Featured Charity: International Primate Rescue


International Primate Rescue (IPR) was originally known as the Marmoset Welfare Foundation (1996).  Founder Sue Mousley had studied behavioural problems and other disorders in captive or orphaned non-human primates since 1990.  IPR was born out of her interest and concern. The centre was first established in Polokwane, South Africa, but relocated to Pretoria in 2010.  Currently the centre cares for marmosets, tamarins, capuchins, macaques, squirrel monkeys, mona monkeys and grey mouse lemurs – animals that were either found homeless, or were ex-pets.  Unfortunately, some of these primates will never be able to survive in the wild.  IPR’s mission is:

“to relieve the suffering of unwanted primates and to provide the best possible standard of care at our sanctuary.  At IPR, we also strive to discourage, provide help, awareness and educate people that wish to, or already own a primate.  Our target is to develop a near wild experience for our primates and eventually make the facilities available to help any apes in need in the future.”

There is a serious need to expand the sanctuary to accommodate the growing number of primates that require care and rehabilitation.  The centre sponsors a programme for local and international volunteers.  For details, please see the IPR website:  www.iprescue.org

See also the IPR Facebook page:


PAM Theory: hard-wired empathy and the teachings of Mencius

I’ve begun to highlight, through reference to de Waal, different schools of thought when it comes to the development and existence of human morality.  Hobbes believed that humans were fundamentally asocial or even antisocial (deeply individualistic and selfish).  Some sociobiologists (along the lines of Dawkins) maintain a similar position and thus overemphasise or “overgeneralise from the established role of selfishness in the natural selection process.” (p. xii)  But human beings are the exception, from this perspective, in that they can defy their natural individualistic tendencies to develop moral goodness, which must involve thinking of others (and acting with others in mind).  Countering this position, de Waal stresses the fact that humans are social animals and as social animals, they possess an evolved sociality.  He believes that empathy must be present in order for morality to develop:

“People can reason and deliberate all they want, but as neuroscientists have found, if there are no emotions attached to the various options in front of them, they will never reach a decision or conviction.  Morality involves strong convictions.  These convictions do not come out of cool rationality but require caring about others and strong gut feelings about right and wrong. “(p. 18)

The theory of the perception action mechanism, or PAM (Preston and de Waal), seems to explain a biological basis for these strong feelings of empathy.  The theory posits the following:  if a subject and object are very similar, it is easier for the subject’s perception to activate motor and autonomic responses that match the object’s.  He goes on to explain:

“this activation allows the subject to get ‘under the skin’ of the object, sharing its feelings and needs, which embodiment in turn fosters sympathy, compassion and helping… This is not to say that higher cognitive levels of empathy are irrelevant, but they are built on top of this firm, hardwired basis without which we would be at a loss about what moves others.”  (p. 37, 39-40)

It is interesting that de Waal refers to Mencius after he introduces PAM theory; he thinks that Mencius got it right in pointing to the human impulse towards empathy.  I studied Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism at the start of my PhD, as I was thinking of researching China for my case study regions (but in the end, I decided on regions in Brazil and Mexico).  I did find significant resonance between Mencius’ philosophy and the philosophy I was trying to develop to guide certain conservation efforts.  Mencius’ Intuitive School had at its foundation the belief that human beings were fundamentally good at heart, sharing similar “intuitions” that would lead to compassionate acts; this was definitely not a Hobbesian view.  So, compassion or “human-heartedness” (jen) made human beings what they were (was a common characteristic among them), although this compassion could be warped (diminished, repressed) in individuals due to environmental factors (nurture and life experiences).  The “good life” for Mencius, then, had to involve cultivating this compassion, in order to be fully, or “successfully”, human (rather than opposing our nature).

There is, as already presented in several of my other blog posts, evidence that other apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos show empathy, apparent through observed (time and again) helping behaviour and consolation, along with reciprocal altruism and a sense of fairness.  These characteristics have been catalogued in other species such as capuchins, elephants and some cetaceans; new observations of marmosets may reveal consolation at the very least.  Here, de Waal confronts the challenge put forth by psychologists such as Guldberg:  “Psychologists look at the world through different eyes than biologists, putting human advanced traits on a pedestal and ignoring simpler antecedents.” (p. 23)   He goes on to note that psychologists may embrace the notion of saltatory change.  This is certainly true of Guldberg, who promotes human exceptionalism and proposes mutation as the means by which human beings came to possess moral goodness.  But de Waal makes a strong case for the evolution of morality in Primates and Philosophers; the foundations of morality can be seen in the empathic interactions of other social animals, particularly apparent (in more complex form) in the great apes most closely related to humans.

Featured Charity: the Mona Foundation


The Mona Foundation promotes primate welfare through a centre and  natural reserve located near Girona, Spain. Established in 2000 by Olga Felin, Amparo Barba and Manuel Manana – with Olga Felin as president – the centre aims to rescue, rehabilitate and protect primates.

The illegal pet trade in chimpanzees has, over the years, provided the animals for circuses and for tourist attractions as well as other profit-making exploitation in Spain. The Mona research unit focuses on ethology and primatology, with the collaboration of recognised psychologists, anthropologists, biologists and veterinarians. Educational workshops and tours aim to raise public awareness – especially among young people – to respect primates and the natural habitats in which the animals are found.

For further information see:   http://www.fundacionmona.org

Primates and Philosophers

De Waal clearly sets out his position regarding morality in the volume, Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved (2009).   The position he presents is not one of moral relativism, as he believes that human beings have evolved with a sense of moral goodness (based on empathy, a sense of fairness, reciprocity).  Consideration of others, the hallmark of moral goodness, makes sense in evolutionary terms for species that live in social groups.  In the book’s introduction, de Waal gives the example of solitary confinement and how abhorrent it is to any human being, and this reaction reveals our deeply social nature; I would add to this example, however, that solitary confinement (such incarceration) involves more than a lack of human contact, but also the denial of freedom of movement and interaction with the wider world in its entirety (all stimulation).  Minor point, and I do completely support de Waal’s premise.

De Waal begins to build a case against sociobiologists like Dawkins who follow on from Descartes and Huxley with a dualistic view of human nature and human morality (again, this is what de Waal calls veneer theory).  Dawkins has made the following assertion:  “in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don’t want to live in a Darwinian world”.  (p. 9)   So all other animals are slaves to their genetics and act only in competitive and individualistic ways (selfishness ultimately underlies all action and “nature” is red in tooth and claw), but human beings can somehow cast off  (or reign in) their Hobbesian nature by choice and act with moral goodness.  De Waal challenges this view as non-evolutionary, and a “misreading” of Darwin.  I would definitely agree, and in my thesis I forefronted examples in The Origin of Species in which Darwin describes a different character and relationality apparent in other animals while also plotting continuity with humans (my aim was to off-set the mainstream over-emphasis on competitive individualism, derived from Darwin’s work); de Waal notes that Russian biologists argued against Huxley’s views, based on their experiences of  seeing animals struggling more against their environments than against each other.  You could go so far as to say that use of the word “competition” is actually an  example of anthropomorphising (in a bad way), as other animals  surely do not act with knowledge that they are “competing” (and certainly genes are not actually “selfish” since they don’t have intentionality!).

Darwin did describe competition (competitive individualism/relationality) through use of the metaphor, “the struggle for life”, but he qualified “struggle” in order to set up the term’s metaphorical nature, so that struggle for existence “includ[ed] dependence of one being on another, and… (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny.” (1859 [1968,1985], p. 116)  Darwin provided numerous examples of dependence and interrelation throughout The Origin of Species.   He explained that it would be more accurate to say that “a plant on the edge of the desert” depends on moisture rather than “struggles for life against drought.” (Ibid) He described the dependence of the “missletoe…on the apple tree and few other trees” (which can “only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees”). (Ibid)  Darwin displayed ecological sensibilities time and again as he detailed the “checks and relations between organic beings, which have to struggle together in the same country.” (Ibid, p. 123)  Frequently in his writings, Darwin abandoned a terminology of struggle in the combative sense, which could have been employed, for a more subtle vocabulary based on dependence.  In fact, the above examples are gleaned from the Origin chapter entitled “Struggle for Existence”; such examples should dampen tendencies to take the metaphor too literally (other examples include plants dependent on moths or bees for pollination, parasites dependent on prey (Ibid, pp. 125, 126)).  Within the metaphor, we do see a language of dependency and interdependency; so we can ask, what do particular organisms depend upon, rather than, what do they struggle against.   Kropotkin’s ideas in Mutual Aid (1902) seem to align with this perspectiveMany of these are inter-species examples but Darwin also, and most importantly in the context of morality discussions, provided evidence of dependence, cooperation and emotional connection amongst social animals (within their social group), as mentioned in more detail in a previous blog post.  De Waal states, insightfully (a favourite quote!):

“It is fine to describe animals (and humans) as the product of evolutionary forces that promote self interests so long as one realizes that this by no means precludes the evolution of altruistic and sympathetic tendencies…Darwin firmly believed his theory capable of accommodating the origins of morality and did not see any conflict between the harshness of the evolutionary process and the gentleness of some of its products. “ (p. 14)

I would love to continue, but I’ll save further discussion of de Waal’s book for the next blog post!


Featured Charity: Orangutan Outreach



Orangutan Outreach is a New York-based, non-profit organization created in 2007 by philanthropist Richard Zimmerman.  Zimmerman’s love of orangutans grew as he volunteered for various UK-based orangutan conservation organizations and especially when he visited Indonesia to see wild orangutans.  His discovery that scores of orphaned orangutans were being cared for in sanctuaries due to poaching and habitat loss, prompted his creation of Orangutan Outreach.  The organisation’s stated mission is:

“To protect orangutans in their native habitat while providing care for orphaned and displaced orangutans until they can be returned to their natural environment. We seek to raise funds and promote public awareness of orangutan conservation issues by collaborating with partner organizations around the world.”

Numerous Orangutan Outreach projects underway involve partnerships with other organizations such as the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS, the largest orangutan sanctuary in the world) which rescues, rehabilitates and then releases orangutans back into the wild, International Animal Rescue (IAR), working with orangutans in West Kalimantan and Indonesian Borneo, the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), a determined group of Indonesian nationals aiming to end orangutan poaching and smuggling, and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), one of the most recent orangutan sanctuary projects.

Visit the Orangutan Outreach website for more information on the charity and its projects:



See also the Facebook page:




Arguments for morality as uniquely human…

I should not only review the perspectives of proponents of a wider, or deeper, view of morality.  We must also consider the arguments set out by critics of such assertions, so that we can have a balanced understanding and know the detracting arguments in order to counter them if we think they are wrong.

Psychologists and historians alike have presented arguments against a position that sees the existence of a “rudimentary” morality in nonhuman primates (and perhaps in other species).  For example, psychologist Helene Guldberg promotes the notion that only humans “have” morality.  (Psychology Today, 2011)  While she is not directly addressing de Waal, she is critiquing similar views expressed by Dale Peterson in his book, The Moral Lives of Animals. Peterson’s background as a writer may make readers more sceptical of the  conclusions he reaches in his book (mainly through anecdote) than they would be if he had been a  scientist (a primatologist or ethologist), but he has collaborated with Jane Goodall on other works and this gives him credibility.  Guldberg should have referenced de Waal in the same breadth (to be fair), as de Waal advances an argument for a wider morality based on years of observation of primates and experimental evidence.  Guldberg’s position consists of the following assertions:

  • The argument for morality in other animals simplifies to the point of meaninglessness ideas of empathy and reciprocity (to argue for similarities, when in fact the differences in the details prove that morality is only found in humans)
  • Animals act on instinct – emotional contagion is an example of this, and not anything more (there is no theory of mind here)
  • Human beings engage in collective cognition (collective knowledge of humanity), so that we have escaped evolutionary constraints, or the constraints of our biology.  Thus the difference between humans and other animals is one of kind and not one of degree – she states the following:  “there must have been some gene mutation or set of mutations tens of thousands of years ago that endowed us with the unique ability to participate in a collective cognition.”

First we should locate Guldberg’s article on morality within the body of her work, to understand her biases.  She is an unapologetic proponent of animal experimentation and her views are deeply anthropocentric (not that any of us can escape a human-centred view, but hers is definitely based on human exceptionalism and hierarchy, with humans on top).  Physiological similarities are certainly accepted by scientists experimenting on animals, animals that are quite far from humans in evolutionary terms.  Mitchell engages with the idea of anthropomorphism and makes this statement, which has relevance here:  “Humans and mice are pretty different – and yet we are comfortable using the results of drug tests on mice to infer the consequences of those drugs on our biochemistry.” (p. 7, Mitchell, 2001) So why not acknowledge mental and emotional continuity, especially with other apes?  In her online article, “Animals are useless unless humans make use of them”, Guldberg makes specious assertions about culture being solely human, when ethologists and anthrozoologists have clearly discovered culture in other animals (although Guldberg would probably argue that what is seen is too simple to class as culture – but the key is in transmission of behaviours through learning within social groups over generations, which is definitely occurring, for example  resulting in traditions of tool use); Here we should remind ourselves of what de Waal and Ferrari have said about products versus the underlying processes:

