How did we humans acquire our all-loving, unconditionally selfless moral conscience?
How we acquired our moral instincts has been one of the greatest mysteries in biology. The primatologist Richard Wrangham described it as ‘A question that has lain unsolved at the core of biology ever since Darwin’ (in a review of E.O. Wilson’s 2019 book Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies). And Darwin himself described it as the ‘one special difficulty’ with his concept of natural selection (On The Origin of Species, 1859, p.209 of 440). The reason for the ‘difficulty’—and this is some basic biology for you—is that genes normally can’t select for unconditionally selfless, fully cooperative traits, simply because such traits tend to be self-eliminating and so normally can’t become established in a species—I mean, ‘By all means, you can be selfless and sacrifice your genes for me, but I’m not about to be selfless and sacrifice my genes for you.’ The process of natural selection dictates that selfish opportunism will supposedly always exploit selflessness, so how could such a selfish process as natural selection possibly have created such loving selflessness in us?
The answer is it was achieved in our forebears through nurturing. To explain what is so significant about a mother’s nurturing of her offspring, I first need to point out that a mother’s maternal instinct to care for her offspring is selfish because she is ensuring the reproduction of her genes by ensuring the survival of offspring who carry her genes. So maternalism is a selfish trait, which, as I’ve just said, genetic traits normally have to be for them to reproduce and carry on into the next generation. HOWEVER, and this is all-important, from the infant’s perspective maternalism does have 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. So selfish maternalism can train an infant in altruistic selflessness.
If we think about primates, being semi-upright from living in trees, swinging from branch to branch, and thus having their arms free to hold a dependent infant, it’s clear that they are especially facilitated to support and prolong the mother-infant relationship, and so develop this nurtured, loving, cooperative behaviour.
Bonobo mothers holding their infants
And in fact, bonobos, the ape species who live south of the Congo River in Africa, are extraordinarily matriarchal, or female role focused, and extraordinarily nurturing. You can find photos online—and I’ll include some in the transcript booklet and video of this interview—that illustrate just how nurturing bonobos are; they show bonobo mothers giving their infant their devoted and undivided attention!
Bonobos nurturing their infants
And as a result of all this nurturing, bonobos are the most cooperative and loving of all primates, which is evidenced by these absolutely amazing quotes that I just have to read to you.
Bonobo zoo keeper Barbara Bell writes that ‘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’ (‘The Bonobo: “Newest” apes are teaching us about ourselves’, Chicago Tribune, 11 Jun. 1998).
Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh says, ‘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).
A filmmaker of the French documentary Bonobos says, ‘They’re surely the most fascinating animals on the planet. They’re the closest animals to man [in that they share almost 99 percent of our genetic make-up]…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’ (short accompanying film to the 2011 French documentary Bonobos).
And bonobo researcher Vanessa Woods gives this first-hand account of bonobos’ unlimited capacity for love from her study of them in their home in the Congo basin: ‘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’ (‘A moment that changed me – my husband fell in love with a bonobo’, The Guardian, 1 Oct. 2015).
Bonobos are our closest living relatives, as mentioned they share 99% of our DNA. So we can see that bonobos provide the perfect evidence for how our distant ape ancestors became cooperative and loving.
Here is another picture of a group of bonobos resting in a grassy glade, which perfectly equates with the description that Plato gave about what life was like for humans back in the ‘Golden Age’ of nurtured togetherness. Plato said, ‘And they dwelt naked, and mostly in the open air, for the temperature of their seasons was mild; and they had no beds, but lay on soft couches of grass, which grew plentifully out of the earth.’ Clearly we have a perfect instinctive memory (if we don’t choose to deny it) of what life was like before ‘the fall’ because Plato didn’t know of the existence of bonobos and yet knew exactly what our bonobo-like life before ‘the fall’ was like.
