One could argue that there is a common moral standard in dominant cultures, and most atheists conclude that morality is a social need gradually evolved in organisms. But at which stage of the evolution did morality started to evolve, e.g. monkeys, chimpanzees, or even the first mammals?

Also, if morality evolved solely for better functioning of social organisms, why did we evolve to pity others? Caring for the young is understandable to me but lending beggars a coin does not seem to be beneficial, so why did it evolve?

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    There is no "evolution chain", morality isn't developed through biological evolution, and your premises are bogus.
    – hobbs
    Nov 26, 2017 at 4:03
  • 4
    morality has nothing to do with evolutionary theory, there is no correlation between the two. You also must discriminate between evolutionary facts and evolutionary theories. There are several evolutionary theories that are based upon the evolutionary facts. Don't confuse facts with theories. btw, even ant colonies care for their wounded and sick. Nov 26, 2017 at 4:38
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    Am I the only one here that finds the statement in the title really provocative, if not outright offensive? How can you say that there is no sufficient evidence for evolution?
    – user000001
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:53
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    Evolution is "true" in the same sense as every other theory (Relativity, Newtonian physics, Peano-Axioms in maths) is "true". Morality furthermore isn't something biological, so isn't subject to evolution (in the darwinian sense) in the first place. The difference between evolution and e.g. GR is that we can experiment with GR to create more confidence in it, while we can not experiment with evolution without access to time travel or an ability to speed up time significantly. The premise of your question seems to be on very thin ice.
    – Polygnome
    Nov 26, 2017 at 16:35
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    @PédeLeão Occams Razor suggests nevertheless that it is the correct model. Sciences concern themselves with observing nature and deducing how it works - not why it does. Over a long enough span of time and enough procreation, even low odds come true. I have yet to seen any competing model to evolution that explains as many aspects as well as it does. As long as no such model exists, evolution is the best we got.
    – Polygnome
    Nov 26, 2017 at 16:46

7 Answers 7


First of all, I'm removing the references to evolution as this has been removed from the OP. The rest of this answer should directly address the relationship between the evolution of the brain, social development and the emergence of morals...

Morals don't evolve (biologically at least); they are more of an emergent property of social development. If humans were essentially solitary animals who came together to mate and then abandoned our young to their fate after birth, our moral development would be severely retarded by modern standards.

So, a part of our moral development as animals comes from social interaction and the need to form a set of basic rules for conduct within the group that promotes the group over the individual. When hunting in a pack, coordinated attacks on larger prey only work if every member of the pack does what they're supposed to do. This forms the basis of concepts like trust, duty, etc.

The ability to work as a coordinated team in any form other than (say) an insect 'hive mind' capacity doesn't come to organisms straight off the bat when they get brains, however. The brain has been constantly evolving over a billion years or more, and there are stages to it that allow certain functions.

The oldest part of the brain is the cerebellum, which (for simplicity) can be described as being a hard-wired electrical system. It deals with autonomic functions like regulating the heart and breathing, etc. as well as controlling instincts like hunger, the need to procreate, etc.

Next came the limbic system, or reptilian brain. This is essentially a chemical system and is the seat of emotions. Why did it evolve? Well, sometimes hard-wired instincts work against you and send you into harms way instead of out of it. Also, sometimes what is good for you is not good for your young and puts the species at risk. Emotions are a simple system that provide some context to any instincts driving you and allow you to override those instincts in key situations, like not going for food if the situation looks like a trap or a good place for an ambush.

Finally, we get to the cerebral cortex, which (again for simplicity) can be described as a soft-wired system and is also known as the mammalian brain. This is where our seat of reason is, allowing us to create our own programming to suit a changing environment and allows us to adapt to it within a single lifespan.

It is this last part of the brain that allows us to ignore our emotions and our instincts if we believe there is a sufficiently compelling reason to do so. The other two parts operate in a purely 'selfish' fashion, based on the idea that our own survival means by extension the survival of our species. The cerebral cortex however allows us to cooperate with others and operate within a social framework even when that may not be the best outcome for ourselves.

