The moral story of how we came to be – 2

Tom Clark

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 24-May-2014.

Part 1 ended as I began to sketch the deep history of the building blocks of morality, which goes back to the origin of autonomy in the beginning of life (after Rosslenbroich 2014). Life’s capacities for self-direction and degrees of independence from the immediate surroundings have evolved.

Nervous systems supported flexible responding

For 600 million years, nerve cells have allowed animals to respond to their surroundings less and less like billiard balls. Nervous systems expanded autonomy by connecting inside with outside, so animals could sense what was going on around them and act in ways that worked for them.

Nervous systems and the earliest light sensitive "eyes" also made skeletons more useful.
Skeletons allowed animals to grow larger and move faster

550 Million years ago, long before cats and mice arrived on the scene, animals’ pursuit of meals and escape from becoming a meal gave the advantage to hard skeletons. Skeletons allowed animals to grow bigger, move faster, chew food, and defend against being chewed.

Paraplesiobatis heinrichsi, by Apokryltaros. Source:

With eyes and skeletons came an explosion of variation in body shapes. Among these were animals with a bundle of nerves up front near the mouth, a tail at the back end, and a spine between that aided movement while protecting the cord of nerves coordinating this movement (vertebrates).


Vertebrates specialized in learning

For over 500 million years, vertebrate ancestors have initiated vital activities that favored selection of their brain and sense organs at one end of a simple spine chassis. And vice versa, this body plan allowed such effectiveness. A firm yet flexible spine and a network of nerves each made the other more useful. Putting both to good use, our ancestors bootstrapped a growing competence that featured an ability to learn from experience.

With the ability to learn, some adaptations became possible within an animal’s lifetime, instead of waiting for natural selection to play out its mix of luck and deaths. As learning affected selection outcomes, animals’ mental lives and activities became important forces of evolution.

The octopus reminds us that vertebrates have no monopoly on learning.
Four-legged animals left the seas

Autonomy strode forward with the evolution of legs that leveraged faster movement across greater distances. For animals in contact with the ground near the water’s edge, legs minimized friction by shrinking points of contact with the ground. Fewer legs were more efficient than either many legs or no legs.

Snakes would later lose their legs, writing a new chapter in the story of legs and friction.
Icthyostega, by Nobu Tamura. Source:

Between 395 and 350 million years ago, vertebrates with two pairs of legs (tetrapods) followed plants onto land, establishing independence from the salty seas on which life had depended for over three billion years.

The ends of legs extended autonomy further, as wings, paws, and hands put limbs and brains to yet more good uses in precisely coordinated, intentional, goal-directed activities.

Elbow room and elbow grease are central features of our vertebrate heritage. Our elbows and our brains are the embodiments of an expanded autonomy, allowing us to take the initiative, get a grip, and seize the moment.

Birds and mammals made relationships heritable resources

Warm-bloodedness, a further expansion of autonomy, supported and demanded larger brains and more intense activity for longer stretches of time. Unlike their reptilian ancestors, our mammalian ancestors could no longer afford to sit and wait for a meal to pass by. They had to stay busy finding things to eat, to get the calories that support a higher resting metabolism.

Grus canadensis (Sandhill Crane), by Nigel. Source,

To secure the advantages of maintaining a stable, higher body temperature, the young had to be fed and sheltered. Relationships became obligatory and personal 200-150 million years ago.

Relationships build on the nervous system’s connection of inside and outside to connect my inside with your inside. My effectiveness depends on recognizing, understanding, and sometimes caring about you, and vice versa. Skilled relating, the achievement of birds and mammals, is a powerful and specialized use of our brains.

Humans extended these achievements with ethics and friendship
Justice (John van Nost the Younger, Gate of Justice, Dublin), by J. -H. Janssen. Source:

Social mammals extended the benefits and the demands of relationships throughout the lifespan, beyond the youthful period of dependence.

Our ancestors’ achievement of politically egalitarian group living further expanded our autonomy hand in hand with our circles of commitment and obligation.

4ever, by Mkoenitzer. Source:



Friendships are as fundamentally human as walking on two legs, opposable thumbs, language and abstract reasoning (Terrell 2015).

We are so thoroughly social, our relationships are like water to fish. But unlike fish, we created the relationship-rich world that “gives us a social baseline of emotional support and security”, sustaining our loftier pursuits (see: Terrell & Terrell, Thinking about Thinking 4. Our Social Baseline, in Science Dialogues, April 16).

When we look at the building blocks of ethics, science offers abundant evidence of an open image of life. As autonomy evolved, the processes of evolution also changed. More and more, the self-directed activities of whole organisms affected the course of life’s changes, along with the lawfulness and luck of genes and environments (Lewontin 2000).

Whatever the biological slants to our morality, they are as much consequences as causes of our ancestors’ moral judgments (Boehm 2008). In the hands of our ancestors, morality has been both a product and a force of evolution.

Our social lives are not on a short leash with biology at the handle (Lumsden and Wilson 1981). Socio-biological connections are more like a tight braid, within which our social lives also harness and direct life. Consider for example the changes wrought by shifting from small single-family farms that protect genetic diversity, mitigate and internalize many ecological costs, and sustain rural communities, to industrial agriculture that does not. Or the lives and health of children whose parents and communities provide relationships of secure dependence and attachment compared with children who are not afforded this ground in which to grow.

Becoming oneself together

In making do, our ancestors made up our story as they went along. Not all of it, but some of it. We say that luck comes to those who are prepared. It’s the same in evolution. There’s a lot of luck, and preparedness still matters. Along with an unbroken chain of good luck and full compliance with the laws of physics and chemistry, our ancestors’ intentional, motivated activities explain how our story has turned up such effective protagonists as you and me.

Yet our self-direction as participants in life’s story is deeply connected with the self-direction of others. “To be one is to become with many” (Haraway 2008: 4). This is life, becoming together, with our own kind and with other kinds of lives, in our lifetimes and through our deep past.

And what have we become? We are not free agents with easy exits and strong negotiating positions. Nor are we passive spectators. We got here by way of interdependent semi-autonomy. We have become—as bundled as these dozen syllables—interdependently semi-autonomous.

The extent of our freedom grew hand in hand with the complexity of our relationships. Our ancestors’ recognition of their own and each other’s interdependent capabilities, responsibilities, and bonds of affection motivated activities that helped make us human. This is how our ancestors got us here.

Now it is our turn. We can leverage our efforts in the tasks ahead by including our ancestors’ lives in the story of how we got here, along with the luck and lawfulness of their genes and environments. Telling an origin story that affirms our ancestors’ participation in becoming who we are sparks our moral imaginations by reminding us that our gratitude can scarcely match our debt, that we are responsible for where we go from here.


Boehm, C. 2008. Purposive social selection and the evolution of human altruism. Cross-Cultural Research 42: 319–352.

Haraway, D. J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lewontin, R. C. 2000. The Triple Helix. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lumsden, C. J. and E. O. Wilson. 1981. Genes, Mind, and Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rosslenbroich, B. 2014. On the Origin of Autonomy. Cham: Springer.

Terrell, J. E. 2015. A Talent for Friendship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tom Clark is a psychologist who has been interested in the role of behavior in evolution since his graduate training at the University of South Florida.

© 2015, Thomas L. Clark. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

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