Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal

Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

Morality is a human concept devoid of cosmic origin.

All of our notions of morality are predicated on the fact that human beings are mortal social organisms living in a world of finite resources. If there were only one immortal and indestructible being living in a land of unlimited resources, and none of her actions or decisions could negatively impact herself or others, she would require no rules. But human beings are not the only animals which require social conventions in order to ensure social cohesion. Thus, the laws and cultures we have developed are a “direct outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals” (6).

Human beings have developed elaborate rules and rituals in order to function as members of a group. This makes sense because “Evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (13).

Despite the obvious fact that human beings are hardly the only social organisms, biologists have been extremely stingy about acknowledging the possibility that other species are capable of making conscious moral decisions. Scientists with the temerity to suggest that even the most mentally developed non-humans such as primates, dolphins and elephants might be more than simple automatons are often accused of lacking objectivity due to their alleged sin of anthropomorphizing their subjects.

Enter Frans de Waal, the eloquent and outspoken primatologist who argues that morality is not the sole domain of human beings. He makes a convincing case that the same factors which have allowed human beings to develop ethical thinking exist in the higher primates. De Waal argues that continuity is the norm between evolving species in all manner of development, physical, emotional and moral. Therefore, the burden of proof should rest with those who argue that human beings are radically different from even our closest cousins when it comes to behavior and decision-making: “If we normally do not propose different causes for the same behavior in, say, dogs and wolves, why should we do so for humans and chimpanzees?” he asks (62).

In Primates and Philosophers (some brief essays from de Waal along with commentary from Josiah Ober, Stephen Macedo, Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher and Peter Singer) de Waal blames the “behaviorists” (a group for whom he harbors unconcealed contempt) for the widespread antipathy to biologists who credit animals with anthropomorphic tendencies:

“The behaviorists’ opposition to anthropomorphism probably came about because no sane person would take seriously their claim that internal mental operations in OUR species are a figment of the imagination” (66).

Decades of close observation have convinced de Waal that certain higher primates possess all the prerequisites necessary to act upon ethical precepts. Despite being at odds with a substantial proportion of the scientific community, de Waal has an influential ally in his belief that humans possess “continuity with animals even in the moral domain”—Charles Darwin (14). Unlike many “Darwinists,” Darwin argued that:

Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man (14).

If, as the Apostle Paul wrote, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, then humans are not the only beings capable of such devotion. Famed primatologist Dame Jane Goodall believes that, on occasion, chimpanzees will deliberately risk their lives to save a member of their species. Although they cannot swim, Goodall has often observed them making

“heroic efforts to save companions from drowning–and [they] were sometimes successful. One adult male lost his life as he tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother had allowed it to fall in the water” (33).

De Waal notes that “it is hard to accept as coincidental that scientists who have watched these animals [he’s including dolphins and elephants along with the certain primates] for any length of time have numerous such stories” to tell (33).

De Waal believes that in addition to possessing altruism, some primates have developed a concept of fairness. In a groundbreaking study capuchin monkeys would eventually reject a treat when another capuchin within view was given a preferable reward for performing the identical task. (See Brosnan and de Waal, 44-49)

It is clear that human beings are not the only creatures on earth which demonstrate highly complex mental states (and perhaps even in some cases, a Theory of Mind, 69-73). For example, de Waal is convinced that chimpanzees in captivity like to have a good laugh by playing practical jokes on their human masters:

Often, when human visitors walk up to the chimpanzees at the Yerkes Field Station, an adult female named Georgia hurries to the spigot to collect a mouthful of water before they arrive. She then casually mingles with the rest of the colony behind the mesh fence of their outdoor compound, and not even the best observer will notice anything unusual about her. If necessary, Georgia will wait ten minutes with closed lips until the visitors come near. Then there will be shrieks, laughs, jumps, and sometimes falls, when she suddenly sprays them. (59)

It is difficult to disagree with de Waal’s conclusion regarding the question of whether or not anthropomorphizing certain animals is a “dangerous” tendency for biologists:

There is a symmetry between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial, and since each has its strengths and weaknesses, there is no simple answer. But from an evolutionary perspective, Georgia’s mischief is most parsimoniously explained in the same way we explain our own behavior–as the result of a complex, and familiar, inner life (67).

by Richard W. Bray

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2 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers”

  1. An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers […]

  2. Angry Atheist Syndrome | Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] beings (and at least some of our poop-flinging primate cousins) are hardwired by evolution to seek fairness and equity. So a big part of the human […]

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