International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved

by Frans de Waal

edited by Stephen Macedo , Josiah Ober

Introductory Essay by Anne Kull

This book includes the Tanner Lectures on Human Values by ethologist/biologist Frans de Waal, and responses by science writer Robert Wright and philosophers Peter Singer, Philip Kitcher, and Christine Korsgaard. The entire debate is excellently and fairly introduced by Stephen Macedo and Josiah Ober, and ends with de Waal’s response to his interlocutors.

Primates and Philosophers is not a comprehensive analysis of the origins of morality but focuses instead on one aspect of the subject – whether human morality goes deep into our evolutionary past or is a new arrival, a thin cultural veneer or overlay on our amoral or even immoral nature. The answer depends on how morality is defined. If moral behavior falls under the definition of morality, it seems clear that other primates such as chimps share at least rudimentary moral behavior. But if morality is defined as abstract thinking about right and wrong and living by universal principles derived abstractly, then morality’s origins must be pretty recent in humans' evolutionary past.

De Waal suggests that Veneer Theory has been quite widely held, starting with Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Henry Huxley. De Waal claims that such an approach does not explain human goodness but, rather,, mystifies its sources. He does not deny that human behavioral goodness is more fully developed than nonhuman behavioral goodness, yet he insists that the building blocks of human morality are emotional responses, observable also among other social animals. While speech and self-conscious employment of reason characterize only humans, even in the case of humans, arguably, a good part of moral action does not reach the level of rational reasoning.

Because de Waal believes that Helping and (not) Hurting is the true subject of morality, he locates the pre-human roots of morality in empathy and sympathy, and in emotional contagion, which is commonly observed in many species. Our pro-social instincts are older than our species. Thus, he is siding rather with David Hume and Adam Smith, and against Kant, who finds the roots of morality in Reason. No doubt, apes have a capacity for sympathy, and sympathy is also an outstanding part of human morality. If morality is based on the instinctive, pre-rational parts of our nature, the positive side is that morality is not something that comes somehow from outside, but is rooted in our very nature. The other side, however, is somewhat more disturbing: “the double standard” in favor of men in case of marital infidelity, and “us” versus “them” aggression seem to receive biological “blessing”. Peter Singer in his response adds, “Unlike the other social mammals, we can reflect on our emotional responses, and choose to reject them” [149].

The book itself is a fine example of our social nature. While the reader is invited to make his or her own choices, this conversational book by different thinkers is a rich addition to the discussion on morality. Theologians and philosophers especially should be attentive to arguments that include the evolutionary basis of human morality.