Information Age Education
   Issue Number 112
April, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, two free books based on the newsletters are available: Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the third of a series of five on recent research developments on the culturally important issue of morality. Morality is a human issue because we are a social species. The articles explore the issue of whether morality is something that emerged as mammals discovered the values of cooperative behavior (this article and the next), or if it emerged only when humans evolved into a social species (the final article in the series).

Morality: Recent Research Developments.
The Neurobiology of Morality

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The brain sciences as we now understand them are only about 100 years old, and the major discoveries have been made during the past few decades. Two major mysteries that remain relate to our understanding of consciousness and the moral behavior that can emerge from it. The two previous IAE Newsletters (Given, 2013) reported on Porges' Polyvagal Theory. The articles argue that the extended evolutionary development of the vagus nerve also profoundly enhanced the social development and thus the moral potential of humans. The vagus nerve is the most extensive single neuron within humans, connecting most brain and body systems.

Patricia Churchland is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. Among many other honors, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991. See She began her career as a philosopher, but then realized that the emerging cognitive neurosciences were beginning to provide useful answers to questions that philosophers had deductively struggled with for centuries. She and her philosopher husband Paul thus took a leave of absence to study cognitive neuroscience, and their work now combines philosophy and neuroscience. Brain Trust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality (2012) is her latest of several books.

A major exploratory focus of Churchland's work has been on the relationship between the organization and function of our brain's subcortical/unconscious level and its cortical/conscious level. Consciousness and morality are basically cortical/conscious level phenomena, but they also often draw on subcortical processes.

The principal hypothesis of the book Brain Trust is that morality originates within the neurobiology of attachment and bonding. It emerges out of the actions of selected mammalian hormones and neural networks that combine to get us beyond concerns for self and our juveniles and into complex behaviors that manage an extended and appropriate social life.

We are a highly interactive social species, very dependent on the acceptance and support of others. Humans therefore must learn from childhood on how to behave appropriately in order to provide and receive such social support. Knowing how to do something and deciding whether or not to do it are two separate but seemingly related behavioral issues. They are central to understanding and responding to the true/false and right/wrong dichotomies that play such important behavioral roles in our lives. True/false questions tend to have only a single correct response (such as 1 + 1 = 2 in a base ten system), and right/wrong issues may have multiple responses that emerge out of personal preferences and resultant choices (such as what to wear to a party). See for more information about fuzzy (multi-value) logic.

Most practical and social problems thus involve constraint satisfaction. This means that various values and probabilities interact to produce what is not necessarily the best solution but rather one that is suitable. Over time, early human tribes codified specific successful solutions into moral and ethical decisions. Morality focuses on the general culturally defined principles of right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair and so on, and ethics focuses on the development of specific behavioral codes that folks should follow to act morally. Historically, a combination of parents, play, and interactions with others taught children such appropriate behaviors. Cultures emerged over time that embodied these behavioral codes (Sylwester, 2010).

Deities provided a sense of moral and ethical authority within a culture.  Since certain kinds of tit-for-tat solutions seemed to resonate within the human brain, the various scriptural documents across the world often show remarkable social similarity. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a common example. However, even that has its complexities: Soldiers seek to kill their enemies while hoping that their enemies don't kill them. Churchland suggests that the belief that spiritual forces communicate appropriate moral and ethical decisions probably emerged from doubts that a biological body/brain can unilaterally care about or value someone else.

Churchland's book is focused on the biological base of morality. Is morality something central to how a human brain functions or is it a spiritually imposed metaphysical phenomenon? She argues that scientists actually now know a lot about how human cooperative behavior emerged. She thus considers our brain to be the biological platform that leads to moral thoughts and choices. We behave as our brain determines, and her book is about how our brain arrives at culturally acceptable and unacceptable moral decisions without the felt need for spiritual support. Morality is more about the biology of empathy than it is about following a set of theologically imposed rules.

Although 69% of U.S. adults claim to be moderately-to-very religious, only a declining 30% regularly attend religious services that are typically focused on moral issues (Worthen, 2012). Contemporary society thus seems similarly conflicted about the underlying base of morality.

Morality's Biological Platform

All known species of mammals are social to the extent that they come together to mate. The mothers also care for the young, sometimes with assistance from fathers. Some mammals are considerably more social than others. Further, an abundance of resources usually reduces species competition, which generally increases cooperative behavior.

