Bottom-up morality

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.

By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (]

By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (

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,Β Frans de WaalΒ 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.

veneer theory

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.

Baby Ginger Monkey, by Rob from Cambridge, MA [CC-BY-2.0 (]

Baby Ginger Monkey, by Rob from Cambridge, MA [CC-BY-2.0 (

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.

Bonobos adoring baby, by Magnus Manske[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (]

Bonobos adoring baby, by Magnus Manske[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (

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.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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63 Responses to Bottom-up morality

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for the post.

    I just wrote a piece on morality on my blog, if you want to check it out. Less scientific, though.

    • Thank you very much for the reblog! I appreciate it. πŸ™‚

      • A lovely post, especially the link to the capuchin video!
        I’ve not seen that before.
        This is a really good summary of what I’ve been trying to explain to some theists, so thank *you*!

        • Thank you, Adaminberlinio. If you want to see a longer video, De Waal also presents his experiments on TED. And you’re right, you have no reason to thank ‘me’. πŸ˜‰

    • holly says:

      Thanks from me too! this post is appreciated muchly! πŸ˜€

      • Thank you, Holly! I happened to just be reading your comment on David Yerle’s site on your experience with eating and killing animals. I think you make an important point there. It’s very interesting how you felt that way when you knew the people around you felt differently. It’s a real conflict of morality, I think. Did you become a vegetarian in the end? (I am.)

      • holly says:

        I do eat some meat, tried the vegetarian thing but it is harder to do it alone when cooking for a family. I sorta stuck with cognitive dissonance on that one, (as i had it finely honed by adulthood) . Still can’t really eat if having to cook it from whole (deboning/removing innards etc). So..I am a bit of a hypocrite. It “feels wrong” , and if i think about it, i get sick and upchuck…so I don’t think about it. I mostly stick to chicken and fish, but that doesn’t make it any less gross if i visualize it being alive. The problem i ran into, was learning about fruit, and tress and what not in biology, and a teacher sharing about some experiment that was done where a tree had stuff hooked up to it, and when a branch was torn off by a person something registered. Then they had all the people pass by the tree still hooked up to something “reading” signs from it, and it made the same “sign” when that same person walked by. Since that class I have not been able to find any documentation of such an experiment, however…such pondering as to whether trees/fruits/veggies and what not are/were alive…got to my poor conscience as well. (eat an apple…is that like eating someones ovaries? :D) Without cognitive dissonance…i was left to becoming a rock-biter…
        and well. So for me….cognitive dissonance still has it’s benefits…

        • That makes me think of Tonguesandwich, where he mentions being vegetarian because he hates plants. πŸ˜‰ I remember reading that trees can send each other messages by producing certain chemicals. They would do that to ‘warn’ others about the presence of certain insects, for instance. They would then proceed to make certain kinds of poison to protect themselves. It would be interesting to explore that further.
          I can imagine cooking for a family makes it more difficult. My main problem is wondering if I should tell people who invite me to dinner. πŸ˜‰ Cognitive dissonance can be a good thing, I think. Especially if you experience such nasty, physical reactions when thinking about it. I’m almost sorry for bringing it up….

  2. Mordanicus says:

    Great post, De Waal is my favorite primatologist.

    The argument from morality is in fact the last resort for christians (and other theists) for justifying their immature beliefs, since they know that science is closing down their god of the gaps. By claiming that morality is outside the realm (NOMA) of science they hope the isolate ethics from being occupied by atheists.

    What christians do not know is that non-theist ethics is at least thousands of years old and is an essential part of both Indian and Chinese philosophy (and law).

    • Thank you for your comment, Mordanicus. I agree with you on morality being a bit of a last resort for theists who see more and more gaps being closed. I also think looking into the evolutionary development of ethics is an interesting perspective for secular ethics. As is research into the way moral decisions are made in our brains. David Yerle just blogged on that, in “The case for an innate morality.” If you are interested:

      • Mordanicus says:

        There is a further complication with this resort to morality, namely the assumption that morality is necessary. One wight wonder why we should be moral in the first place. Additionally, there is also the question why god should care about human morality.

