Many christians still argue that we can’t be good without god, even though there is a variety of secular moral frameworks. Primatologist De Waal turns this debate on its head by saying we invented god to help us live the way we already felt we had to.When humans developed greater powers of abstraction they felt a need for systems of justification, monitoring and punishment. De Waal argues that a need for religion only came in at this very late stage. Our morality is inbuilt by evolution.
morality and evolution
Has our morality developed during evolution? Darwin thought any animal would eventually acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become well developed. However, according to Darwin the animal would have become human at that stage.
After 30 years of studying non-human primates, Frans de Waal says:
“I have argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules. (…)”
He designs experiments to research the innate capacity for empathy in primates. If you give chimpanzees a free choice between helping only themselves to food or helping themselves plus a partner, they prefer the latter. Interestingly, when this partner demands attention by making noises and spitting, the motivation to feed it quickly diminishes.
In this short fragment on youtube, De Waal shows us how capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay. They are not happy with a piece of cucumber when another gets a grape.
In the past, ethologists often focused on competition between animals. I suppose we could recognise that as just another example of anthropomorphism. After all, we usually associate only our bad behaviour with the animal in us. Instead De Waal has spent many years looking at reciprocity, empathy and conflict resolution.
In his book: “Primates and philosophers”, De Waal argues against what he calls the ‘veneer theory’ of morality.
“It assumes that deep down we are not truly moral. It views morality as a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature.”
In doing so, veneer theory denies that our moral tendencies are natural. It assumes that we are fundamentally asocial and selfish. As socio-biologist Ghiselin said:
“Scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”
According to De Waal, we descended from highly social ancestors and have been living in groups forever. Our survival has therefore depended on cooperation and coordination.He recorded behaviour in chimpanzees that could be interpreted as helpful, consoling or expressing gratitude. And he thinks that this behaviour is not accidental or reducible to indirect self-interest. He thinks it is indicative of empathy. Like when:
After an aggressive conflict between two chimps, a bystander will often console the ‘loser’ of the conflict, for example by putting an arm around him. In such cases of consolation, there is no clear benefit for the consoling party.
According to De Waal, there is a Perception-Action-Mechanism (PAM) at work. Here, the observer has access to the emotional state of its object through its own neural and bodily representations. The closer and the more similar the two animals are, the easier it is for the subject to ‘get under the skin’ of the object, sharing its feelings and needs. This in turn fosters sympathy, compassion and helping.
The existence of PAM is evolutionary explicable and natural selection of the PAM could have brought on a concern for others that transcends self-preservation: a moral concern.
A few commentators react to De Waal’s findings. Some of them do not agree on the extent of altruistic tendencies in primates, but all agree that he revealed an empathic response in non-human primates that merits serious attention. I’ve found one historian who mentions that we should not forget that it’s 5.5 million years ago that hominids branched off from their ancestor. If people have since evolved, so have apes.
Others argue that the observations do not prove that what De Waal observed in animals are in fact the fundamental capacities, the building blocks underlying moral agency. It also does not prove chimpanzees make moral judgments, that they actually have a notion of right and wrong. Philip Kitcher, for example, will only concede that non-human primates can be motivated by involuntary, empathic emotional impulses. They cannot reflect on these impulses and therefore don’t demonstrate moral agency.I would not think it weird if an ethologist ascribed a deeper meaning to animal behaviour that could not easily be recognised by other observers. After all, none of us knows what really goes on in a chimpanzee’s brain. Or in our own, for that matter. And it’s very easy to recognise our own behaviour in non-human primates. That’s what makes them so attractive to us. Still, as usual, Dawkins sounds completely convinced when he claims:
“We alone, on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
It is possible that this rebellion started earlier than he expected.