Social species evolved morality long before humans

About fifteen years ago, I began reading books by primatologist Frans de Waal because I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences between humans and our closest animal relatives. de Waal’s article in today’s New York Times is well worth reading.

de Waal’s main argument is that morality evolved in our primate cousins long before humans existed. Our species inherited — and has enhanced, over millions of years — what our common primate ancestors (something like a modern chimp or bonobo) bequeathed us. If anything, our religions grew out of our innate sense of morality, not the other way around:

Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. …[Religion] is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.

…female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.

de Waal observes that we are naturally attracted to other mammals because they seem to feel for and behave toward their loved ones as we feel for and behave toward our loved ones:

A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity.

Elephants are one of my favorite animals because they care so deeply for one another and experience intense grief when their loved ones pass away.

de Waal also notes how little about humanity sets us apart from our fellow non-human animals:

humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don’t hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another’s point of view.

And he describes some very interesting human-like moral primate behaviors, including this one:

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

We called it inequity aversion, a topic since investigated in other animals, including dogs. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick. Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.

Many religious people fear atheists because they believe a world without God (or gods) would be an amoral or immoral world. This is absolutely false. Just as there are good and bad people in every country, so too there are good and bad people in every religion, and the same is true among atheists. Disbelief in supernatural gods is completely compatible with strongly held moral principles and practices. You need not be a Christian to embrace — or, at least strive to embrace — doing unto others as you would have done unto you.

Posted by James on Monday, October 18, 2010