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Moral Relatives

Frans de Waal makes a convincing case for the field of morality to be shared by science and philosophy.

by Brian Bruya

Good Natured You may have noticed hints of guilt or shame in your dog, of camaraderie in your birds, or of motherly love in your cat. Scientists have traditionally warned us against attributing such "human" traits to animals, preferring to identify them as instinctual. Since behaviorists--and, more recently, sociobiologists--first began erasing the line of morality separating humans and animals, renewed warnings of social Darwinism have been shouted from the rooftops.

A sociobiologist himself, Frans de Waal sets out to return morality to humanity, not by redrawing the line, but by demonstrating a continuum of morality from animals to humans. He claims that morality is intricately interwoven with other "human" traits such as cognition, self-consciousness, and concern for community. He actually identifies these three qualities as moral aspects of behavior and attempts to show that they--among other more complex traits--are unquestionably present in animal societies.

To support his claim, de Waal draws on numerous studies of human and animal behavior, including his own 20 years of intensive primate research, and the results are persuasive. Take, for example, Walnut the chimpanzee, alpha male at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center where de Waal works as a research scientist. When the colony was treated to an especially tasty kind of foliage, Walnut would dominate the supply but allow others to take portions away from him for their own consumption. Why would a dominant male share without compulsion?

In later studies, other chimps in the colony also exhibited sharing behavior, and the sharers turned out to be quite discriminatory; whether or not a begging chimp received food depended on whether the chimp had shared with the possessor previously--and if so, how much--and even whether the beggar had recently groomed the possessor. If this seems to smack of selfishness rather than generosity, one must realize that in many primate species, little or no sharing occurs.

This is just the point that de Waal tries to make: amog species, there are levels of altruism founded not simply on a Christ-like love for all, but on such things as sympathy, prescriptive rules, expectations, submission to authority, mediation, revenge, indignation, reconciliation, and persuasion. This tapestry of interconnected contingencies is the framework of our own morality, and viewing it in the mirror of animal societies only brings it into sharper focus.

So, is your dog moral? De Waal would say that there are aspects of human morality your dog may possess, and that as you go up the evolutionary chain (these distinctions may, in fact, define the chain), more of them become evident, culminating in humanity. He also cautions that the selfish gene proposed by Richard Dawkins in his aptly titled book The Selfish Gene is significant only on a different level of evolutionary theory, so that deliberation and volition are still firmly within the human realm. The upshot, however, is that many of our ethics-related tendencies may be informed by deeper impulses than we are ready to admit.

De Waal's writing is fresh, and his reasoning is intricate without being convoluted. He progresses from concept to concept with colorful examples from his scientific observations, relegating more obscure arguments and technical jargon to notes in the back of the book. When he concludes that it is time for the field of morality to be shared by science and philosophy, a philosopher must agree that it is the right thing to do.

Brian Bruya writes reviews and articles for Amazon.com.


Featured Titles

Good Natured : The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals by Frans De Waal
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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