This is the fourteenth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series. It examines and elaborates on a particular point in Patricia Smith Churchland’s ‘Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality’.

58: The Braintrust Thesis


  • The idea has been introduced of a physical ‘agent’ acting and reacting in its environment, learning how to predict events in that environment so as to be able to act to further its goal (and that goal may be nothing more that self-preservation). The environment may well have other agents in it. These other agents will probably be the most difficult things to learn about because they are also learning to predict. Agents may be animal (and generally we are thinking of human), automata (robot) or alien.
  • Patricia Churchland introduced the idea that morality stems from the behaviour of neurotransmitters within the brain that influence pair bonding and the caring of offspring. She specifically looked at the neurotransmitters Oxytocin and Vasopressin.
  • The brain has been presented as a collection of processes with some sort of hierarchy and a small group of agents can be seen as an extension of this – a single thinking/predicting ‘super-agent’ acting against the environment, where the boundary between agent and environment gets shifted to that between the ‘in-group’ and the ‘out-group’.

One brain process competes against another to determine the actions of the agent but this competition is for the benefit of the whole agent. Similarly, what competition there is between in-group agents can be seen as for the benefit of the whole in-group.

The Thesis

Princeton University Press

‘Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality’

To caricature Patricia Churchland’s ‘Braintrust’ thesis, it is essentially that the caring behaviour controlled by Oxytocin and Vasopressin is sufficient for the extension of care to a wider community. From this care of the immediate family members, we can get to the establishment of norms of behaviour for the general well-being of society’s members – i.e. to morals.

Beyond what we share with other mammals, plus those often-mentioned advantages we possess over other animals – our mental (practical problem solving), vocal and manual dexterity – there does not need to be anything else encoded in our genetic make-up to get us from ‘primitive’ living to modern society. And there could not be. Over the past 10,000 years, humans have progressed from hunter-gatherers in small groups to citizens of the ‘global village’ but this is too short a time for genetic evolution to have worked its magic to be an explanation for this development. (The ability to digest animal milk is one of the few adaptations over this timescale.)

59: Mothers and Others

The first step for extending care to wider society is to progress from the immediate to the extended family. And the most basic form of this is the raising of young by adults that are not their parents – ‘Allo-parenting’. Only 3% of mammal species partake in alloparenting (compared with 9% of birds) but our rodent friend the prairie vole is one of them. Oxytocin can go as far as enabling auntie meerkats to breastfeed (‘allolactation’).

Now, allo-parenting might be explainable in genetic terms: caring for young relatives helps the survival of most an individuals’s genes. But it is something that doesn’t need genetic explanation – it can come for free following the action of Oxytocin/Vasopressin in the normal caring of immediate young. We do not need genes to favour the care of others over and above those of our offspring; we just need genes that favour the young that:

  • look/sound/smell like us (or rather, like our carers and siblings), and
  • are in the local environment.

60: On Aggression and Cooperation

Hierarchy in Animal Societies

Looking at groups of animals beyond the immediate family, we see that they have a hierarchical structure.  Packs of predators and herds of their prey will have a pecking order which may be based on birth order but generally determined by the ability to dominate – which comes down to size and strength.

Having a pecking order – from the alpha (alpha male, female and/or pair) down to the omega – reduces fighting within a group and hence reduces injuries which would disadvantage the whole group. This is best for the long-term survival of the group. In-fighting is most likely to arise:

  • When resources are limited, with not enough food to go around. It is the omegas that starve.
  • In competition for food or a mate. It is the alpha that gets first pickings, and sometimes all the pickings.

Hierarchy and Stress

The presence of a pecking order may lessen overall violence, but only moderately so. A lessening of hierarchical control can make low-ranking individuals less miserable.  Robert Sapolsky has studied baboons in the wild at length and says that:

“their primary source of stress, like those of humans in modern society, is psychological rather than physical. Food is plentiful … Predators are few … With the luxury of plentiful resources and free time, the animals can devote themselves to distressing one another.”

“Violence itself is actually rare, but the hint of violence is ever present.”

“The animals who occupy the more subordinate positions are filled with a stressful lack of both control and predictability.”

But life at the top is also filled with stress – the stress of the ever watchful fear of being attacked (sometimes fatally). None of this is good for overall well-being.


Grooming for fleas has obvious practical benefits. But grooming is also therapeutic for both the groomer and the groomee – the act of grooming helps relaxation. Heart rate is reduced. Stress is reduced.

In the hierarchical society beyond the familial environment, grooming is asymmetric: low-ranking groom the higher-ranking far more than vice versa. But the benefit is mutual:

  • The lower-ranking are on the receiving end of less violence from higher-up, and
  • The higher-ranking build up trust which can be useful later on.

In both cases, an agent establishes a reputation – a predictable dependability.

