Are virtues genetic or learned behavior

Is there a natural moral? *)

The essence of immorality is man's inclination
to make exceptions for yourself.
Jane Addams

Can the theory of selection also explain human ethical and moral principles? Or to put it another way: Our morality comes from nature?

There are two directionswho answer this question differently:

Classical ethology

The classical ethology, whose main representative is Konrad Lorenz, allows animals to behave in a manner analogous to morality. Instinctive behavior (e.g. the inhibition of killing) is compared with the responsible moral of the person. According to Lorenz, humans also do not know whether "the imperative that drives us to certain actions comes from the deepest pre-human layers of our person or the considerations of our highest rationality." These Instinctual mechanisms were created through the selection - as an adaptation of the phylogenetic history. On the basis of these considerations, good and healthy are equated with adapted, and everything that is not adapted (not for the reproduction of the species) is a random mutation that is selected out again by the selection. So there is an ideal type of every kind that is raised to the norm. This thinking is also transferred to humans. For Lorenz, homosexuals are a deviation from the norm and therefore not healthy, since their behavior is not conducive to reproduction.

Since man has a more difficult access to his instincts, he has to counteract moral decay by means of artificial norms. Lorenz sees this decline, for example, in the elimination of the killing inhibition in humans. In animals, intra-species aggression usually follows fixed rules such as submission gestures, bite inhibition - they only carry out their aggression symbolically. All conspecifics obey these laws, i.e. there is such a thing as an intraspecific equality. It was only man who broke this principle.

Sense of Justice - A Legacy of Evolution?

Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal (Emory University) trained capuchin monkeys to exchange vouchers for cucumbers. They are usually satisfied with such an exchange. However, if they saw that another animal was receiving grapes for the voucher, they became angry: Either they did not want to give a voucher for the cucumbers or they took the cucumbers and put them aside. However, if they observed that another animal received something without even having to present a receipt, the mood of the animals completely darkened. It is well known that people react similarly in comparable situations, as has been shown in psychological experiments in which test subjects reacted disgustingly towards people who unjustifiably preferred other people in comparison to them. Often dissatisfied test persons even accept that they will experience massive disadvantages through their protest or their refusal to accept. From these experiments one can surmise that the sense of justice may have been developed before the appearance of the first man.

Ann-Elisabeth Auhagen, a psychologist at the Free University of Berlin, reports on her Research in which people should specifically display altruistic behavior. She formed two groups of 20 adults each, who were supposed to do unusual things for her every day for two weeks. One group should do their people kindly, the other should be more humorous. For example, the test subjects let others in a queue or called friends they hadn't contacted for a long time and patiently listened to their concerns. They praised the cashier in the supermarket or chatted for a long time with homeless people on the street. This attention to fellow human beings, which is unusual in everyday life, produced a surprising result: the people addressed were happy about the attention, and the participants in the study felt particularly good on these days.

So far, brain studies have mainly been used to examine people, for example anxiety or pain perceive, because the brain reacts to this at lightning speed. Now test subjects were confronted with stories that either admiration for performance or Virtue should trigger a person or else compassion. These emotions took six to eight seconds to trigger, far longer than the feelings that arose when hearing stories about fear or pain. This mood lasted longer and some participants announced after the study that they wanted to lead a better life in the future. The researcher's conclusion: Some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decisions about other people's social and psychological situations, obviously require adequate time and reflection. This time is given in normal interpersonal contacts, but not in TV reports or films with rapidly changing images. When things happen too quickly, one cannot fully experience feelings about other people's emotional states, and that has moral consequences. In a media culture in which violence and suffering in fiction or infotainment become an endless show, an indifference to human suffering gradually sets in.

The genes are to blame ...

Explanations of human behavior based on genetic makeup have become more frequent, not least due to the numerous research efforts in this domain. While genetic attributions for behavior are mostly viewed as relevant for assessing the responsibility of those affected, it is still unclear whether judgments about responsibility themselves may not have an impact on genetic attributions. In several studies (Lebowitz et al., 2019), the test subjects found out about people who behave in a prosocial or antisocial manner and assessed the extent to which they believed that genetics played a role in the development of specific behavior. Asocial behavior was consequently classified as less genetically influenced than prosocial behavior, regardless of whether genetic explanations were explicitly stated or refuted in the information. So if someone behaves decently, many people believe that to a large extent this is the result of good genes that are responsible for good deeds. Presumably this asymmetry results from people's desire to hold wrongdoers responsible for their actions. The results also indicate that those who want to investigate or use the influence of genetic explanations on the assessment of antisocial behavior, for example, should consider whether such explanations are accepted at all.