In humans, we've evolved a sense of empathy as well, and this is at the heart of our moral framework. In an attempt to use strategy rather than strength to hunt, we've developed the ability to put ourselves in the prey's place and figure out what it would do next. In so doing, we can plan a trap that the animal's neural programming will make it just walk into, meaning that we can hunt far larger creatures than us armed with little more than a brain.

The problem is, that empathy has made us acutely aware of our own innate selfishness and the damage that we cause in hunting. We don't refer to our meat by the animal name, we have other names for it like Beef or Pork. We praise ourselves for our sense of sacrifice to each other and to our children especially without giving any thought as to whether we're going too far in not looking after ourselves. (I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, what I'm saying is that our society has evolved to 'expect' us to sacrifice for our children with no further rational discussion on the topic.)

That we have language and formal constructs of reason only means that we can articulate these concepts far more precisely and call them 'morals', but technically any creature with a cerebral cortex and a social structure is capable of some form of morals, even if they can't articulate them to us.

Emotions and Biological Evolution

To address comments, the evolution of emotions and (later) reason is improbable, but eminently practical at the same time. Yes, there is a high energy cost to evolving new systems on top of the cerebellum, but they do give organisms something that conventional evolution cannot; contextual awareness.

The cerebellum can handle situational awareness (There's food over there) and even self-awareness (not sentience, more like 'I'll go to the food because I'm hungry) but what it can't do is help with contextual awareness (I'll save this food for my chick...) or empathy (because it'll be hungrier than I am). Also, there is the contextual awareness of previous experience to consider (I'm thirsty but I'll go to the next waterhole because two of our herd have been taken by a predator at this one).

What emotions and reason give life is the ability for a single organism to adapt to its changing environment, rather than having to do it the old fashioned biological way involving many generations. This gives a MASSIVE boost to survival odds, but does leave us combating our 'instincts' far more often at the same time. This can have mixed results (which is what I was getting at previously with the hunting analogy) but generally speaking, our survival odds are much greater with emotions and reason than without.

To your point about emotions and evolution; we generally believe that all creatures from reptiles up (this includes mammals and birds) are capable of emotions to some degree, perhaps not complex emotions but emotions nonetheless. Mammals for the most part are capable of some form of reason, but it's only humans that can articulate those emotions and reasoning skills with the precision that implies higher intelligence. The singular advantage that we have is the ability to pass on MUCH more of our knowledge at a cheaper energy cost through language, meaning that each new generation can build upon much more of the work of the past. Emotional creatures pretty much have to learn their lessons from scratch; this is still an advantage over being driven by instinct, but the human mind and language allows for a much richer and faster development as a species through knowledge transfer.

Ultimately though, the development of the Limbic System and Cerebral Cortex change the role of evolution to that of organic evolution, allowing the organism itself to adapt to the context of its environment, and later to adapt its environment to its own needs as we've started to do recently (in the history of the earth at least).

To that end, I believe that emotions DO have their roots in the physical evolutionary process and are essentially a mechanism designed to make organisms more resilient while evolution strives to catch up with the new environmental imperatives.

  • 8
    @PédeLeão Actually, emotions can be induced and reduced through drugs and medication, and perhaps even detected, so, yes, there is science that says emotions are a property of matter and energy. I agree the evolution of emotions is a more complicated question.
    – user935
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:15
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    If we can detect emotions from brain chemistry and induce emotions by changing brain chemistry, haven't we reduced emotion to brain chemistry (per the definition on the link you provide)?
    – user935
    Nov 26, 2017 at 17:02
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    I think Pé de Leão refers to something like category error objection to reductionism: emotions are in a different conceptual category than material properties, hence can not reduce to them. Reductionists do not care for such objections, however, since in the same sense heat does not reduce to kinetic energy of molecules. Reliable correlation is good enough for them, and one can talk about evolution of emotions/consciousness even if they were emergent relative to physics as non-reductive materialists assume.
    – Conifold
    Nov 27, 2017 at 0:05
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    The opening paragraph is, at best, deeply misleading, if not out-and-out wrong. Science calls evolution a theory because that is what science calls any explanation for observed phenomena—there is no greater, stronger classification that evolution could “graduate” to if some “test” were available. Evolution is a “theory”—like gravity, relativity, magnetism, and so on, literally every single thing we think we understand about reality. We cannot say evolution is proven—because “proof” is not something science as a whole can ever offer. No scientific theory ever will be “proven.”
    – KRyan
    Nov 27, 2017 at 0:51
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    @TimB QED generated some predictions. Later, some observations were made about the world that matched these predictions. Since we haven't made any observations that don't match QED, we accept QED as a principle for now. This doesn't mean it's not a theory though. It's just one that matches all the available data. Evolution is in the same category. It makes some predictions about the past. We then observed some evidence about what happened in the past. The evidence matches the predictions, so we accept evolution for now. The only difference is the ability to generate new observations on demand. Nov 27, 2017 at 4:40

