Biology in the News Explained

When will sociologists learn some sociobiology?

Only sociologists would find it astounding that babies make “moral” decisions. The author, Dr. Paul Bloom, a psychologist, says, “Why would anyone even entertain the thought of babies as moral beings? ” Apparently it’s all in the definition of “moral,” because any sociobiologist would assume as much without giving the matter a second thought.

From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings…

Perhaps psychologists have, but they are not actually equipped to make this argument. Any sociobiologist would argue in fact that babies are absolutely predisposed to morality.

Why this disparity? As suggested above, it probably has to do with the definition of “moral.” Psychologists and sociologists seem to have a very abstract concept of this term, which is probably why they don’t think babies should achieve morality – they presumably lack an ability to think in abstract terms.

Sociobiologists on the other hand, people like Frans de Waal, define morality as a set of rules that are necessary to follow in order be a successful member of society. As a corollary, morality exists in all social species, not just humans. Morality is the respect an individual shows to others of the group, so that the others will in turn respect that individual. When everyone plays fair, and by the same set of rules, all members of the society benefit. It is all about reciprocity, because if I cheat you to gain an advantage, you won’t want to deal with me in the future. It is a losing strategy in the long run, even if it gives me an advantage in the short term. Just think about the well known difference between the behavior of domestic dogs and cats: dogs, animals derived from social species, are very trainable because they care so much about what other members of their group (even the human members) think about them. Cats are relatively untrainable because they are derived from solitary species, and so they perceive no reciprocal benefit to pleasing another member of the group. In short, they don’t really care what you think of them.

The babies in Bloom’s article demonstrate that morality is nothing but a set of rules to live by. A baby as young as one year old believed in a study that someone who behaved in an antisocial, unfair way, should be punished. But how does such a young baby already understand these rules so well? Because a baby that is of a social species is designed to start learning the rules governing society from day one. That is the way they will develop into successful adults, and they learn the rules by observing the behavior of older members of their group. (This is why good role models are so important in preventing antisocial behavior in humans.)

Incidentally, this is also why studies searching for “genetic” differences between genders using babies and toddlers are completely idiotic, because they make the bizarre assumption that a three-year-old has not yet had the chance to absorb the rules for behavior that apply to its specific gender. Psychologists and sociologists fail to understand this simple truth, because they are not trained in sociobiology. Perhaps if they knew more evolutionary biology they would think more deeply about the broader context of human behavior. But what is baffling is that they think they can study the brain and human interactions without understanding the basic biology of social animals.

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4 Responses to “When will sociologists learn some sociobiology?”

  1. Robin says:

    Great post! It is frustrating when science loses the forest for the trees. In addition to scientists needing to be aware of the studies in multiple related fields, they should allow in at least a little bit of common sense and observation. Do we learn nothing just from living in the world? I don’t know. Maybe it’s always too anecdotal without a controlled study – but real life is not a controlled study.

    I forwarded this to my daughter – a neuro-science major very interested in behavioral studies.

  2. Gina says:

    “morality is nothing but a set of rules to live by” – I guess you don’t mind running afoul of the fundies!

  3. Andrew says:

    “morality exists in all social species”
    My guess is that in humans the written codes come after-the-fact.
    Great post.

  4. damnsel says:

    Provocative title.
    But you cited a psychologist and a psychotherapist to back up your statement re: sociologists.

    And despite all this, it seems to me likely that you don’t really disagree with the statement “One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings…,” because having a capacity for morality is not the same as being moral (of knowing, and of acting in line with, the “rules”).

    It is one of the tasks of sociologists to analyse the particulars affecting morality in a given society (specific notions of success, of acceptable reciprocity, of hierarchy and so on, in all their social/historical complexity).

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  1. Carnival of Evolution #25 (July 2010) « Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings - [...] seem to be based on differing definitions of terms: what is empathy? morality? culture?  Over at Biotunes, Dr. Henneman ...

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