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Robert Sapolsky: Is Moral Disgust Just Bad Evolution?


Have you ever witnessed something that made you sick to your stomach? Have you listened in on a story so evil that you felt you might faint? Humans are different from other animals because we have a mind for symbolism. No act is spared from our moral judgement. This knack for metaphor complicates our lives, and that is evident at a neurological level. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, explains that our insular cortex evolved to teach us to feel disgusted by things that would harm us: the taste of rotten fruit, the smell of infection—those triggers set off a visceral reaction (like nausea, gagging, vomiting). Gradually, our societies developed a concept of moral transgression, and rather than evolve a new brain region to process that, it was (and is) funneled through the insular cortex. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between moral and visceral disgust, which is why we very often mistake things that are viscerally strange with bad or immoral. This explains why people are so judgmental about alternative lifestyles, and feel confident labeling things as “wrong” and “right”. Awareness of this misattributed impulse reaction can hopefully help us pause and think beyond our faulty wiring. Our moral instincts may be seriously flawed. Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

[Video and text source: Big Think YouTube channel]