Books in Review: a regular column on books by Emory authors

Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals

(Harvard University Press, 1996)

by Frans B. M. de Waal

The major oddity that seemingly every news story and broadcast pointed out about the alleged Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski was that he lived in isolation, intentionally distancing himself from "the real world." We collectively tsk tsked at how he lived in a shack in the mountains with no human contact, rejecting his family. His solitary existence was evidence enough of his flawed moral character. It is within our human nature to want to live together and to get along. We might even say that Kaczynski lived "like an animal."

According to the newest book by primatologist and ethologist Frans B. M. de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, we might want to rethink that analogy. Many animals, especially other primates, also share our reverence for living together and getting along. Indeed, they share our sense of sympathy for the injured, our respect for social rules, our contract of give and take, and our basic desire for harmonious relations. De Waal, currently serving as professor of psychology, has long been proving that primates exhibit many behavioral traits that we might assume to be uniquely human, traits that resemble our own sense of morality.

De Waal begins by establishing the basic connection between evolutionary theories and historical philosophies of human morality. In making this connection, he asks, if evolutionary theories suggest that certain natural traits emerge because their bearers are better off with them than without them, "why, then, are collective interests and self-sacrifice valued so highly in our moral systems?"

This question remains the subtext of the book. The more important questions explored by the author include: "Do animals show behavior that parallels the benevolence as well as the rules and regulations of human moral conduct? If so, what motivates them to act this way? And do they realize how their behavior affects others?"

Through vignette-inspired sections, with names such as "Special Treatment of the Handicapped," "The Monkey's Behind," "Mobile Meals" and "Baboon Testimony," de Waal relates his own findings and that of many other scientists that answer the above questions with resounding affirmatives. With an accessible format and style, the narrative often feels more like a conversation than a work based on the research of "cognitive ethologists."

Like his other acclaimed books, Chimpanzee Politics and Peacemaking Among Primates, de Waal's newest effort repeatedly proves that we have much to learn about ourselves from the animal world. In the chapter on sympathy, de Waal relates accounts of dolphins who support an injured companion to keep him from drowning and an elephant mother who covers her dead daughter's corpse with branches and lingers over the site, reluctant to leave. He also found that in many cases, a handicapped or injured monkey, "instead of being torn to pieces or abandoned as a useless community member, the disabled individual receives extra tolerance, vigilance and care."

Within these and other accounts, de Waal finds that this succorant behavior is much like human sympathy, extended "most readily to one's own family and clan, less readily to other members of the community, and most reluctantly, if at all, to outsiders."

Skeptical of setting up humans as a "cognitive elite," de Waal explains that "I hesitate to call the members of any species other than our own `moral beings,' yet I also believe that many of the sentiments and cognitive abilities underlying human morality antedate the appearance of our species on this planet."

Recounting the studies of a "visual anthropologist" who documented the first glimpses of a mirror by a Papuan tribe in New Guinea, de Waal notes that "the only thing that mirrors and pictures do is bring awareness of oneself into sharper focus and demonstrate its presence to the outside world." The members of the tribe, the Bitami, "were paralyzed: after their first startled response . . . they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension."

With his anecdotal presentation of scientific articles, describing them with adjectives such as "eloquent" and "enjoyable," de Waal intertwines passages from economists, anthropologists and philosophers ranging from Plato to Thomas Hobbes. One gets the feeling that there is a subtext, aimed at a group that fascinates de Waal as much as primates do--other scientists--issuing a call to action, challenging them to engage in this dialogue about the nature of our (the universal "our" that would include bats and monkeys) moral selves.

As for the non-academic reader? We might use this book, like the mirror to the Bitami, to see ourselves for the first time in a fresh and possibly startling way.

--Matt Montgomery

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