Two molecules play key roles in the social behavior of mammals. Oxytocin is a very ancient peptide that is central to the complex adaptations involved in caring for others. See It is found in all vertebrates, but mammalian brain evolution adapted it and several related hormones (such as vasopressin) to new tasks relative to caring for the young, and eventually also to wider forms of cooperative sociability. Similarly, serotonin probably had only a single assignment in ancient simple organisms, but it now helps to regulate human moods, many of which are associated with moral/ethical decisions. See

Two other interdependent evolutionary mammalian brain modifications also enhanced moral development. The first led to negative feelings from threats, plus the special motivation to take corrective action if offspring were in danger. For example, parents and offspring that were safely reunited experienced pleasure and relief. The second evolutionary modification was an increased capacity for learning to solve problems within the group; this was initially linked to pain and pleasure, and eventually to empathetic understanding of how others in the group felt about the problem.

Expanded memory led to both the anticipation of and the planning for the avoidance of trouble. These evolutionary modifications supported an awareness of appropriate social behaviors and the urge to want to be together. Mammals thus became motivated to learn appropriate social practices because social misbehavior typically led to the pain of exclusion and disapproval, while appropriate social behavior tended to lead to approval and affection.

Our growing understanding of mirror neurons seems to suggest a powerful biological link to the development of the neurobiology of morality. Mirror neurons in the premotor cortex and elsewhere activate when we carry out an action and also when we observe someone else carry out the action. See For example, think of the tendency to yawn when we observe someone else yawning. Although many think this system helps to develop moral behavior, Churchland suggests that solid evidence is still lacking (although she does predict that the relevant neural systems will be located).

Are humans the only mammals with basic social behaviors that should be considered moral? Churchland suggests that other mammals care for their offspring, and some also care for mates, kin, and affiliates. They cooperate, punish, and reconcile after conflict. They may groom each other. Bonobos and chimpanzees provide well-studied examples. Humans share about 98.7% of their genetic blueprint with bonobos and chimpanzees. Although bonobo and chimpanzee morality are not the same as human morality, Churchland argues that there is strong evidence to support the existence of a powerful non-spiritual biological base for mammalian and human morality. The next newsletter in this IAE Newsletter series will focus on the probable moral behavior of bonobos and chimpanzees.

From Personal to Social Platforms

Our basic biological platform faced a new social behavior challenge starting about 10,000 years ago as many humans moved from the unpredictability of hunting and foraging to the greater predictability of agrarian life. Agriculture led to cooperation and bartering beyond immediate kin and tribe. The joint effort implicit in cooperation led to the concept of fairness and the social procedures to insure it. Shared religious beliefs may have advanced such social stability, since shared beliefs enhance predictable behavior. Those who behaved unfairly could anticipate an unwelcome angry response from those around them and also fear of punishment from deities that were believed to become angry at immoral behavior.

Moral behavior is not necessarily biologically innate. Churchland suggests that much of it may also be just a generally accepted intelligent solution to a common problem. For example, truth telling is considered morally appropriate because false information often causes personal and social problems. Although no evidence exists that we are innately truthful (and most of us occasionally tell socially acceptable white lies) most people typically consider deliberately hurtful falsehood to be immoral.

The large and still ill-understood human prefrontal cortex (PFC) located behind our forehead has been called the organ of civilization. Its connections to our emotional and motor systems provide much of what we consider the intelligence that is implicit in predictive social behavior, such as the self-control of deferred gratification. To deliberately reject one's PFC advice could lead to behavior that most people would consider immoral.

So, to Churchland, morality is neither an illusion nor necessarily spiritual, but is rather firmly grounded in the biology of empathy. We have the biological capacity for compassion and the practical knowledge of how to figure out things. Some social practices and organizations are better or worse than others, and folks are equipped to make genuine assessments of how well or poorly other folks are served. For example, consider the contentious issue of how to regulate stem cell research. We have to understand both human nature and science in order to have a reasonable belief about who is likely to be trustworthy on the larger and technical details of the issue. Democratic societies tend to take a free and open discussion approach to dealing with such complex problems.

References and Resources

Churchland, P. (2012). Brain trust: What neuroscience tells us about morality. Princeton NJ: Princeton University.

Given, B. (2013) The intriguing educational applications of Polyvagal Theory. Parts 1 and 2. Information Age Education Newsletter. Retrieved 4/22/2013 from and

Sylwester, R. (2010). The adolescent brain: Reaching for autonomy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Worthen, M. (12/22/2012). One nation under God? New York Times. Retrieved 4/22/2013 from

Robert Sylwester

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child's Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin); and co-authored with David Moursund: Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education (2012, IAE) and Common Core State Standards for K-12 Education in America (2013, IAE). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run.

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