This is more of a biology, psychology, or anthropology question, rather than a philosophy question. However, I suppose philosophy can be used to integrate concepts from any field.

More importantly, you have already biased the question to a disbelief in evolution. Is evolution true? I really do not know. However, it is the most robust body of theory we have on the origin of species, and we have theory on how we evolve biologically and culturally (the selfish gene is of course a common source for discussions about how culture can evolve). This dual sense of evolution is important for your question.

No Innate Morality

Humans do not seem to have built in morality. Anthropologists have studied morality in numerous cultures and there seems to be little that is universal. Even in the areas that are universal, there are differences. For instance, as far as I can tell, every culture has a sense of "immoral killing" i.e. murder, but what constitutes murder can be very different. For one culture, any killing of another creature, not even just humans, is murder, while in another culture, you can shoot someone who slept with your wife, with a poison dart, and watch them slowly die and that's completely okay.

Built in Framework

However, morality itself is a universal. We all have a sense of right and wrong. But we are not born with it. Instead, it seems that we have evolved the mechanics necessary to form morality, just as we have evolved to be able to learn language. Our brain can process facial expressions. It can tell whether or not someone else is in pain. One could call this a moral compass, but at birth that compass needle is not yet magnetized. Only through enculturation will it become magnetized, and each culture's "north" will be different.


The biological framework for morality evolved over millions of years. We see the origins of such a framework in our close relatives. Any social animal needs some kind of mechanism to get along with others in the group. But if we are not born with a programmed moral compass, how do morals themselves arise? Any shared and learned pattern of behavior can evolve. We see this with the game of telephone. We see this with family traditions. Maybe a tradition started out as a necessity, and as it was learned it just became part of the process.

Cultures are under selective pressure, just as biological species are. If a cultural trait is harmful, the society which practices it will have a more difficult time competing with those societies that do not have it. Similarly, there may be cultural norms or values which give an edge over other societies.

This idea helps make sense of certain prohibitions in religious texts. Why is premarital sex prohibited? Well, for one thing, there was little birth control, so people would get pregnant and in a complex society random births without any attached lineage is a problem. However, sexually transmitted disease was another issue. There was no form of protection against them. A culture which abstained from premarital sex would therefore reasonably have a lower rate of STDs and would be more likely to thrive.

We now have birth control and medical technology that helps cure or prevent STDs in many cases. We also have testing so that we're aware of the infection and can inform our partner(s). Therefore the selective pressure against pre-marital sex is lessening and we are seeing an increase of such behavior.


There seemed to be a question about the origin of morality. Well, how does any cultural element come into being? Some may be remnants from our earlier instinctual behavior, which became encoded in culture as we evolved from being primarily motivated by instinct to being primarily motivated by learned and shared behavior. Some elements can arise simply from attempts to answer a question.

Whether or not to kill is question that is going to be asked when there are conflicts between people that can turn violent and deadly. How that question ends up being answered depends on the situation, but once answered, that answer can propagate through society.


So we have biological evolution which has developed the innate components of the moral framework, and which was originally responsible for instinctual behavior. Through stochastic processes and natural selection on cultural, we have evolved cultural morality. Random situations, variations in existing behavior, etc act as the source for the morals which are then selected.