Evolution has that human social behavior shaped, whereby moral development is strongly dependent on the status of consciousness, especially in the recognition of contexts, through the increased imagination, higher empathy but also increased sophistication. One assumes five basic behavioral components of all living beings: Striving for replication, egocentricity, striving for strength, striving for conquest and striving for security. The entire learning behavior, including the interpretation of perceptions, is directed towards these drives, whereby the brain basically serves the role of more efficient implementation of genetically anchored drives, on the one hand as an amplifier and on the other hand as a tool. For example, the long-term care for the offspring of hominids and the parent-child bond ensure protective behavior and the formation of family structures. Even in preconscious generations, group members supported each other in obtaining food, in defense and also in replication behavior.

These often contradicting basic drives can be recognized structurally, for example, in the choice of partner, in education, in the market economy and in all political structures, whereby social behavior can be as constructive as it is destructive and therefore often requires a correction, which in evolution initially occurs in the development of Self-exploration, more emotional Takeover of perspective and empathy originated. The next step was the rational ability to understand other living beings, at which point shame, a sense of guilt and a time horizon became possible.

Ultimately, the current person can reflect, take responsibility, and distinguish between individual and collective well-being. The extent to which humans are able, in a further evolutionary step, to expand socially constructive behavior beyond their narrow, manageable cosmos, for example from a global perspective to realize their striving for security through environmentally friendly management and to prevent ecological catastrophe, is at least questionable.


The Sociobiology approaches the question differently. She says that selection should actually encourage selfish behavior, since selfish individuals should prevail over altruistic individuals. So how does altruistic behavior come about in the animal kingdom:

Natural selection optimizes the ability of organisms to successfully compete for limited resources. The individuals who raise the most offspring are considered "personally fit".

But that means nothing else than that individuals want to pass on as many of their genes as possible. So sociobiology moves away from the individual and asks what behavior would make most sense for the genes. And this shows that - purely in terms of genetic material - it makes sense to support related individuals, as they at least partially have the same genetic material. It can be observed that some animals do without their own offspring in order to raise the offspring of their siblings. But this behavior is only phenotypically altruisticOn the genetic level it can be very selfish, as this is the best way to ensure the continued existence of one's own genes. This behavior is called kin selection.

So the sociobiologists do not come to the conclusion, like Lorenz, that selection promotes species-preserving behavior, but that it affects the Overall fitness of a group arrives. The behavior is adaptive, protecting and passing on my genes and those of my relatives.

But also unrelated individuals can help each other, but only under very specific conditions, which Robert Trivers summarized: The lifespan of the individuals must be so long that the "altruistic" individual can expect the same help to one from the current beneficiary to be able to take advantage of it later; the two individuals must live together in a social group and have a certain familiarity. Then "reciprocal altruism", as this form of altruism is called, can arise.

The sociobiologists explain the origin of the inhibition of killing as follows: In the case of the deer, there are comment fighters in the majority (i.e. they only threaten, they do not really attack the opponent). But there are also a number of damage fighters who do not obey the "rules" and seriously injure or even kill their rival. First of all, these have an advantage over the comment fighters. But since they always fight with full commitment, they are often wounded and have to use a lot of strength. The more damage fighters there are, the more exhausting the fighting becomes. And then suddenly another comment fighter has the advantage, who prefers to hit the bushes before things get serious, but who is then fresh and rested and can devote his energies to reproducing and securing his herd. So this is one frequency-dependent selection. As long as there are more comment fighters, damage fighters have a slight advantage; if the ratio is reversed, it is exactly the opposite. Because of this, the number in the population levels off at a certain value that is stable over time. For sociobiology, however, these instinctive behaviors have nothing to do with morality, they say that Nature is morally indifferent.

In most cases moral indignation consists of 2 percent morality, 48 percent inhibition and 50 percent envy.


What are the consequences for people?

Humans also know something like one double standard. What applies to me does not necessarily have to apply to people who do not belong to my group. For example, international law differs from general law. You can also see a willingness to help when it comes to close family or friends. The stranger a person is to me, the less help they can expect from me. But that means that generally binding human rights are remote from nature and must therefore be adhered to through human responsibility in order to overcome the biological principles. In order to determine the origin of moral behaviors, we must first make it clear what actually distinguishes them.

Moral action presupposes deliberate action, a free choice between different alternative actions, the possibility of assessing one's own consequences and the perception of a personal identity (in relation to oneself and others). Only when these conditions are met can one assume moral action. The social environment of people sets generally applicable rules of conduct, which are sanctioned if they are violated. In part, the individual also internalizes norms, which, if ignored, make him feel guilty.

