Emory Report
April 16, 2007
Volume 59, Number 27

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April 16, 2007
De Waal sides with Darwin: Morality is instinctual, evolved

by emily rios

"Darwin was right,” said Frans de Waal during his “Morality and Primate Social Behavior” presentation to a capacity-filled room at the recent 2007 Sheth Distinguished Lecture. De Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and a C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory, agreed with Darwin’s emphasis on continuity with animals even in the moral domain: “Any animal endowed with well-marked social instincts . . . would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

Contradicting this theory are the beliefs of 19th-century philosopher Thomas Henry Huxley. De Waal noted that Huxley believed that humans are selfish and competitive, and human morality is nothing more than a facade. This “veneer theory,” as de Waal calls it, suggests human morality is a departure from nature and humans are essentially bad to the core.

Siding with Darwin, de Waal discounted this theory in his presentation just as he does in his latest book, “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved.” De Waal shared his belief that human morality grows from our genes and the traits that define morality — empathy, reciprocity, reconciliation and consolation — can be seen in many animals, most particularly in primates.

Beginning with empathy — the ability to identify with and understand another’s feelings or difficulties — de Waal explained how care for others most likely originates with parental care. However, this trait extends beyond parent-child relationships.

De Waal said empathy is an automatic response seen in human infants, dogs and apes. “It’s immediate, too fast to be under voluntary control. Seeing someone else in pain activates the same brain areas as if you were actually feeling pain yourself,” he said. Beyond empathy alone, great apes, for example, participate in a behavior called targeted helping, basing their reactions on insight and perspective of another’s situation.

De Waal cited an example of a female bonobo who attempted to help a small bird. “Kuni picked up the starling with one hand and climbed to the highest point of the highest tree where she wrapped her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide open, one wing in each hand. Having seen birds in flight many times, she seemed to have a notion of what would be good for a bird.”

Being in tune with others shows an understanding of the need for cooperation and reciprocity, an understanding that is critical for survival. Based on his extensive work with chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys, de Waal explained how these two species are among a select group of primates that share food. Both chimps and capuchins will work with other members of their groups to reach a common goal, even if there is no immediate reward.

Also important for animal as well as human survival are reconciliation and consolation activities. De Waal shared his observations of chimpanzees, stating that in order for them to preserve important relationships, they engage in friendly reunions after a conflict, similar to the way a married couple or good friends might reconcile after a conflict. Consolation, which de Waal defined as friendly contact and reassurance by an uninvolved third party after a conflict, is a behavior seen only in great apes and humans.

Human morality is a deep-seated, natural trait grown from the social nature that natural selection has produced, said de Waal.