Additional Material

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a robust discussion on the topic of cultural evolution.
  • 2
    Can you provide references for your claims?
    – Polygnome
    Nov 26, 2017 at 17:02
  • 1
    I added two citations (one more direct than the other) for cultural evolution. I'll work on finding more citations. Nov 26, 2017 at 17:08
  • Regarding the first link, would it be possible to write out the important parts within the answer? Links like that tend to produce 404s after some time, which means the content would be lost for people reading your answer.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 27, 2017 at 22:53
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    Darwin's evolution theory has no substantial proof(activist-news.com/darwinism-lack-proof), other than organisms are constantly changing and evolving according to their environment.
    – Fanger
    Nov 28, 2017 at 0:04
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    @Fanger: This site is so bad in so many ways that I will not even bother to criticise it in detail. So just very shortly: It is APES (Pongidae), not monkeys. Second, science is pretty clear that while apes are our closest living relatives, our closest relatives that were distinct biological kinds are extinct. Apart from that: Organisms are not evolving. Species are. Over generations. Important difference.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 29, 2017 at 22:45

There is no conclusive evidence as morals, for most of human history, were a matter of social habits (lat. mores = habit) that were passed through social learning and forms of direct communication (may it be language or others). In other words: There is nothing to base conclusive evidence on to be found by archaeologists.

A possible answer to the title question

Justin Stagl, a cultural sociologist, put it that way (Stagl, J. (2000): 'Anthropological Universality. On the Validity of Generalisations about Human Nature.' In: Being humans: anthropological universality and particularity in transdisciplinary perspectives, Routledge, pp. 25-36. Quote on page 26):

An early species of the genus Homo, which lived in Tanzania about 1.8 million years ago (and thus for a time contemporaneously with Australopithecus) and is called Homo habilis, used his hands in a secure and goal-oriented way for the fabrication of tools and implements. Homo habilis' thumbs could be directionally opposed to his other fingers, enabling him thus to perform precision grips. Accordingly, his brain capacity — and as a result, his intelligence — was one and a half times larger that of Australopithecus, although still merely half of that of Homo sapiens. It is reasonable to assume that the systematic use of tools and implements, including their fabrication, evolved pari passu with some system of communication and tradition, i.e. culture (the first signs of which have been observed among primates). (emphasis mine)

This would mean that it is reasonable to assume that morals in the contemporary sense of cultural habits of social life were developed by homo habilis as early as around 1.8 million years ago.

Steigl also acknowledges that "the first signs" (whatever this may mean) can be "observed among primates". This is a bit fuzzy (see third point) and does not at all mean that primates always showed "first signs", but leads us to the question of the relational connection between primates and Hominidae as an interesting aside.


"Today we no longer speak of the 'missing link', but instead of the 'connecting link', which defines for us the transition from more or less arboreal primates (the Pongidae, J.S.) to the bipedal Hominidae (anthropoids, not to be confused with the genus Homo; minimal definition: Hominidae are bipedal primates)." Seidler goes on to explain that such a "connecting link" was actually found in 1992 in Ethiopia: Ardipithecus ramidus was a "very apelike Hominid", who lived 4.4 million years ago and who was already capable of bipedal locomotion, whilst still feeling at home on trees (Seidler 1997). (ibid, pp. 25-6)

This means that the family of Hominidae parted ways with primates around 4.4 million years ago and it took another 2.6 million years to develop (the biological prerequisites of) morals.

Morality in non-human animals

For some more accounts of the evolution of morality, see: de Waal, F. (Ed.). (2014). Evolved morality: The biology and philosophy of human conscience. Brill: Leiden.

As Conifold points out in a comment below, one could say that it is not only in humans that morality evolved. For some more recent insights about how "natural morality" and the problems of the is/ought divide can be addressed, see the above-mentioned book, pp. 49-68. de Waal argues there that morality evolved in primates as well and describes how they show moral behaviour. He stresses some differences that may disqualify this behaviour as "moral" in the eyes of others, though:

Other primates do not seem to extend norms beyond their immediate social environment, and appear unworried about social relationships or situations that they do not directly participate in. They also may not, like humans, feel any obligation to be good, or experience guilt and shame whenever they fail. We do not know if other animals experience such ‘ought’ feelings. One could argue that their behavior is normative in that it seeks certain outcomes, but that animals manage to do so without normative judgment. They may evaluate social behavior as successful or unsuccessful in furthering their goals, but not in terms of right or wrong. (ibid, p. 64).

