humanity.
This nurturing explanation of humans’ moral instincts is presented in full in , while the biological explanation of why we became competitive and aggressive sufferers of the human condition when our conscious mind developed is explained in .
Of course, if the emergence of consciousness caused the human condition and our present inability to nurture, then there is another question screaming out to be answered: why did humans become conscious when other animals haven’t? A summary of the answer to this other great question in biology (which is a summary of the explanation in ) will be presented in the explanatory WTM Email in two weeks’ time.
The reason it won’t be in next week’s explanatory WTM Email is because to explain how humans became conscious it’s first necessary to explain that there is an integrative direction, purpose and meaning to existence — the explanation of which will be provided in next week’s email.
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Discussion or comment on this email is welcomed — see below.
See all previous WTM Emails
(Note, Wednesday’s explanatory emails and Friday’s inspirational emails are numbered in order of appearance, so one is odd and the other even numbered.)
These emails were composed during 2017 by Jeremy Griffith, Damon Isherwood,
Fiona Cullen-Ward & Brony FitzGerald at the Sydney WTM Centre.