So morality does not need an evolutionary explanationRather, it is a necessity for humans in order to escape the biological limits and thus to be able to survive.

Human ethology and psychology

According to recent research, children's faces (child schema) address the reward center in the female brain and trigger feelings of happiness. Obviously, these are the biological foundations of human caring behavior and an explanation for the impulse to take care of anything that resembles a newborn. Depending on the strength of the child schema, increased activity was found in the reward center (nucleus accumbens) and areas that play a role in face processing and attention. The researchers suspect that similar processes take place in the brain in men. The activation of the reward system could be the neurophysiological mechanism through which the child schema motivates caring behavior, regardless of the degree of kinship between child and observer.

The Concept of instinct is very narrow in biology. It only includes behavioral processes that are rigid, always run the same and that are genetically determined. But as soon as you want to apply the concept of instinct to humans, you have to take it further, otherwise it doesn't apply at all. To redefine the term, you first have to split it up. The instinct includes a relatively variable appetite behavior and a rigid end action. The behavior of appetite can be found in instincts that can also be postulated in humans. The inflexible final act, however, does not apply to the instinct.

In ethology, phylogenetic (hereditary coordination; AAM etc.) and ontogenetic (learning) Adaptation differentiated. In human ethology, a third adaptation must be added: the cultural adaptation. Man passes on his traditions from generation to generation, so that the former instinct is replaced by intuition. The genetic selection has been replaced by cultural selection, in which better adapted cultures can prevail and spread. Language accelerated this development.Since the cultural adaptation is more differentiated and faster than the phylogenetic adaptation, the urges that are still present are loosened and given greater socio-cultural leeway.

This then raises the question of which behavior is innate and which is learned. Ethologists say that all of our interpersonal behavior is based on innate instincts. For example, Eibel Eibelsfeld postulates a "maternal instinct" that determines the mother's behavior; she only reacts to triggers that are presented (such as the "Child schema"). However, empirical evidence shows that this is precisely not the case. Many mothers have absolutely no idea how to deal with their child. The respective social environment gives them the rules how they should treat their child. In Western civilization These rules have become so vague and varied that there is often confusion, so social determination determines human interaction and not a genetically determined instinct.

This can also be seen in the Infanticidethat cannot be explained according to the biological model. However, since these occur and from culture to culture in a different form (in China, for example, girls are killed because boys are considered more valuable), the biological model cannot make sense.

Maternal instinct caused by hormones?

Oxytocin is involved in the regulation of social behavior, including parental behavior, in a wide variety of living things by inducing social behaviors by docking with oxytocin receptors in different areas of the brain. So far, however, there has been no clear evidence to suggest that the oxytocin system in the brain is different in women and men. Sharma et al. (2019) have now identified a region in the hypothalamus in mice that differs significantly from one another in males and females, because only female animals have brain cells there that are sensitive to the messenger substance oxytocin. While female mice had numerous neurons with oxytocin receptors in this area, there were hardly any such cells in the males. These cells also had receptors for the female sex hormone estrogen, with the neurons no longer forming oxytocin receptors in the absence of the female sex hormone. The results show that the expression of oxytocin receptors is specifically female and depends on estrogen. These oxytocin-responsive neurons in this region of the hypothalamus thus play an important role in female physiology and behavior, above all for the maternal instinct. It is believed that this relationship applies not only to mice, but to all mammals showing maternal care, including humans.

In the following I'll go over a few Method problems one made by the Transfer of terms from ethology to human psychology can happen. For example, precise terms such as des Trigger. When a trigger is triggered, behavior is rigid and always in the same form (e.g. sticklebacks who react with an attack when they see a red spot - the trigger). Eibl-Eibefeldt spoke of sexual triggers in advertising, where he should have spoken of sexual stimuli, since people can react very flexibly and by no means rigidly to advertising.

Eibl-Eibelsfeldt also said that the often rigid adherence to political ideals of young people is a problem Embossing declines in youth. However, an imprint is a precisely defined process that has a sensitive phase and takes place at a certain age. So whether it makes sense to speak of coinage in the case of political opinions must be questioned. Another problem is that Mixing homology and analogy.

  • Homology is given when structural features of organisms are similar, which at the same time go back to a common ancestry.
  • A analogy exists when structural similarities also exist, but these are not due to common ancestry, but to adaptation to the same environment.