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    As I recall, transmission of useful habits through social communication ("culture") is observed in other higher mammals (e.g. dolphins), and even in social insects. Konrad Lorenz famously called mechanisms of inhibiting lethal aggression against own kind displayed by social animals "behavioral analogies to morality". There is a case to be made that "morality" is not exclusive to primates and perhaps evolved independently multiple times, e.g. Morality as a Biological Phenomenon
    – Conifold
    Dec 3, 2017 at 22:22

Before providing a full answer to this question, your conjecture that evolution is not backed by sufficient evidence to be considered true is lofty at best. The only reason evolution is not considered a scientific law has to do with the tight set of constraints scientists set upon what can be considered a law. Though there is ample evidence to support evolution, independent evolution is not a theory which can be tested without hundreds of thousands of years of direct observation. Lucky for us, there are several millions of years of fossils which we can observe and which do support independent evolution, and artificial selection to prove it as a biological concept.

Having resolved that,

The assertion that morals ever had to evolve is not entirely accurate nor is it backed with sufficient argument in your question. Though the brain did evolve through evolution, the social constructs humans accept and label to be "morals" did not. The most basic parts of the brain, the cerebellum and limbic system, are what we can consider "selfish systems". Their purpose is to ensure the survival of a singular organism, that being the one which they are a part of. The more complex cerebral cortex, however, is where we can see complex behaviors such as those you label to be "moral". Argue as you will about what morality means, but what morality is essentially stems from the human capacity to have empathy. Empathy is a byproduct of a very complex hunting behavior which allows humans to take on creatures which are considerably larger and stronger than it by understanding the creature being hunted. Effectively, humans can place themselves in the position of their prey, allowing them to create things such as traps. This same concept also causes humans to understand the damage they do in hunting, and the damage they do in any situation involving harm to another being.

Having established the basis of empathy, we can continue to observe more concrete evidence as to why morality is not a concrete and universal principle, but rather is fluid based upon the person. Take the example of murder. Pretty much every functional human who is not the victim of a mental disorder can recognize that killing another human being is wrong. The vast majority of America, though, would readily consent to and support the concept of war.

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    The evolutionist assumes that there is no such thing as a nonmaterial soul, and he observes his own emotions and thus concludes that emotions are a property of matter. As much as people would like to talk about brain chemistry and limbic systems, our emotions don't even remotely resemble any properties of matter that they teach in chemistry class. Therefore the conclusions that emotions are a property of matter is based on assumption that matter and energy are all that there is. And without this huge leap of faith, all these arguments here fall to the ground.
    – user3017
    Nov 26, 2017 at 20:45
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    @PédeLeão I'm afraid you've made a grave logical flaw. You assert here that I make an assumption about emotions by confining them to "matter and energy" because I apparently assume they are all that exist. Those, however, are not assumptions, but perfectly reasonable grounds upon which to base something. If you'd like to prove that there is something beyond either matter or energy, feel free to do so. But do not make the mistake of putting the burden of proof on me to prove that there is not something beyond matter or energy; it is not my responsibility to do so. Nov 26, 2017 at 21:17
  • I'm not seeing the "logical flaw" that you're referring to. I should also add that not every evolutionist necessarily makes that assumption, but that's usually the case. And there's no need to get hung up over the word assumption. Call it a premise if you like, but it's not a premise that I share. And I also never mentioned burden of proof. My point is that it depends on a premise which can't be proven, and I'm quite sure that it's false. There's even a number of atheist who recognize the inadequacy of our current understanding of matter to account for these things.
    – user3017
    Nov 26, 2017 at 21:25
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    @PédeLeão The logical flaw is that your entire argument is based around your own assumption that there is something beyond matter and energy. Granted, there may well be, of sorts. But it isn't at all the thing you think of if it exists at all. You made no mention of the burden of proof, but that has nothing to do with whether or not you attempted to put the burden of proof on me to prove that something doesn't exist, which is an impossible thing to do. It is not my job to prove that there isn't a soul such as the one you refer to; it's your job to prove that there is. Nov 26, 2017 at 21:43
  • 1
    Organisms evolving to adapt to their environment is evident but to another species is not (activist-news.com/darwinism-lack-proof), don't assume it as a fact.
    – Fanger
    Nov 28, 2017 at 0:21