        • Indeed! Personally, I have never understood what god would have to do with our morality. If you only just start thinking about it, there are many problems with the idea that god is an omnipotent superbeing who has designed us and gave us free will etc. And don’t get me started on why we should make an assumption that morality is necessary! I would need a whole post to properly comment on that. So for now, I will just agree with you that this is another interesting addition to the discussion. πŸ™‚ Unless, of course, you would like to elaborate on that.

      • Mordanicus says:

        I do not believe there are true necessities in life. The assumption of the necessity of morality stems from the desire for some kind of morality, and evolutionary biology is perfectly able to explain this desire. The point is that people are not able to distinguish between their desires and necessities.

        • Wow! That’s a bold statement. I really like it. It makes me think of the buddhist view that our desires are the problem. (I am thinking of a philosophy here, not trying to exchange one religion for another.) Do you have a certain philosophy in mind when you write this?

          • Mordanicus says:

            Your response is funny, in a good sense, because I consider myself as buddhist. However, I didn’t have a particular philosophy in mind when I wrote my last comment. Of course, my thinking is influenced by my previous experiences and thoughts.

            • Lol! I call myself an atheist, but I practise zen and have read about buddhist philosophy. That’s probably the reason I had this association. I still think what you describe is very interesting. πŸ™‚

              • Mordanicus says:

                Whatever name you use, we should focus on arguments and reasoning. Only many people have difficulty with grasping the difference between form and substance.

                • I feel the same way. Actually, I have taken a holiday from buddhism to look into western philosophy for a bit. (I’m shamefully ignorant about that.) And I am amazed by the clarity of much of what I am reading. With buddhism, I often found it very difficult to imagine the frame of reference the author would have had. It’s often difficult to see the difference between philosophy and culture. For instance, what could have inspired people to discern the five skandha’s the way they did?

  3. David Yerle says:

    Well, I was just going to write a post about this! Looks like I won’t have to. I’ll just link to this instead… Apparently there are other animals who seem to have a sense of fairness, like dogs or even crows. I read about it today. It makes sense: once you have big groups, some kinds of behavior will be rewarded. I think the points above rejecting that as morality “because there’s no reflection” are moot. Reflection comes after morality, to try to make sense of something we’d be doing anyway. Is morality acting morally or thinking about how to act? To me, morality is just acting according to some set of rules (implicit or not) that regulate cohabitation. And animals do it, that’s for sure. Maybe they can’t talk about it, but that’s it.

    • Thank you! I had the same experience when I read your post on innate morality today. πŸ™‚ I have put a link to it in one of my comments. I really like your point that reflection comes after morality, when we are trying to make sense of what we do. I sure think that is a more accurate description of what goes on in our human brains. Maybe we should have an approach to morality that refers to our nature, instead of these abstract, lofty ideas. (Still working hard on the Nietzsche project, can you tell?)
      De Waal also mentions empathy in non-primates. He has worked with elephants on cooperation. It would be nice to read more about that. πŸ™‚

  4. viddy9 says:

    Nice post, very interesting.

  5. Bastet says:

    I’ll definately want to read this, it sounds very interesting indeed. I’ve always felt that we’ve not gone very far morally speaking since we’ve begun our evolution from our cousins…I’m putting this on facebook (my filing cabinet for interesting things) so I can reference it and read it more carefully later. Thanks, interesting as usual!

    • Thank you for your comment, Bastet. I came across a reblog on your site this morning that I will look into. (The one that’s in Italian.) Good practice for me. πŸ˜‰

      • Bastet says:

        Feel free…those who write in Italian do not have the good fortune to have others who comment and encourage…the community aspect of blogging is rather forelorn there…just family and friends, maybe. At least from what I have seen. πŸ˜‰

  6. duncommutin says:

    It so happens that I’m just reading a book on this very topic – ‘Moral Minds’ by Marc Hauser. The thesis follows a suggestion by the moral philosopher John Rawls making an analogy with our capacity for language. As I expect you know, Noam Chomsky proposed that we have an innate capacity for language which determines fundamental linguistic structure, while on top of that there are geographical and cultural variations in the forms of rules, referred to by linguists as ‘parameters’. The idea is that morality is just the same – an innate set of basic moral precepts which have biologically evolved, but overlaid with further rules that vary according to culture. Hauser examines the idea in detail, using much interesting scientific and anthropological detail.
    Oddly, since writing this book on morality, Hauser has been charged with scientific misconduct and has resigned from his position at Harvard – the details were never released, but the suspicion is that errors were involved, rather than outright fraud. But I’d recommend the book, and you’d never suspect any of that from reading it.

