One of the questions that I've been thinking about lately is, "Where did morality come from?" Compared to animals, humans are capable of an extreme range of moral behavior. Humans are capable of sympathy and empathy and random acts of kindness towards complete strangers, and at the same time, humans are capable of a cruelty and sadism, masked with lies and hypocrisy, unimaginable in the animal world. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, or upbringing, humans, for the most part, all have a sense of what is just. Why are we like that?
If its true that humans share an ancestry with the apes, then at some point in our evolution, there must have been some kind of selection for individuals with moral values over individuals without moral values. So, I've been theorizing to what that selection event could have been.
On an individual level, it's abundantly clear that dishonesty, used with caution, can significantly improve an individual's evolutionary fitness. We don't need Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene to tell us that. Obviously, stealing something is much easier than making something from scratch. Of course there are disadvantages to dishonesty, such as getting beat up by the guy you're stealing from or getting a bad reputation, but there are no real evolutionary disadvantages as long as no one catches you, right?
If I may, I would even go as far as to say that, on the individual level, there is no direct benefit for altruism. Of course, it's beneficial to do favors for your neighbors and various other powerful people in high places, simply because they can help you back. But that's not real altruism because you're expecting a reward. It's just reciprocity. There is little direct evolutionary benefit to helping the helpless, since they probably have little capability to help you back.
So with these factors in mind, why is morality so prevalent in humans today? Well, perhaps it's because when you look too closely at trees you can miss the forest. What I mean by that is, humans are more than just a collection of individuals. We band together to form social circles of friends, and tribes, and civilizations. At one point, Neanderthals and other human-like species roamed the earth with us, so we humans as a species were in a struggle for survival against other similar species.
On the species level and the societal level, the advantages of morality become clear. Morality enables some societies to outcompete other societies without morals. The earliest civilizations, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China were defined by their agriculture. But I believe that a system of morality also had to exist for them. A person will not work the field for a full year if he lived in fear of the fruits of his labor being stolen by burglars in the middle of the night. Another important consequence of morality and social order is that it enables the development of technology, further increasing the evolutionary advantage of that particular group of people. Just like agriculture, technology cannot develop in a society where dishonesty is commonplace, since there is so much initial investment required.
As for altruism over mere honesty, again technology plays a role. If somebody like Stephen Hawking was born in Sparta back in the day, he undoubtedly would have been one of the babies they threw off the cliff. But in a more altruistic and tolerant society, a genius like himself would create much knowledge, and thus power for his society. However, Hawking is a rare example, and there definitely aren't enough disabled geniuses to provide an evolutionary explanation for why altruism is so prevalent. Hmm... I'm having a hard time coming up with real tangible benefits of altruism. Ok, well in the movie Pay It Forward (which is an amazing movie and you all should definitely watch it) the little boy triggers a ripple of random kindness, and it picks up steam and becomes sort of a tidal wave. I think that altruism causes an important effect in a society's culture, and it increases trust and camaraderie. This probably boosts a society's productivity and synergy, which boosts its evolutionary fitness.
Simply put, a society with less morals is likely going to be militarily weak, economically weak, and technologically weak compared to societies with a strong moral values. So in the history of mankind, immorality slowly disappeared as pockets of civilizations with morals arose. However, since it still remains evolutionarily beneficial to occasionally lie, cheat and steal, that's probably why humans are also immoral to a degree.
So yeah, those are my thoughts and ponderings. What do you think?