Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Origins of Morality

Frans B.M. de Waal (born 1948, the Netherlands) was trained as a zoologist and ethologist in the European tradition at three Dutch universities (Nijmegen, Groningen, Utrecht), resulting in a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Utrecht, in 1977. His dissertation research concerned aggressive behavior and alliance formation in macaques. In 1975, a six- year project was initiated on the world's largest captive colony of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo. Apart from a large number of scientific papers, this work found its way to the general public with Chimpanzee Politics (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

In 1981, Dr. de Waal accepted a research position at the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. There he began both observational and experimental studies of reconciliation behavior in monkeys. He received the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Peacemaking among Primates (Harvard University Press, 1989) a popularized account of fifteen years of research on conflict resolution in nonhuman primates. Since the mid-1980s, Dr. de Waal also worked on chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and their close relatives, bonobos, at the San Diego Zoo.

In 1991, Dr. de Waal accepted a joint position in the Psychology Department of Emory University and at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, both in Atlanta. His current interests include food-sharing, social reciprocity, and conflict-resolution in primates as well as the origins of morality and justice in human society. His most recent books discuss the evolutionary origin of human morality, and the implications of that we know about bonobos for models of human social evolution: Good Natured (Harvard University Press, 1996), and Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (University of California Press, 1997).

Nicholas Wade in an article in The New York Times today says that some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Wade says that biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.

Moral philosophers do not take very seriously the biologists’ bid to annex their subject, but they find much of interest in what the biologists say and have started an academic conversation with them.

The original call to battle was sounded by the biologist Edward O. Wilson more than 30 years ago, when he suggested in his 1975 book Sociobiology that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” Wade says that he may have jumped the gun about the time having come, but in the intervening decades biologists have made considerable progress.

Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book Moral Minds that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language. In another recent book, Primates and Philosophers, the primatologist Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes.

Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.

While de Waal does not claim that chimpanzees possess morality. He does however say that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.

Dr. de Waal’s bases his views on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He observed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser. But he was waylaid in battles with psychologists over imputing emotional states to animals, and it took him 20 years to come back to the subject.

"We seem to be reaching a point at which science can wrest morality from the hands of philosophers," he wrote in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals .

De Waal argues that the key element to morality is "reciprocal altruism": treating others kindly with the expectation that they will accord one the same treatment should a similar situation arise (a notion similar to, if not identical with, the so-called Golden Rule). Such reciprocal altruism will not occur when individuals are unlikely to meet again. It requires good memories and stable relationships, conditions which occur mainly in the primates. "Evolution has produced the requisites for morality: a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, the capacities of empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, the mechanisms of conflict resolutions, and so on."

De Waal's book is filled with examples of monkeys and apes taking care of disabled members of their group, showing sympathy for those in pain, and engaging in mutual aid. The principle of parsimony, he states, holds that if closely related species act the same, then the underlying process is probably the same, too. Much, if not all, of what constitutes human morality can be found by closely studying the social practices of our fellow primates.

De Waal writes: "It is not hard to see why monkeys would want to avoid harm to themselves, but why would harm to another bother them? Probably they see certain others as extensions of themselves, and the distress of those resonates within them." To see one's self in the plight of another is perhaps the basic building block of morality.

Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals.

Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal’s view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion.

So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. “I look at religions as recent additions,” he said. “Their function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do.”

I have a particular interest in our ancient roots, as can bee seen here:

The National Geographic and IBM's Genographic Project: Charting the migratory history of the human species