“Outcomes are important from an evolutionary perspective in that they determine an organism’s success at dealing with its environment, but from a cognitive perspective they are mere surface phenomena. Unique outcomes do not always reflect unique processes. Even if humans produce cathedrals and symphonies, the underlying processes include social learning, tool use, musical appreciation, a sense of rhythm, and large-scale synchronization and cooperation, all of which we share with other animals.” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 202)

Guldberg has not engaged (in either article) with the arguments put forth by primatologists, where she could have countered claims about evidenced similarities with solid evidence from her side (if she has it –  her argument appears to rest on opinion more than anything). (see http://www.heleneguldberg.co.uk/index.php/site/archives/C15/)  She must uphold the notion that animals are less valuable than humans (and less like humans than claimed by Peterson, etc) to justify continued experimentation on animals.  At the same time, I should add that her book, Just Another Ape (2010), is meant to be a comprehensive rebuttal to primatologists like de Waal.

Now we can return to Guldberg’s points above and begin to pick them apart, but remembering that I come at the issue(s) from an evolutionary ecology perspective (and one that promotes “a feeling for the organism”). The first point, that Peterson’s argument for nonhuman morality simplifies to a distorting degree, can be countered – de Waal and others are attempting to expose the biological roots  or foundations of morality, the basis upon which it has developed in complex fashion in human beings and their societies (again see the above de Waal and Ferrari quote).  De Waal at no point brushes aside human uniqueness, any more than he brushes aside chimpanzee uniqueness (or even the uniqueness of individuals within each species).  He merely points to fundamental similarities that he has identified after decades of study and observation of primates (which Guldberg has not had as part of her experience).  If one has had any close exposure to animals (let’s focus on certain birds and mammals), one can see that they are not mere automatons, acting on instinct alone (seems almost absurd to state this).  They make choices, innovate, show fear or other emotions based on experience – consider the intelligence of corvids to solve problems, as well as chimpanzees and other (nonhuman) apes and monkeys (capuchins, for instance) – examples in scientific literature abound (see the Journal of Animal Cognition). Consider also the domestic dog and cat – if you have lived with either, you have surely seen behaviour that is not just automatic, and you have experienced a connection with these animals that involves human and animal emotions (a two-way exchange).   If there are so many anecdotes, even outside of more controlled experimental research, how can we deny the agency of these nonhuman beings?  In terms of humans engaging in collective cognition, or the development of cultures, we cannot rule out the existence of culture in other animal communities, as already noted – it has been evidenced (see Goodall, de Waal, etc, on tool use by chimps, some monkeys and corvids, as well as cultural transmission in elephants).  Again, we must return to the idea that differences are in degree not kind, and this is not to deny that humans have an ability to create elaborate cultures like no other animal.  This also leads into counter to the final point made by Guldberg, who speaks from outwith an evolutionary perspective (and how can one speak with legitimacy from such a place?).   Are human beings the result of mutations that separate us in kind from other animals?  It’s unlikely, considering current evidence regarding the evolutionary process.    I would highlight de Waal and Ferrari again:

“Some have gone so far as to label the fascination with uniquely human capacities as non-evolutionary, together with a warning against ‘hopeful monsters’, that is, the belief that a brief evolutionary time interval could have produced a well integrated set of novel capacities [21].” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 202)

And have we escaped the constraints of our biology?  De Waal and others presenting a similar view to Peterson on morality and shared characteristics between humans and other apes do not preach the biological determinism that Guldberg seems to fear and rail against.  They do recognise a biological inheritance, which provided individuals with a range of behavioural possibilities and certain behaviours have suited us and other social animals better when living in groups – individuals with the ability to express empathy and act reciprocally avoid (or provoke less) conflict in group situations.  We are to some degree constrained by our biology, in the sense that we have a certain physical form and physiology as human beings, and other animals have their own unique forms, etc.  Surely we are still a part of the evolutionary process and have significant impact on this process when it comes to other animals.

A potentially more legitimate argument countering morality claims relating to nonhumans  is voiced by Peter Boomgaard, from within the field of environmental history, presented in the Current Anthropology book review article, “Perspectives on de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved”. (2008)  Boomgaard considers evidence that a historian would require in order to substantiate de Waal’s claim(s).  He makes the following points:

  • Humans branched off from a common ancestor (shared by chimps and bonobos) 5.5 million years ago – it would be impossible to gather evidence regarding the behaviour(s) of the common ancestor.
  • During that 5.5 million years, humans and our nearest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, surely have evolved

The next few blog posts will consider the argument for the existence of a rudimentary morality in other primates (etc) more closely, while also returning to Boomgaard’s critique and the arguments of other critics of morality claims like de Waal’s.