Are monkeys moral?

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
By Frans de Waal
HC:230pp | Princeton University Press | ISBN-10: 0691124477 | 2006 | $22.95
In 2001 A Space Odyssey monkeys touch a menhir that aliens had left on earth and this sparks them along the road to human rationality. The mysterious rectangular monolith imparts the knowledge of tool use to the chimps and enables them to evolve into men. That is just one story among many that seek to explain the seeming division between man and the rest of creation. Evolutionists are horrified by such flights of fancy. Among them is Frans de Waal, an eminent primatologist who would like science fiction writers, and armchair philosophers in general, to take a back seat to the biologists in their speculations.

de Waal has dedicated decades of his life to rigorous empirical work with our closest evolutionary relatives and has authored such works as Our Inner Ape and Chimpanzee Politics, exploring the continuities that exist between man and other social mammals. In his most recent book, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, he tussles with eminent philosophers and science writers over what he believes to be the key building blocks to morality which man has inherited from the animals. The book is divided into a presentation by de Waal on his thesis that monkeys possess the building blocks of human morals, with several appendices to that work, a critique of this thesis by five contributors to this book, and a reply by de Waal to his critics.
Survival of the kindest
For de Waal, morality comes in layers, like a Russian doll, so that human morality is actually the natural outgrowth of social life and cooperation among our great ape forebears: our ability to empathize, for example, has roots that go deeper than homo sapiens. In keeping with Darwinian continuities between the species, de Waal wants to show us that human morality is like an escalator that, starting from the social behavior of our earlier primate relatives, set off in ever higher directions.

To say that not all in nature is "red in tooth and claw" runs counter to centuries of popular imagination. Students of economics are all too familiar with the self-seeking, wealth-maximizing kind of agent who makes Machiavelli look naïve. But is man really so nasty that he only ever pretends to be good – “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed”? Man is a social animal and social animals act in the interests of the group. Why should we be surprised to find that social concern is as much a core component of human nature as self-interest?
There is no inherent reason why the amorality of random natural selection should lead to the production of amoral and purely selfish beings. By way of analogy de Waal asks us to consider Beethoven’s dirty Vienna apartment and the beauty and order of the compositions that came out of it. “The Beethoven error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel pitiless creatures. … [Nature] favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open. Any organism that can do better by becoming either more or less aggressive than the rest, more or less cooperative, or more or less caring, will spread its genes.” (p. 58)

The seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and after him the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, popularized what is known as the Veneer Theory of morality -- the idea that good behavior is a cultural gloss over a selfish core. Darwin’s bulldog or not, Huxley was obviously not listening to his master’s voice when he spoke of men as a garden in need of constant weeding from the inherited vices of selfishness. de Waal believes that such talk owes more to Huxley’s unconscious Victorian formation in the Christian religion than it does to the Origin of the Species. Huxley is doing no more than present us with a secularized version of the battle of the spirit against the flesh found in St Paul's letters. As for the Hobbesian homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man) this is seen by de Waal as unfair both on men and wolves. Social animals thrive precisely on the basis of the survival of the kindest. Among apes, for instance, there is a greater chance of group survival where strong males take on policing roles and break up fights (or female apes act as mediators between warring males).

Empathy and reciprocity
Frans de WaalWhat, then, are these animal building blocks of human morality that de Waal has discovered? Stemming from babies’ demands on their parents and the parents’ response to the emotional states of their offspring, empathy gains an evolutionary foothold. This in turn makes possible the phenomenon of "emotional contagion": get one monkey upset and shrieking and the rest will soon join in the panic. Pet owners can surely remember times when they were moping and the family dog came along and laid its head in their lap. Indeed, somewhat sadistic experiments have shown that both rats and Rhesus monkeys prefer to starve themselves for long periods of time rather than throw a food lever if this means delivering an electric shock to a companion.
From these varying states of empathy we can develop a sympathetic response to the needs and perspectives of others. Those animals that can recognize a "self" in the mirror – chimpanzees and dolphins ‑ are also able to target their help to others and manifest such consoling behavior as draping an arm around a loser in a battle.

Reciprocity -- If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours -- is also thought to be another key building block of our moral sense of fairness. Take the case of the camel that had been badly treated by his 14-year-old Moroccan master. Some days later when they were more or less alone the camel seized the boy’s head and lifted him up in the air only to fling him back down on the ground minus the top part of his skull, scattering his brains everywhere.