    The fins of a dolphin and a whale are structurally similar. Since the dolphin and whale descend from a common ancestor, this is a homology. The fin of a fish, on the other hand, is only analogous to a whale fin, since the structural similarity is not due to the relationship but to the adaptation to the same environment.

Ethologists like to postulate homologies when comparing animal and human behavior, although in reality they are analogies or draw inadmissible analogies. This should be shown with two examples:

Lorenz has the "Fall in love"Set by humans in analogy to the instinctive behavior of animals, since" falling in love "is not accessible to the mind and the same mistakes are made over and over again. However, he overlooked the fact that" falling in love "is to a large extent Person-specific "triggers" arrive, while instinctive behavior is set in motion by a species-specific trigger, so the postulated structural similarity is not present here.

The second example also comes from Lorenz. This compared the human aggression with that of cichlids. They have to act aggressively within a certain period of time. If they have no opportunity to do so (e.g. because there is no opposing male) direct their aggression against the female or their own children. Human aggression is supposed to function according to the same pattern, that is to say it should rise again and again and then somehow be released to the outside world. This explanation assumes human aggression and that of cichlids are homologous. Lorenz proved this thesis with a case study and then generalized to all people.

These Watering down of terms and concepts is useful neither to ethology nor to human psychology. Human ethology should specialize in the study of real homologies, such as the expressive behavior of primates. Analogy research is useless, as there is only a random and no systematic reference.

What behavior is innate can only be shown by rearing with absolutely no experience, since otherwise learning over and over again transforms the innate behavior. But it is also not so important whether there is purely innate behavior at all, what is especially important is that Interactions between external and internal factors to recognize. By acting intelligently, people are able to control their behavior in a meaningful way, the innate is constantly being reshaped and even canceled out by the cultural. The selection pressure now rests on optimizing the ability to react effectively to our environment and to act rationally. We shape our coexistence through intelligently set rules and no longer through instincts, such as the inhibition of killing. All that remains of these instinctual mechanisms is an "unspecific activation" that we can control through insight. This activation can be transferred to many different objects (much as Freud postulated it for his instinctual energy). This means that although a person has a constitutional readiness for aggression, this does not necessarily have to come to light - as Lorenz postulates - but can either be switched off or on through cultural influences. This is proven by the existence of very aggressive (Maasai), but also very peaceful (Eskimos) cultures.

Observation increases selflessness

People are very sensitive to any form of observation, even taking a stylized pair of eyes too moral behavior can motivate. Melissa Bateson and her colleagues Daniel Nettle and Gilbert Roberts (Newcastle University have experimentally proven that observation by others is an important incentive for cooperative action - even if it is just pictures of eyes. They secretly checked for months how much money was her university colleagues paid into a shared coffee box. At eye level above the cash register, she stuck posters alternately depicting flowers, animals or a pair of eyes. In the weeks with the eye pictures, the employees paid an average of 2.76 times more for their drinks In another experiment, the participants had the choice of sharing an entrusted sum of money with their fellow players or keeping it to themselves u 50 percent of the total.

So far it has been a mystery why people often behave helpful towards strangers, because this does not give them any immediate survival advantage. However, social scientists assume that people see themselves as members of an imaginary exchange community that depends on everyone contributing to the common good.

In order for this community to function, selfish behavior is punished, while selfless actions are rewarded. This is probably why humans have learned in the course of their evolution that it is important to give the impression of altruism. Man has evidently developed an elaborate system of deception in order to maintain the semblance of morality.

When is violence morally justified?

There are therefore also situations in which people consider the use of force to be morally justified. People are known to be through common social values motivated, which, if they are represented with appropriate moral conviction, can serve as an imperative to exercise ideologically motivated violence. So while most people oppose all forms of violence, there are still situations in which it is advocated. Within a group z. B. the common rejection of others for a strong cohesion, because common enmity unites. Workman et al. (2020) now have this in a study dark side of morality investigated by identifying specific cognitive and neural mechanisms associated with beliefs about the appropriateness of sociopolitical violence and determined to what extent the engagement of these mechanisms is predictable through moral beliefs. To this end, test subjects were shown pictures depicting political violence in the form of physical attacks and their brain activity was measured. If the pictures showed that the violence was directed against a person whose political stance they rejected, the reward system in the brain was activated. Because of their moral convictions, they were therefore able to understand the use of force in these cases. That means whether people like violence depends on their own point of view and on the question of who the violence is directed against. Apparently shared moral convictions on socio-political issues increase their subjective value and override the natural aversion to violence. However, these study results do not lead to the conclusion that the test subjects would become violent themselves, but rather their reaction points to the tolerant role of an observer of violence.

