Justice, fairness, and sportsmanship are regarded as an attribute specific to us humans which God has bestowed upon us and society has reinforced in us. But, is that really why we tend to play fair? Why we tend to have a somewhat very basic sense of morality and ethics? Nah, it’s just plain old evolutionary Biology and neuroscience.
First, to avoid any party-pooping, let me make clear that I do not think there a universal morality or conscience. For example, revenge is frowned upon by Christian belief, while it is encouraged and praised in others. These more complex human beliefs and attitudes are not yet within neuroscience and neurobiology’s realm of certainty, however, we now know why we at least play fair with each other.
You might wonder why I’m attaching any importance on playing around between individuals, mostly children. Well, playing is a seemingly biologically irrelevant phenomenon: we waste energy and gain neither food nor sex in the process. However, upon further inspection, we notice that social interaction amongst humans and other higher mammals, such as canines and primates, usually start off with this ‘child’s play’.
I’m sure you recall a time when you were horsing around with your dad or someone older than you, and that person obviously made you win, or let you feel you beat him or her at something you would never actually triumph at under different circumstances. Animals do that too, or at least some dogs in their packs. A more dominant dog will sometimes fall on its back and allow the younger dog to ‘beat’ it in the mock-battle. This is playing at its most basic, and yet, we see a spirit of sportsmanship in most cases.
Why would they do that? Well, the back-and-forth playing patterns help build stronger bonds and trust between members of a pack. When a more dominant pack member exhibits the will to compromise in play for a lesser-ranked individual, this manifests itself in other more important aspects, such as food and survival. Thus, the skeleton of a successful society is this playing around which acknowledges a relationship between pack or society members that will ensure the success of this society.
Naturally, not all the individuals in this proto-society would be fair-players. Sometimes, the biting or clawing hurts. Usually, we see a sort of apologetic stance, with the dog extending its front paws on the ground while its rear legs remain erect.
Individuals who do not exhibit this basic etiquette are ultimately shunned from the pack, generation after generation, the unfavorable attitude of not playing fair becomes less and less frequent in that given society, and fairness (even politeness) will be the rule of the land.
So, basically, fairplay and the basic sense of being just and sportsmanlike is an evolutionary adaptation to help us integrate into societies.
That’s some food for thought, which I will constantly supplement with maaany other evolutionary biology topics that have deeply impacted me and how I perceive the world.