Building Trust

Beyond grooming, more advanced means for building trust are to make oneself vulnerable to another:

  • Allowing another to suck your fingers,
  • Allowing another to fingers your eyes, and conjecturally
  • Allowing another to hold one’s testicles!

That last one has been observed both:

  • For an alpha male letting another to hold its testicles to build trust, and
  • Between ‘bachelor’ baboons, building up trust ahead of an attack on the alpha male (see below).

Game Theories

For a coalition attack on the alpha:

  • There is a high cost to an individual if they are betrayed by the others – the injuries inflicted from getting beaten up by the alpha male.
  • There is reward if the attack is successful – advancement up the pecking order. Success is likely if the alpha is confronted by an overwhelming force that he cannot hope to defend himself against. In the video, above, the alpha tries to get support from others (in this case, his harem) but it is not forthcoming and he flees. Power is usurped without injury.
  • No coalition against the alpha is neutral. It is the status quo.

This real-world case is almost identical to the classic abstract game theory problem of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. Mapping the two together:

  • If prisoners A and B cooperate, there is a reasonable chance of usurping the alpha, at some personal risk of injury to A and B.
  • If prisoner A betrays B, B suffers, at no personal risk to A.
  • If neither A nor B cooperates, there is continued domination by alpha.


For conscious cooperation, each agent needs to build a model of the other, to try to predict what the other will do – to imagine their future behaviour. Agent A will cooperate with B to perform task X because:

  • A wants the benefit of task X.
  • A predicts that B wants the benefit of task X.
  • A predicts that B will predict that A wants to benefit from task X.

But, as well as recognizing the opportunity and mutual desire to cooperate, cooperation must be initiated somehow.

  • A predicts that doing Y will make B predict that A wants to benefit from task X.

This requires rather sophisticated cognitive capabilities. The video (above) shows a well-known experiment from the 1930’s of cooperating chimpanzees. Note that the ‘cooperative’ activity is driven by one chimpanzee coercing the other (the hungrier coercing the less).

But cooperation is common within the animal kingdom. Deliberation by high-level processes (‘conscious’ deliberation?) is not required. Some strategies are so simple that they can evolve in low-level processes (i.e. in simple agents or at the ‘emotional’ level in more complex ones). For example, ‘Tit-for-tat’  is a simple but effective game theory strategy – with actions based only on the most recent behaviour:

  • If the other cooperated last time, cooperate this time.
  • If the other was uncooperative last time, do not cooperate this time.

After a few iterations of cooperation-versus-non-cooperation decisions, the behaviour will have settled into either permanent cooperation with cooperative agents or permanent non-cooperation with uncooperative agents. There is no conscious need to recognize either the benefits of cooperating or the punishment of non-cooperation.

Non-cooperation and Punishment

Where the social cognition of agents is higher, more elaborate cooperation is possible. But there is still no need for the explicit punishment or retribution for transgressions.

Chimpanzee alphas get to their position as a result of social abilities as much as strength – on their ability to build alliances, both among the males (to help defend his position against challengers) and the females (to prevent them from deserting him). But this argument about alliance-building applies all the way down the hierarchy. A group in which agents are continually cooperating to help them assert dominance (solely for their own ends) self-organizes into a hierarchy.

Those that have, in ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ terms, ‘defected’ are no longer trustworthy. Their presence is a source of anxiety for conformers. There is no need for a ‘sense of justice’ among those betrayed but there can be ‘pre-emption’ via the mechanisms of ‘the minimization of surprise through action and perception’: future surprises can be reduced by dominating the transgressor (possibly through an alliance with others). Those that fail to ‘do the right thing’ suffer the consequences in terms of loss of position and reputation.

So, social transgressions hardly need to be major for ‘justice’ to be administered by a mob. Not engaging in cooperative practices such as grooming makes a loner in the group different, like an outsider, and hence raises anxiety.

Punishment as severe as the infliction of mortal wounds within a group is rare among chimpanzees but the video (above) shows one example. The victim failed to play the social game of engaging with others and forming alliances.

61: Institutional Trust

Cultural Serendipity

Robert Sapolsky has reported how the alpha males of a troop of baboons attacked another troop and stole their food. But the food was contaminated and they died from tuberculosis. Without the alphas, the troop became more peaceful with fewer confrontations. New adolescent males joining from neighbouring troops (to find a mate; this is the opposite way around to chimpanzees) fitted in with the new culture (fitted into ‘the way we do things around here’). A random event developed a culture which has now persisted for over 20 years.

Culture progresses as a result of a series of fortunate events and/or the evolution of institutions. The growth of trust in a society can take centuries to evolve. Yet can be destroyed so quickly. They cannot just be installed into a society or re-instated if lost. They are like living organisms.


So far, I have looked how the ‘social network’ of animals (including ourselves) has extended from a pair-bond caring for its offspring, through the alloparenting of the extended family to the establishment of herds and packs. But these herds/packs are highly hierarchical. There is the need to remember the status of everyone else. Even with simple cooperation strategies like ‘tit-for-tat’ there is the need to remember the most-recent history of experience with everyone else in the group.

