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Does morality come from religion or evolution?


Dr Michael Price appeared as a panellist on BBC1's The Big Questions on Sunday 28 May to debate the question 'Does morality come from religion or evolution?'.

The Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolution appeared live on the show, hosted by Nicky Campbell, and provided expert opinion from an evolution-focused viewpoint.

Nicky Campbell opened the debate by noting that humans as a species have been around for a lot longer than ancient religions such as Hinduism and Judaism.

Responding, Dr Price, who is also a Senior Lecturer in Psychology in the Department of Life Sciences, expanded morality beyond a human-focused phenomenon: "There are species of social insects that are extraordinarily cooperative – and are a lot more successful at it than humans. They're called eusocial creatures.

"That goes back 150 million years, so it pre-dates the evolution of human beings by almost that much. It's an extremely ancient evolutionary phenomenon."

When pressed by fellow panellists about whether religion is the source of our ideas about what is good and what is bad, Dr Price explained: "Religion and culture does have a role to play in terms of codifying our moral norms and moral systems.

"It's easier to be a moral individual when you have a community of people who aren't going to take advantage of you and who aren't going to exploit you. Religious groups have been good at providing these sorts of communities. So religion can play a part.

"Morality can be progressive, but it can also be regressive. It can lead to people being nice to one another; it can lead to people being burnt at the stake."

Dr Price concluded: "If we have a healthy society, we're going to regard it as better for ourselves to be nice and have a good reputation for being a nice, cooperative person."

Watch this episode of The Big Questions on BBC iPlayer, available in the UK only. The sequence starts at 41:56.

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations