Is Morality Uniquely Human? De Waal’s Primate Studies

In the late 1970’s, Stephen Jay Gould challenged Richard Dawkins’ accounts of human and animal behaviour by presenting what could be considered a more nuanced perspective, which reflected evolutionary continuity and the range of potential behaviours that can be expressed by humans, and equally by other animals.  Gould explained that, “violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological because they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors.  But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological—and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.”  (Gould 1977, p. 257)  He refuted the idea that our “nature” was merely violent and competitive so that we had by necessity developed societal rules to keep such natural urges in check (a Hobbesian view of human and other natures).  Frans de Waal has also focussed on this complexity, particularly in the case of nonhuman primates, conducting research that seems to substantiate Gould’s earlier claims.  De Waal highlights the fact that morality has been seen, historically, as the antithesis of human nature (1996, p. 2); at the same time, it has been considered solely a human product/endeavour (“veneer theory”).  If one takes an evolutionary perspective, however, one cannot deny continuity, and de Waal notes that “we are facing 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” (Ibid, p. 3)

It has been perfectly reasonable for scientists to portray nonhuman animals as competitive and violent (seemingly in step with evolutionary theory), but not as reasonable – anthropomorphising – to consider those same animals capable of expressing emotions that could be considered the building blocks of morality (or that they exhibit the beginnings of morality), feelings of empathy for fellow beings (usually within their social group), expressed through reciprocity, altruistic acts, caring acts, self-sacrifice, etc (particularly evident in social animals, and this will be explored in a future blog post).  De Waal relates Barbara Smuts struggle to accurately describe the relationships she observed in baboon troops; Smuts was discouraged from describing intimate relationships between male and female baboons as “friendships”, but she could describe the competitive relationships across ranks as “rivalries”. (Ibid, p. 19)   And in his own research on chimpanzee behaviour, de Waal has felt constrained to a particular vocabulary, which excludes words like “reconciliation”, etc.  De Waal makes the following point: “Semantic distinctions between (other) animal and human behaviour often obscure fundamental similarities; a discussion of morality will be pointless if we allow our language to be distorted by a denial of benign motives and emotions in animals”. (Ibid) Use of language is everything here, capturing characteristics and relationships in a way that is more true than not or distorting them as a result of a bias towards the human (to preserve the perception that humans are the only animal that can be good, moral).


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