Did you watch “Spy in the Wild” on BBC1 on 12 January? It was the most intriguing wild life programme I have ever seen. It was based on using animal robots which could be placed among different species – giving them, over time, plenty of opportunity to observe the most intimate moments. These were photographed through the robot’s eye.
The emphasis was on the relationships between the members of the pack – whether this was giraffes or elephants or monkeys (and several others). It became clear that each species had developed different social habits. But they all contributed to the welfare of their pack. You will have seen clips of elephant herds where all the members work as a team to protect the very young. We recognise the long term effects of evolution. Over perhaps millions of years those who behaved in a way which contributed to survival were more likely to live and breed so that their descendants inherited such desirable characteristics.
So far so obvious. But what came across most vividly was the strength of emotion. I only have to watch my cats (litter twins) meeting in each other’s territory to see strong, if hostile, emotions in action. But here what I was often watching was the emotion of care. We saw maternal love, self sacrifice and ritual mourning, to say nothing of adopting a pet from a different species. Had I not known that these were lower animals I would have thought that they were practising something essentially similar to loving one’s neighbour as oneself.
This interests me because it strongly suggested that a whole range of our virtuous actions are likely to be the outcome of our evolution rather then any spiritual goodness in us. Likewise our evil actions may largely come about in the same way. Just as the lower animals have their own natural law – to which they are wedded in order to flourish, so we have a natural law which, while being necessarily more complex, must be followed if we are to flourish.
Of course we have free will. Our advanced intelligence allows us to look at our natural law and then decide whether to follow it or whether to spurn it in order to get an immediate, apparent, advantage. I presume that the lower animals just go along with it. When they breach it we assume that it is not a moral fault but some other causal factor which we may not spot. My cats’ instinctive protection of their territory remains even though in their actual circumstances peaceful cooperation would be to their advantage.
It leaves me wondering just how much of what I think of as moral decisions are in fact the outcome of my evolution and my experiences. They may not be moral at all. Such virtues as others may (perhaps) spot in me may very well not be virtues at all but an instinctive gift from my ancestral line. My caring behaviour for my family (I have 21 descendants, and counting) may be no more than my acquired instinct to ensure that my genes are preserved for the future.
And, just as I finish this, I read an article in New Scientist which describes studies which show that even the experts are given to approving evidence which supports their existing opinion, and rejecting evidence which attacks it. So, for example, a debate on the inevitability of global warming will tell us more about the inclinations of the arguers than the strength of the evidence. And, if that is so for the soi disant experts, is it also so for us – not only for global warming but for all the issues on which we have firm opinions?