Bonobos resting in a grassy glade
Now this quote is a bit long but it’s such a wonderful intuitive remembrance of our species’ bonobo-like time in an alienation-free, all-sensitive and all-loving state of innocence that I just have to read it out. It’s from the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. He wrote of a time when: ‘The grass glowed with bright and fragrant flowers. Birds were flying in flocks in the air, and perched fearlessly on my shoulders and arms and joyfully struck me with their darling, fluttering wings. And at last I saw and knew the people of this happy land. They came to me of themselves, surrounded me, kissed me. The children of the sun, the children of their sun—oh, how beautiful they were!…Their faces were radiant…in their words and voices there was a note of childlike joy…It was the earth untarnished by the Fall; on it lived people who had not sinned…They desired nothing and were at peace; they did not aspire to knowledge of life as we aspire to understand it, because their lives were full. But their knowledge was higher and deeper than ours…but I could not understand their knowledge. They showed me their trees, and I could not understand the intense love with which they looked at them; it was as though they were talking with creatures like themselves…and I am convinced that the trees understood them. They looked at all nature like that—at the animals who lived in peace with them and did not attack them, but loved them, conquered by their love…There was no quarrelling, no jealousy among them…for they all made up one family’ (The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, 1877).
This description of being ‘conquered by their love’ is so like the description just given by the bonobo researcher Vanessa Woods, when she said bonobos ‘love you with such helpless abandon that you love them back. You have to love them back’. Again we see how accurate our memory is, if we don’t deny it, of what life was like before ‘the Fall’.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881)
And just like the obvious truth that our species once lived cooperatively and lovingly, this truth that we acquired our moral instincts through nurturing has been an unbearable truth while we couldn’t explain why we humans became angry, egocentric and alienated and as a result lost the ability to adequately nurture our offspring with unconditional selflessness or love. The truth of our species’ Edenic all-loving and all-sensitive innocent past, and the truth that nurturing is what made us human, have both been impossible truths to accept while we couldn’t truthfully explain our present immensely corrupted human condition, explain why our species became so corrupted and lost the ability to fully nurture its offspring. As it’s been observed, ‘parents would rather admit to being an axe murderer than a bad mother or father’! (John Marsden, Sunday Life, The Sun-Herald, 7 Jul. 2002).
John Fiske (1842–1901)
In fact, this reasonably obvious nurturing explanation for our moral conscience was first put forward by the American philosopher John Fiske in his book Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, which was published in 1874, only a few years after Darwin published his theory of natural selection. And, at the time, Fiske’s explanation was actually recognised as being, and I quote, ‘far more important’ than ‘Darwin’s principle of natural selection’ and ‘one of the most beautiful contributions ever made to the Evolution of Man’ (Dorothy Ross, G. Stanley Hall: The Psychologist as Prophet, 1972, p.262 of 482). And Darwin himself went so far as to write to Fiske saying, ‘I never in my life read so lucid an expositor (and therefore thinker) as you are’ (1874; Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2). But again, while we couldn’t explain our loss of ability to adequately nurture our offspring, this ‘far more important’ insight than ‘Darwin’s principle of natural selection’ was let die and eventually disappeared from biological discourse!
“I remember the first night after giving birth to my firstborn. We had a room for our own, the atmosphere was soft, quiet, the air enriched by the blossoming of may. My son was the only one born in that hospital in that night. I was so in awe while holding this tender bundle of life. I thought ‘the only thing I have to do from now on is to not crack him, to protect him (from myself), to love him, he is perfect’. I ‘felt’ for the first time what an amazing power mothers possess – ‘if only we could pass on love without distraction, if only we weren’t so consumed by our own pain, insecurities, and duties, by surviving – the world could be so different’, I thought.
The thought was accompanied by a sigh dipped in hopelessness.
A few years later I came across Jeremy’s explanation of the love indoctrination process, of the biological explanation of love…and the truthful explanation of our human condition. Ahhhh! – it resonated so deeply and brought the desperately needed understanding of why this ‘mother-child-thing’ so often brings heartbreaking difficulties and exhaustion. The explanations in FREEDOM have already left an impression on me – I know my boys feel it, I feel it, we connect on a deeper, loving, empathetic level.
I wish calm and loving mothers to ALL children. I wish for the possibility of a future like that.”