As a biologist, Frans de Waal studies morality as a purely social phenomenon. His test for morality concerns “capacities for reciprocity and revenge, for the enforcement of social rules, for the settlement of disputes, and for sympathy and empathy.” (p.16). He speaks of good and bad as "objective" criteria but only to decide whether an action contributes to survival; he ignores the need for personal development and good habits.

Between 'like' and 'unlike '
As is to be expected, his identification of emotion as the core of ethics places him at odds with Kantian philosophers like Christine Korsgaard. For her the core of morality is the person as the author of his own actions. While conceding that de Waal’s -- and also Goodall’s -- careful observation of animal behavior has shown us that like us they too are curious, loving, bossy and playful, she gives much more weight to the differences between humans and animals: our complex language, art, literature, science and philosophy have nothing to do with animals at all (p.104). Korsgaard also says that we have a psychological screw loose (a secular account of original sin if ever there was one) that represents a radical break with nature. Whatever the reason for the discontinuities between men and beasts, de Waal’s confidence in Darwin to be able to bridge them remains at the level of faith rather than evidence.

It must be said that none of the authors in this book disputes the claim that only humans universalize their ethical claims or indulge in moral reasoning – worrying about whether or not we have good grounds for acting as we do or even recognizing that we have “grounds” at all that would justify our behavior. De Waal’s point is that since we only have access to what animals "do" rather than the normative ought stories they might tell us, we are not in a position to dismiss ape morality so easily: “Absence of evidence is no evidence of absence.” (p.70).

Another telling point is that we humans also tend to be more emotionally driven than Korsgaard is giving us credit for. Science writer Robert Wright (author of The Moral Animal) believes that whilst animals may be “wanton” in the sense that the emotional pull of the moment is what directs their behavior, humans are not all that different. In our actual behavior we tend to act first (on the basis of emotion) and justify ourselves later. What looks like a planned choice was really just the force of natural selection guiding my emotions to what is best for my genes and my species. It’s only natural, argues Wright, that I should take a liking to people who share my ideas or act in a biased way in favor of my own family members.

Yet this is a trite dismissal of human ethics. We do bear an indirect responsibility for the intellectual and ethical habits we form. We are the parents of our character and are routinely praised and blamed for the vicious or virtuous emotional reactions we have to everyday situations. "Evolution made me rape" cuts no ice in human courts.

How, then, are we to speak about the extraordinary behavior researchers with apes witness at first hand? For scientists, Ockham’s razor (the principle that we should prefer simpler explanations over more complex ones) can cut both ways. Cognitive parsimony would have us hold to a standard behaviorist language of emotional stimulus and response. Monkey see, monkey do. On the other hand, evolutionary parsimony would ask us to take into account the higher cognitive states of the great apes and speak about planning and intentions as we do for humans. We should not be too quick to disassociate ourselves from members of the same branch of the family tree.

The thinking animal's case for rights
de Waal is at pains to disassociate himself from the type of anthropomorphisms employed in popular books about animals. He would not have approved of Shirley MacLaine’s co-authorship with her pet dog (she claimed she could read the dog’s mind and so wrote on his behalf). Yet he also plays the philosopher of suspicion and charges us with Anthropodenial for rejecting the application of human states of mind to animals. Since we eat them, experiment on them and wear them as fur we have base motives for holding animals on a lower peg.

As a scientist de Waal believes that a useful way of getting to the truth of an ape’s situation is to speak about its activities with the abstract language that we normally associate only with humans – to plan, to think, to analyze. This is dangerous ground and cannot help but spill over into wider social debate. Peter Singer makes his own interest in this debate clear: “The great apes can help to bridge the gulf that millennia of Judeo-Christian indoctrination have dug between us and the other animals.” (p.158). If we choose to employ cognitive language about the apes and speak about them as moral agents would this not lead to societal demands for them to have rights? Singer says "Yes!" Interestingly, de Waal the biologist disagrees. Comparisons between enclosed animals and slavery are not only outrageous and insulting, they are morally flawed, he says. (p.77)

If we humans are just another step along the continuum of evolution then out of loyalty to our closest gene sharers we ought to be subjecting other species to domination in preference to the within-group – namely ourselves. Much like Bill Clinton on abortion, de Waal believes that animal experimentation should be kept safe, rare and legal. Rather than confer rights on animals he speaks of an obligation of care on our own part. It would seem that Huxley was not the only Darwinian to have drawn his ethics from the Bible. Perhaps de Waal would be interested in reading about the concept of stewardship in the book of Genesis.

Richard Umbers lectures in philosophy in Sydney.  


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