Morality is a phenomenon that permeates through both society as a whole and also individually via the consciousness of independent entities. It is a force that regularly influences our behaviour and is experienced (in some form or another) universally, species-wide. Intuitively, morality seems to be at the very least, a sufficient condition for the creation of human groups. Without it, co-operation between individuals would be non-existent. But does morality run deeper? Is it, in fact, a necessary condition of group formation and a naturally emergent phenomenon that stems from the interaction of replicating systems? Or can morality only be experienced by organisms operating on a higher plane of existence – those that have the required faculties with which to weigh up pros and cons, engage in moral decision making and other empathic endeavors (related to theory of mind)?

The resolution to this question depends entirely on how one defines the term. If we take morality to encompass the act of mentally engaging in self-reflective thought as a means with which to guide observable behaviours (acting in either selfish or selfless interests), then the answer to our question is yes, morality seems to be inescapably and exclusively linked only to humanity. However, if we twinge this definition and look at the etiology of morality – where this term draws its roots and how it developed over time, one finds that even the co-operative behaviours of primitive organisms could be said to construe some sort of basic morality. If we delve even deeper and ask how such behaviours came to be, we find that the answer is not quite so obvious. Can a basic version of morality (observable through cooperative behaviours) result as a natural consequence of interactions beyond the singular?

When viewed from this perspective, cooperation and altruism seem highly unlikely; a system of individually competing organisms, logically, would evolve to favour the individual rather than the group. This question is especially prudent when studying cooperative behaviours in bacteria or more complex, multicellular forms of life, as they lack a consciousness capable of considering delayed rewards or benefits from selfless acts

In relation to humanity, why are some individuals born altruistic while others take advantage without cause for guilt? How can ‘goodness’ evolve in biological systems when it runs counter to the benefit of the individual? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

Morality, in the traditional, philosophical sense is often constructed in a way that describes the meta-cognitions humans experience in creating rules for appropriate (or inappropriate) behaviour (inclusive of mental activity). Morality can take on a vast array of flavours; evil at one extreme, goodness at the other. We use our sense of morality in order to plan and justify our thoughts and actions, incorporating it into our mental representations of how the world functions and conveys meaning. Morality is a dynamic; it changes with the flow of time, the composition of society and the maturity of the individual. We use it not only to evaluate the intentions and behaviours of ourselves, but also of others. In this sense, morality is an overarching egoistic ‘book of rules’ which the consciousness consults in order to determine whether harm or good is being done. Thus, it seeps into many of our mental sub-compartments; decision making, behavioural modification, information processing, emotional response/interpretation and mental planning (‘future thought’) to name a few.

As morality entertains such a privileged omni-presence, humanity has, understandably, long sought to not only provide standardised ‘rules of engagement’ regarding moral conduct but has also attempted to explain the underlying psychological processes and development of our moral capabilities. Religion, thus, could perhaps be the first of such attempts at explanation. It certainly contains many of the idiosyncrasies of morality and proposes a theistic basis for human moral capability. Religion removes ultimate moral responsibility from the individual, instead placing it upon the shoulders of a higher authority – god. The individual is tasked with simple obedience to the moral creeds passed down from those privileged few who are ‘touched’ with divine inspiration.

But this view does morality no justice. Certainly, if one does not subscribe to theistic beliefs then morality is in trouble; by this extreme positioning, morality is synonymous with religion and one definitely cannot live without the other.

Conversely (and reassuringly), in modern society we have seen that morality does exist in individuals whom lack spirituality. It has been reaffirmed as an intrinsically human trait with deeper roots than the scripture of religious texts. Moral understanding has matured beyond the point of appealing to a higher being and has reattached itself firmly to the human mind. The problem with this newfound interpretation is that in order for morality to be considered as a naturally emergent product of biological systems, moral evolution is a necessary requirement. Put simply, natural examples of moral systems (consisting of cooperative behaviour and within group preference) must be observable in the natural environment. Moral evolution must be a naturally occurring phenomenon.

A thought experiment known as the “Prisoner’s dilemma” summarises succinctly the inherent problems with the natural evolution of mutually cooperative behaviour. This scenario consists of two parties, prisoners, whom are seeking an early release from jail. They are given the choice of either a) betraying their cellmate and walking free while the other has their sentence increased – ‘defecting’ or b) staying silent and mutually receiving a shorter sentence – ‘cooperating’. It becomes immediately apparent that in order for both parties to benefit, both should remain silent and enjoy a reduced incarceration period. Unfortunately, and also the catalyst for the terming of this scenario as a dilemma, the real equilibrium point is for both parties to betray. Here, the pay-off is the largest – walking free while your partner in crime remains behind with an increased sentence. In the case of humans, it seems that some sort of meta-analysis has to be done, a nth-order degree of separation (thinking about thinking about thinking), with the most dominant stratagem resulting in betrayal by both parties.

