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My kids hate getting in trouble. They also hate actual punishment, of course, which is why we keep careful track of the things they love so we can yank them away when the time is right. It’s what parents and all other petty gods do.

But we don’t often get to the punishment, actually, or even to the threat of it. Just knowing Mom and Dad are seriously ticked is often enough to make our kids sit in shock, staring a hole in the carpet.

A few years back, Connor went through a phase when the words “I’m so disappointed in you” could dissolve him in tears.

It was a kind of Golden Age.

Whenever an interviewer asks on Earth how kids can develop a moral compass without the punishment and reward systems of religion, I think of scriptureless Connor begging us to turn off the hot light of human disapproval.

Though I have no favorites among the essays in Parenting Beyond Belief, one of my favorites is “Behaving Yourself: Moral Development in the Secular Family.” In it, Jean Mercer lays out Kohlberg’s six-stage model of moral development. Fear of punishment is the first and lowest stage. If something an infant does is followed by some kind of nasty consequence, it’s bad. If not, it’s good. Soon we add stage two, hope of reward.

Stage three is social approval and disapproval — the one that hits my kids hardest at the moment.

Fourth is the recognition of laws or rules as valuable in themselves. The Ten Commandments crowd is big on this one. Stage five is the social contract level, in which laws or rules are seen as desirable but made by consensus and potentially changeable as the consensus changes. (Religious commentators typically scream “Moral relativism!” at this point and swallow their tongues.)

The sixth and highest level of moral development is reached when a person thinks in terms of universal ethical principles and is occasionally willing to defend such principles at the risk of punishment, disapproval, or even death. Sitting at this particular moral pinnacle are such religious figures as Thomas More, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ, and such freethinkers as Michael Servetus, Galileo Galilei, and Thomas Paine.

But there’s another model Mercer presents that really goes to the heart of things, an “essential set of skills” called Theory of Mind. Listen to Auntie Jean:

Theory of Mind allows each person to be aware that behind every human face is an individual set of experiences, wishes, beliefs, and thoughts; that each of these sets is in some ways similar to and in other ways different from one’s own set; and that facial expressions and other cues can enable each of us to know something of how others feel and what they are going to do.

The development of Theory of Mind has already begun by nine or ten months, when a well-developed baby can already show the important step of joint attention. In this behavior, the child uses eye contact and movement of the gaze to get an adult to look at some sight that interests the baby and then to look back again, to gaze at each other and smile with mutual pleasure. Importantly, not only can the child do this, but he or she wants to do it, demonstrating the very early motivation to share our happiness with others—surely the foundation of empathic responses. Without this early development, it would hardly be possible to achieve secular values such as a concern with equal rights, a principle based on the understanding that all human beings have similar experiences of pleasure and pain.

But is the “motivation to share our happiness with others” the only foundation of empathy? Turns out not. And here’s where I start to break out in intellectual giddybumps.

Once in a long while, a scientific discovery of unusually sweeping explanatory power comes along. Big Bang theory snapped countless things about the universe into place with a CRACK. Evolutionary theory does likewise. The more thoroughly you understand what evolution is (and isn’t), the more you can see great thundering blocks of reality falling neatly into place. It is astonishingly, gorgeously, mind-blowingly, jaw-droppingly powerful.

(Yeah yeah…if I love it so much, why don’t I marry it. You are so immature.)

Another discovery on the order of the Big Bang and evolution was made not long ago in the area between your ears — in the three-pound dog’s breakfast we all carry around in our heads.

In your head are some neurons that fire whenever you experience something. Pick up a marble, yawn, or slam your shin into a trailer hitch, and these neurons get busy. No news there.

But this just in: These neurons also fire when you see someone else picking up a marble, yawning, or slamming a shin. They are called mirror neurons, and they have the powerful capacity to make you feel, quite directly, what somebody else is feeling. Here they are, in green:

mirror neurons

Whoa, whoa. Wait for it, now. But you do see where we’re going with this. The implications are gi-normous, since it means we’re not completely self-contained after all. No man is an island, and all that. We’re plenty vulnerable to the experiences and feelings of others. Mirror neurons are the reason that yawns are contagious. They are the reason we wince when we see a car door slam on somebody else’s fingers.

But first things first. Why did we evolve mirror neurons? Whenever my kids ask an evolutionary ‘why’ question, I ask them to think about what the absence of the feature would have meant.

Mirror neurons make teaching and learning much easier, for one. All primates have them, so it turns out monkey see, monkey do is a matter of hardware, not just software.

monkey see

When Cave-Kid saw Mom or Dad starting a fire, or picking berries, or spearing dinner on the hoof, mirror neurons would have made it much easier to duplicate the task him/herself. Populations without this cool adaptive anomaly would have had a selective disadvantage, resulting in fewer survivors over time, and voilà! Mirror neurons become the norm.

chimp and goodall

I have the absolute HOTS for evolution’s explanatory power. It still gives me the howling fantods after all these years.

Yummiest of all, the discovery of mirror neurons also provides a tantalizing hypothesis for why we seek to be good without gods. Without the hard-wired ability to feel what someone else feels, we really could be islands unto ourselves, indifferent to each other’s pain and suffering. Picture one population of mutually indifferent, self-centered creatures, and another in which empathy is the norm. Which population is going to survive to pass on its genes?

Oooooh, Darwin honey. Explain that to me one more time.

And look where we are now — we backed straight into that moral foundation. The single most powerful human moral imperative is the Reciprocity Principle: TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED. Christians may recognize their Golden Rule in there, but its origin is much older and its presence much more universal, from Brahminism (“Do not unto others what would cause you pain if done to you”) to Buddhism (“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful”) to Humanism, clunky and wordy as usual (“Humanists acknowledge human interdependence, the need for mutual respect and the kinship of all humanity”) to Wicca (“Ain’ it harm none, do what thou wilt”).

I’ve always felt that empathy was a natural enough thing — but for those who need convincing, mirror neurons are the ticket. It takes very little to see, in this remarkable neural system, the root of empathy, sympathy, compassion, conscience, cooperation, guilt, and a whole lot of other useful tendencies. It explains my kids’ tendency to wither under disapproval, and the weight in my own chest during the recent fracas with my publisher. Thanks to mirror neurons, the accused feels the condemnation all the more intensely. Empathizing with someone else’s rage toward you translates into a kind of self-loathing that we call guilt or conscience. Once again, no need for a supernatural agent.

If nothing else, mirror neurons can put some meaningful data into one of those unbearably fuzzy old beer-besotted college dorm room discussions: Are humans inherently good, or inherently evil? We have tendencies toward selfishness, of course, but survival also requires tendencies toward cooperation. Mirror neurons don’t guarantee good behavior, but what does? What they do is all they need to do for our survival as a species: By allowing us to feel what others feel, they incline us away from pure selfishness and toward mutually beneficial behaviors, which works out well for everybody.

It’s just one more reason we’re still here, after all these years.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.