Better strategies can expand this further, but the size of the pack is ultimately limited by the cognitive abilities of the individuals (see ‘Dunbar’s number’). Male strangers (i.e. from outside the group) have no reputation that comes with them and are therefore likely to represent a danger.

Within a group, smaller bands can form as a (generally temporary) coalition for some end, perhaps:

  • The alpha and some betas patrolling the group’s territorial boundary, possibly attacking and even killing solitary males they may encounter (adolescent females leave their own group and are accepted into a new group),
  • Hunting prey (performing various roles as part of herding prey into an ambush), or
  • Some betas ganging up against the alpha.

(Aside: All these coalitions can be seen in terms of ‘pre-empting surprise through action and perception’ and they reduce anxiety.)

In human populations, these bands (or ‘gangs’) can be longer lasting. Within a gang, individuals behave like one another. Hence: the reputation of one band member can be inferred from that already known about one or more of the others. This enables a community to expand beyond the Dunbar number. There is reputation by affiliation. Institutions can evolve. Strangers can affiliate to an institution to gain a reputation. It is important for its members that the institution maintain its reputation. Hence it must sanction members who transgress. Outsiders can then cooperate with members with some degree of confidence. And it works the other way around too. Trade is a very important institution; individuals from communities that trade with neighbours come into contact with strangers more frequently than those from more isolated communities and are more likely to be accepting of those strangers. There is a virtuous circle.


“trust is not so much a relation between the individuals engaged in the transaction as vested in the institution that has established itself as trustworthy.”

Modern humans do not partake the finger-sucking or testicle holding of our ape cousins in order to build trust and do not (generally) attack strangers they encounter. Yet they make themselves vulnerable to strangers with ease – such as when allowing strangers to drill and cut them – on dental and hospital visits.

We are no longer playing tit-for-tat – we do not need to punish ‘defectors’ directly because they know that the institution will do this for them, in the interests of all its other members. Ultimately, we end up with judicial and political institutions.

There is a huge amount of detail that I have glossed over here in the expansion of the social network from about 100 of the other great apes to that of humans, approaching 10 billion. This expansion of trust allows me to travel to communities and engage with strangers there in countries half way around the world without particular fear for my safety (alas, not all countries).

62: Ethics, Ethology and Ethnography

Churchland’s ‘Braintrust’ thesis is that the effects of the Oxytocin and Vaspressin neurotransmitters in the brain, namely long-term pair bonding and care of offspring, are one of the most significant factor in the development of morality. From this establishment of the family, larger and larger groupings can develop – a progression from caring individuals to trusting societies:

  1. The caring of offspring by the mother.
  2. The long-term pair bonding – the father staying around.
  3. The caring of young by close kin e.g. aunties: ‘alloparenting’.
  4. The evolution of an enlarged community with hierarchy, trading violence for anxiety.
  5. The reciprocity on minor tasks building up trust for larger cooperative tasks e.g. grooming and cooperative hunting.
  6. The development of a local ‘culture’ of ‘the way we do things around here’, passed down from one generation to the next.
  7. The punishment of those that do not conform to the established culture.
  8. The development of institutions which permit the growth of trust with others.
  9. The foundation of large advanced civilizations in which there is general trust between strangers within society.

It is debatable at which stage morality becomes possible and any morality at an earlier stage will take a different form from that of the last. The step from stage 7 to 8 was a big leap in the story and is the step that has been uniquely human. But since we are animals, we should still look to prior stages in our development as an indication of our pre-moral ‘state of nature’ which needs to be taken into account (overcome?) in any moral system.

The step from stage 8 to 9 has taken place with negligible genetic development. We are of the same physical construction as 10,000 years ago. And this been done in spite of seemingly counter-acting prior evolutionary developments such as hierarchical aggression (stage 4) which does not align with our understanding of what is moral. Hierarchy still plays a large role within our modern morality. And since there is nothing in our genes to ensure it, there is nothing guaranteed about this emergence of large societies. It is cultural and culture is easily destroyed.

At the start of this progression are animals hiding in solitary safe-havens (of the ‘dark room’), from which all excursions are fraught with danger. At the end is modern human society, with a vastly expanded domain of predictability and lower anxiety. This cursory journey through

  • Ethology: the study of the behaviour of animals (especially in a social context), and
  • Ethnography: the study of human cultures.

has been a dry, ‘mechanical’ account. There has been no mention of another ‘E’: Empathy. There was the (Oxytocin-induced) care within the immediate family at the start but there has been nothing emotive since then.

Empathy is what I turn to next.

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3 Responses to Trust

  1. Pingback: Empathy | Headbirths

  2. Pingback: Mirroring and Mimicry | Headbirths

  3. Pingback: Guilt and Shame | Headbirths

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