Morality didn't evolve by natural selection at all. Morality is knowledge about how to make choices. Being able to make choices requires understanding that there are different ways you could behave. As such, morality doesn't arise at all without the ability to create explanatory knowledge. The ability to create explanatory knowledge gives rise to a new evolutionary process where culturally transmissible behaviour (memes) undergo variation and selection. Memes have a generation time of the order of one second. A set of memes also doesn't have to be capable of producing a working body every time it is instantiated, so memes can be selected to satisfy different criteria than evolution by natural selection. For the best available account of memes see "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch, Chapters 15 and 16. We are the only known species that we know of that can create explanatory knowledge and so the only species that has created morality.

Also, if morality evolved solely for better functioning of social organisms, why did we evolve to pity others?

Evolution selects among genes not organisms or groups. Genes are passed on, organisms and groups are not. So genes can be changed by selection since they can be selected, groups and individuals can't. Social organisms look after one another because they share genes, see "The Selfish Gene" by Dawkins.

Caring for the young is understandable to me but lending beggars a coin does not seem to be beneficial, so why did it evolve?

Some memes get copied because they do something useful - rational memes. For example, some ideas help people create scientific knowledge, e.g. - statistics. Other memes get copied by preventing a person from using his ability to criticise and replace ideas - anti-rational memes. In any individual case, giving money to a beggar may be a result of a rational or anti-rational meme. A rational reason to give to a beggar might be to help him become productive and do stuff that will help you. The idea that you owe some random person on the street a living is an anti-rational meme. A person might be poor because he has shitty ideas that keep him poor, so trying to give him a living wouldn't work. So the answer is "it depends".


There's no point in time where bacteria, or apes, or neanderthals, or summerians switched to a behavior under the rules of morals.

Morals are a set of informal and non-coercitive rules that allow individuals in a society to live together. In other words, we can survive as a group only due to morals. Ethics are the same, but formalized and non-coercitive. Law is the same, but formalized and coercitive.

Therefore, we can say that bees follow a social behavior that would be comparable to the one determined by morals in the sense that it allows the group to survive. Bees bring resources to the nest for all individuals, and their primary source of food aren't other members of the group. Just as we do, while we call it morals.

Then, morals, ethics or law are just sets of rules promoting group existence and persistence. They are a foundational aspect of the features of the human species that evolved and persisted natural selection. Animals or plants would have equivalent features.


(This is a challenging question, but the highly upvoted answers, though correct, are annoyingly long. I am going to try not to write a book.)

We like to think of morality in social terms because we are social animals, and because we have spent most of our lives trying to learn how to get along with one another. But a toddler knows better. They are angry when the toy they want does not come into their grasp, and that outrage is not deductive or simply wishful or expressive of any less rigorous sentiment -- it is moral.

So at its base, morality is a mode of logic, it contains all the kinds of statements that indicate what should happen to make us feel OK with the world.

This kind of 'statement' originates as soon as something has needs and makes decisions in an attempt to fulfill those needs. Morality is the basis on which we decide whether an action is worthwhile, and whether or not to pursue it. The fact that 'worthwhile' is so often about reward and punishment, or pride, guilt, and regret, for humans is somewhat accidental to us. This more basic form is present in the simplest species that make those decisions. This extends at least back to bacteria.

Your second question is very distant from there.

A lot has been said about the evolution of altruism, but the cleanest workable theory is that it is at root a 'virtue signal' for general intelligence. To break it down stepwise and somewhat oversimplify:

1) Exchange of helping behaviors is mutually beneficial.

2) Keeping track of them one can note that what you give comes back to those about whom you care. So generosity to one's local social circle pays off

3) Not keeping track of them indicates a lack of concern with the supply of resources, because a family structure that does not hold account between its members pays off by reducing the stress of uncertainty among its members, but only if the family itself is generally successful.

4) Generosity encodes confidence in one's social structure, which correlates with having a resourceful family, which correlates with being a resourceful provider oneself.

5) Appearing not to limit your generosity advertises your intrinsic virtues and lets you breed 'up'.

So, in general, this kind of morality becomes a sign of genetic, and therefore social value.

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