How does justice come about in the brain?

Studies have shown that when it comes to the appropriate punishment for a misdemeanor or crime, people are primarily guided by their feelings, i.e. how bad the damage caused by the offense appears to them. However, the intent of the perpetrator has a major influence on the assessment of a sentence, because if someone harms a person unintentionally or if the whole thing was just a tragic accident, then people tend to forgive even the worst deeds. Treadway et al. (2014) confronted their subjects in the magnetic resonance tomograph with various short stories in which a protagonist named John harmed another, with different degrees of severity: in some scenarios there was talk of property damage or bodily harm, in others, however, death or mutilation resulted. In some stories, John was acting on purpose; In other words, he deliberately pushed his friend down the slope while mountaineering, in others he only accidentally contributed to the misfortune. One group of test participants was given sober and factual descriptions of the acts, while the other group read more graphic and emotional texts. Then the test subjects had to evaluate how severely John should be punished for his actions. Test subjects who had read the more emotional stories pleaded for harsher punishments overall, with the amygdala being particularly active in these participants, i.e. the area of ​​the brain that colors information emotionally. In addition, the amygdala also sent more signals to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which plays an important role in decision-making processes, whereby the subjects' judgments were obviously distorted by the more emotive descriptions. However, these effects only became apparent if John had acted with full intent in the story, because if the accident was an accident, the sentence would be equally mild for both groups. In the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in particular became active, which regulates the signals from the amygdala so that it cannot influence decision-making and judgments are moderate. Obviously, the anterior cingulate cortex blocks emotional signals when the perpetrator lacks intent in a criminal offense and thus ensures that people are not punished too severely, even for serious offenses.

Morality and law

It has long been scientifically refuted that legal law can be derived from the respective religions, because archaic societies also know numerous non-religious prohibitions and also differentiate between rigid religious and adaptable legal norms. Until now, it was assumed that laws in a kind of cultural evolution originate from a specific social environment. Sznycer & Patrick (2020) are of the opinion that the origins of criminal law could be based to a large extent in universal human nature. Many legally formulated laws could therefore be traced back to neurocognitive mechanisms and the selection pressure of human ancestors, because this would have led to the development of certain brain structures in Homo sapiens that determine the intuitions about right and wrong. The two authors showed in a study in the United States and India that the legal and moral intuitions of people today essentially coincide with the oldest laws from Mesopotamia and China. In Babylon, when a man bit another's eye, this wrongdoing was punished, as can be seen from the Codex Ešnunna, one of the oldest legal texts, three thousand years ago. It also deals with and punishes the case if someone raped a slave owned by someone else. In China, the Tang Code (653 BC) provides penalties for beating their older brother, ignoring the night curfew, or killing their slaves when they have not committed anything. Sznycer & Patrick (2020) asked laypeople from the USA and India to assess criminal offenses from these ancient laws according to how high prison or fines should be or how morally wrong an act is. The test subjects were fairly unanimous in their legal and moral assessments, whereby the ranking of the severity of the offenses presented in the experiment correlated positively with the actual extent of punishment in the old codes. It was also shown that in the judgments the intention outweighed negligence, or that a planned murder was punished more severely than manslaughter in the affect.

Even small children expect leaders to intervene in the event of injustice

It is believed that expectations of leadership-related power asymmetries have gradually evolved over the course of human history, with some of these expectations relating to the responsibility of executives to their followers. In particular, executives are expected to intervene in the event of intra-group transgressions and take action against the perpetrators. Stavans & Baillargeon (2019) conducted several experiments to determine whether small children as early as 17 months old share such expectations of managers. The children sat on a parent's lap and saw a puppet show in which three bears in different colored overalls acted, with the red bear giving instructions that the other two had to follow. In order to be considered a “leader bear” by the children, it was enough to be significantly larger than the other two bears. When a fairness violation occurred, the children expected the leader to intervene and correct the violation. Obviously, such abstract expectations of the responsibility of executives already exist in the second year of life. Children evidently attribute certain characteristics to the leaders of social groups very early on, such as combating unjust behavior. These results therefore support the thesis that an abstract expectation of authority is a fundamental part of human morality, although this apparently arose with the evolution of man. In order to survive and overcome challenges that exceed the individual, the ancestors had to coordinate common actions in groups, whereby a leadership has developed that is also responsible for observing group rules. The system for this apparently still exists today, although it is universal and not culture-dependent.

See also: Can you measure morale with magnetic resonance?

The moral development


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