    • Thank you for mentioning this! It looks like yet another, very interesting take on the development of our morality. πŸ™‚ I am familiar with Chomsky of course, but I had never heard of Marc Hauser.

  7. I think that altruism does have it’s roots in evolution, it can be selected for, helping those similar to you may increase the chances of your genes surviving, but that has it’s problems because we don’t only help kin. There are theories based around reciprocity expectations but I do feel that it is intrinsic in humans (and to a certain extent other animals of higher conscious too). Studying very young children wanting to comfort others and slightly older children attempting to help people. It seems like it is within us from the start

    • Thank you for your comment. I am aware of the discussion on altruism and evolution and I think it’s very interesting. From looking at very young children I would not be surprised if something like the PAM De Waal mentions would be at work there. They certainly mirror each other and when one starts crying…. πŸ™‚

  8. john zande says:

    Very well done! I’m saving this into my ‘special’ file for all future reference.

  9. It’s important to read definitions carefully with Dawkins. I don’t have my copy of Selfish Gene handy but, if I recall correctly, he uses ‘selfish’ as an outcome-focused quantity rather than an emotional attitude for most of the book.

  10. violetwisp says:

    Excellent post! I think we’ll all be referencing it from here on in. You’ve pulled important information together in a clear and very helpful way with brilliant commentary. *applause* I get so many lessons on morality from dogs. If the god God had suggested that animals have souls too, it might make it easier to believe. (not ‘easy’ just ‘less ridiculous’)

  11. I enjoyed your views on the bases of morality and found them very insightful. Great post. I was searching for some background as I move forward with my own blog. I am taking a more philosophical approach and trying to discover what the major cause of the decline in morals and values are. Thank you for posting this and I look forward to your future posts as well.

  12. I have noticed that as our knowledge of animal intelligence and social behaviour increases, we realise more and more that much of what distinguishes as humans from animals is not that we are the top species, or even a chosen species, but that we are simply more arrogant and ignorant than the rest. What makes us think that we can outsmart any species that has survived longer than we have? Cockroaches come to mind. They were there before us and they will still be there when we have wiped ourselves out. Even a potato has twice as many genes as humans.

    Van der Waal really help us come to terms with ourselves. Great post LivelySceptic!

    • Thank you, genetic fractals! As ever, you manage to add an original point of view. I have great faith in cockroaches when it comes to survival and I also seem to remember some disappointment when research showed we humans don’t have more genes than any other species. However, someone will think of something analogous to the bodyweight-to-brain ratio and tinker with it to finally prove that humans are really special. You’re right, it is time to come to terms with ourselves. πŸ™‚

  13. Lin says:

    ”Interestingly, when this partner demands attention by making noises and spitting, the motivation to feed it quickly diminishes.” I’ve found this to be very true in my own life. I’m not proud of it, but there it is…

  14. jusd says:

    Reblogged this on Jusd.

  15. Bastet says:

    Dearest Livelyskeptic, I’ve nominated you for the WordPress Family Award…for more information pls read: (no questions to answer et al) and no obligations…I interpret as an award for those who I comment with etc. Ta!

    • Thank you very much for nominating me, Bastet. I have a policy on blogging awards; I don’t answer questions. (I’ve commented on that on my ‘about’-page.) But if there are no questions I promise that I will look into it. πŸ™‚

      • Bastet says:

        I’ve changed the page…and were are no questions…I’ve decided to put on my title page that I do not accept awards…I’ll make my own rewards if you look on my page, I’ve created the International Songbird Award…and I wrote a blog about it…I’m weary of these chain letters and besides sometimes their more bother than they’re worth. Thanks for replying… πŸ˜‰

        • I’ve read your blog on the International Songbird Award and found it really funny. I played the video hoping the birds right outside my window would rise to the challenge…

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