Here we have an example of the end product; an advanced kind of morality resulting from social pressures and their influence on overall outcome (should I betray or cooperate – do I trust this person?). In order to look at the development of morality from its more primal roots, it is prudent to examine research in the field of evolutionary biology. One such empirical investigation (conducted by Aviles, 2002that is representative of the field involves the mathematical simulation of interacting organisms. Modern computers lend themselves naturally to the task of genetic simulation. Due to the iterative nature of evolution, thousands of successive generations live, breed and die in the time it takes the computer’s CPU to crunch through the required functions. Aviles (2002) took this approach and created a mathematical model that begins at t = 0 and follows pre-defined rules of reproduction, genetic mutation and group formation. The numerical details are irrelevant; suffice to say that cooperative behaviours emerged in combination with ‘cheaters’ and ‘freeloaders’. Thus we see the dichotomous appearance of a basic kind of morality that has evolved spontaneously and naturally, even though the individual may suffer a ‘fitness’ penalty. More on this later.

“[the results] suggest that the negative effect that freeloaders have on group productivity (by failing to contribute to communal activities and by making groups too large) should be sufficient to maintain cooperation under a broad range of realistic conditions even among nonrelatives and even in the presence of relatively steep fitness costs of cooperation” Aviles, (2002).

Are these results translatable to reality? It is all well and good to speak of digital simulations with vastly simplified models guiding synthetic behaviour; the real test comes in observation of naturally occurring forms of life. Discussion by Kreft and Bonhoeffer (2005) lends support to the reality of single-celled cooperation, going so far as suggesting that “micro-organisms are ever more widely recognized as social”. Surely an exaggerated caricature of the more common definition of ‘socialness’, however the analogy is appropriate. Kreft et al effectively summarise the leading research in this field, and put forward the resounding view that single-celled organisms can evolve to show altruistic (cooperative) behaviours. We should hope so; otherwise the multicellularity which led to the evolution of humanity would have nullified our species’ development before it even started!

But what happened to those pesky mutations that evolved to look out for themselves? Defectors (choosing not to cooperate) and cheaters (choosing to take advantage of altruists) are also naturally emergent. Counter-intuitively, such groups are shown to be kept in their place by the cooperators. Too many cheaters, and the group fails through exploitation. The key lies in the dynamic nature of this process. Aviles (2002) found that in every simulation, the number of cheaters was kept in control by the dynamics of the group. A natural equilibrium developed, with the total group size fluctuating according to the number of cheaters versus cooperators. In situations where cheaters ruled; the group size dropped dramatically, resulting in a lack of productive work and reduced reproductive rates. Thus, the number of cheaters is kept in check by the welfare of the group. It’s almost a love/hate relationship; the system hates exploiters, but in saying that, it also tolerates their existence (in sufficient numbers).

Extrapolating from these conclusions, a logical outcome would be the universal adoption of cooperative behaviours. There are prime examples of this in nature; bee and ant colonies, migratory birds, various aquatic species, even humans (to an extent) all work together towards the common good. The reason why we don’t see this more often, I believe, is due to convergent evolution – different species solved the same problem from different approaches. Take flight for example – this has been solved separate times in history by both birds and insects. The likelihood of cooperation is also affected by external factors; evolutionary ‘pressures’ that can guide the flow of genetic development. The physical structure of the individual, environmental changes and resource scarcity are all examples of such factors that can influence whether members of the same species work together.

Humanity is a prime example; intrinsically we seem to have a sense of inner morality and tendency to cooperate when the conditions suit. The addition of consciousness complicates morality somewhat, in that we think about what others might do in the same situation, defer to group norms/expectations, conform to our own premeditated moral guidelines and are paralyzed by indecisiveness. We also factor in environmental conditions, manipulating situations through false displays of ‘pseudo-morality’ to ensure our survival in the event of resource scarcity. But when the conditions are just so, humanity does seem to pull up its trousers and bind together as a singular, collective organism. When push comes to shove humanity can work in unison. However just as bacteria evolve cheaters and freeloaders, so to does humanity give birth to individuals that seem to lack a sense of moral guidance.

Morality must be a universal trait, a naturally emergent phenomenon that predisposes organisms to cooperate towards the common good. But just as moral ‘goodness’ evolves naturally, so too does immorality. Naturally emergent cheaters and freeloaders are an intrinsic part of the evolution of biological systems. Translating these results to the plight of humanity, it becomes apparent that such individual traits are also naturally occurring in society. Genetically, and to a lesser extent, environmentally, traits from both ends of the moral scale will always be a part of human society. This surely has implications for the plans of a futurist society, relying solely on humanistic principles. Moral equilibrium is ensured, at least biologically, for the better or worse. Whether we can physically change the course of natural evolution and produce a purely cooperative species is a question that can only be answered outside the realms of philosophy.