De Waal to discuss evolution of morality in Great Teachers lecture

Human nature is fundamentally selfish and fundamentally noble, claims Frans de Waal, research professor of psychobiology at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center and professor of psychology. Through his work with primates, de Waal illustrates the concept that morality is not merely man's cultural invention, but a product of millions of years of evolution.

De Waal will present his observations in a lecture titled "Good Natured: Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals" as part of the Great Teachers Lecture Series on Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Cannon Chapel. His recent book of the same name has received wide popular and scientific acclaim. A Dutch-born zoologist and ethologist, de Waal has authored two other award-winning books on primate behavior, in addition to numerous scientific papers.

De Waal suggests that basic ethical behavior--helping one who is hurt, feeding one who is hungry--is not unique to humans. Animals are compelled, perhaps by their own code of ethics, to respond to social rules, to help each other, to share food and resolve conflict to mutual satisfaction. Thus, the natural world involves not merely survival of the fittest--but also survival through cooperation and mutual assistance.

In fact, de Waal said, natural selection has produced some highly cooperative species. He cites examples: a female chimpanzee shares food with a juvenile not related to her; a herd of African elephants tries to revive a young female dying from a poacher's bullet, then spreads earth and branches over the body before leaving it; a group of dolphins supports an injured companion at the water's surface to prevent it from drowning. De Waal sees in this cooperative behavior the evolutionary roots of human moral systems--the need for social order, sympathy, empathy, justice and peace.

De Waal's insights bring us face to face with the profound paradox that genetic self-advancement at the expense of others, which is the basic thrust of evolution, has given rise to remarkable capacities for caring and sympathy. "Just as in animals," said de Waal, "for humans, making peace is as natural as making war." This notion creates a more complex picture of the evolution of morality, but an infinitely more inspiring one.

--Kate Egan

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