Monday, March 26, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

A recent article in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade (“Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior”, March, 20, 2007) explores recent scientific studies on the origins of the human moral sense in the evolutionary history of our order (the primates) and has led some biologists to the conclusion that “if morality grew out of the behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.” This opens a very interesting can of worms.

First, let me say that, from a materialist, especially a Marxist, perspective “morality,” or morally worthy behavior (MWB) didn’t just fall from the sky. MWB should be capable of being investigated in terms of the history of its development through time and in terms related to our historical evolution as a species.

Second, if MWB can be described in other species, and especially in species with whom we share an evolutionary history, it would seem to indicate there is a natural, biological basis, for human MWB And we should be reminded that it was the first biologist, as well as being a great philosopher (I mean Aristotle), who told us that, “He who considers things in their first growth and origin ... will obtain the clearest view of them (1252a25).

There is at present a turf war going on between some evolutionary biologists and some philosophers as to which of them should control the domain of explanation with respect to the realm of MWB. This is a totally fruitless dispute as the two sides are arguing at cross purposes.

Wade’s article is an extended discussion of the work of the evolutionary biologist Frans de Waal who, in his book “Primates and Philosophers”, “defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes.” Since there is a qualitative difference between describing what social behavior IS and what it SHOULD be, the disagreement between some philosophers ( idealists and a few mechanical materialists) and biologists such as de Waal is not a real disagreement at all, only a confusion between the origins of MWB and what actually constitutes MWB today.

Lets see what de Waal’s research has discovered. He has spent his career studying primates and is now at Emory University. He discovered that “consolation was universal among the great apes but generally absent from monkeys.” Chimpanzees, for example, when they see one chimp get beaten up by another, go over and console the defeated chimp. Also: “Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others.”

This looks like pretty good evidence for “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” in apes-- all of which are examples of MWB when found in humans. De Waal concluded, according to Wade, this behavior “requires a level of self-awareness [and other-awareness I hasten to add-- tr] that only apes and humans seem to possess.” I should remark here that there is evidence of such behavior in other primates as well as non primates (rhesus monkeys and elephants to name two).

De Waal has discovered in primates four behavioral motifs that are, in fact, the basis of human social life and the moral systems that sustain this life. It seems to be empirically undeniable that human social life and the moral systems therefrom derived are evolutionarily descended from pre-human primate ancestors. The four motifs are 1) empathy, 2) the ability to live by social rules, 3)reciprocity and 4) peacemaking [chimpanzees use stones as weapons and females "will head off a fight by taking stones out of the male's hands"].

The scientific evidence indicates that as humans evolved away from the common ancestor shared with the chimpanzees we first developed moral codes and then religion. There is no evidence of religious behavior found in non-human primates.

"I look at religions as recent additions," de Waal is quoted as saying, "Their function may have to do with social life. and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do."

De Waal thinks MWB evolved within primitive pre-human primate groups as a method of internal group solidarity against other groups. "The profound irony is," he wrote, "that our noblest achievement--- morality--- has evolutionary tires to our basest behavior --- warfare. The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter."

I think we can delink the origins of MWB and warfare. De Waal may be reading back into primitive times modern notions. His own research indicates that primates "lower" than apes have some moral conceptions and a sense of fairness. The Times article reports that rhesus monkeys will refuse to pull a chain that gives them food once they realize that it also causes another monkey to get an electric shock. The article also says that "Capuchin monkeys show their displeasure if given a smaller reward than a partner receives for performing the same task, like a piece of cucumber instead of a grape."

The above indicates to me that MWB evolved out of a sense of fairness. Warfare has a much more complicated origin and I don't think it can properly be said to exist in primates below the level of Homo. If it is traced back to territoriality, then its origins predate MWB by millions of years and is found throughout the animal kingdom.

The main point is that MWB can be traced back to pre-human origins. Some philosophers have no problem with this others do. The argument revolves around the function of reason versus emotion in ethical decision making, and here confusion reigns.

"Human behavior derives above all," de Waal maintains, "from fast automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes." This does not apply to rationally derived systems of ethics. Anyone who thinks Kant's "Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals" or "Critique of Practical Reason" were written as the result of automated emotional judgments had better reconsider their position.

Human self-consciousness and reason has a feedback relationship with our emotional judgments and while many people, even most people, may very well act in the way described by de Waal it is not always necessarily so. People have the ability to reflect on their behavior, reason about it, and change their behaviors accordingly. Reasoning is not always after the fact as de Waal suggests.

Sharon Street, an NYU philosopher, makes just this point when she was quoted in the article. "You can identify some value we hold," she said, "and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it. That's not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant too."

De Waal, I think misses Sharon Street's point when he make the following rejoinder. "I'm not sure how realistic the [is-ought] distinction is. Animals do have 'oughts.' If a juvenile is in a fight, the mother must [!] get up and defend her. Or in food sharing, animals do put pressure on each other, which is the first kind of 'ought' situation." I don't think this is right. A scientist can say as a matter of fact a mother will (most probably) defend a juvenile but where is the warrant for saying she "must" do that. The point is that moral statements regarding MWB entail value judgements and have greater reference than do descriptive statements of empirically observed behavior.

It is definitely correct to search out the biologically and evolutionary orgins of human behavior, but it is not the job of the biologists to tell us which behaviors we should strengthen, which we should try and modify or overcome , or what new behaviors we should adopt even if there are no evolutionary precedents. David Hume was right in saying you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is."

A final speculation. Since a sense of fairness seems to be at the basis of morality, and capitalism is based on the exploitation of human labor power by a parasitical nonproductive class of unfair exploiters, it would seem to be the case that our natural human evolutionary goal would be to live under a socialist system based on fairness and nonexploitation. So, less talk about the "God gene" and more scientific research to find the "Marxism gene."

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor for Political Affairs magazine and can be reached at

1 comment:

FSJL said...

The more it is shown that those behaviours and practices which we consider human are not unique to our species, the better we will understand what our actual place in the ecosystem is, and the more likely it is that we will begin to lose the arrogance that has been one of our species greatest banes. This, of course, will upset the fundies something awful.