Chimps: So Unlike Us

3 comments March 21st, 2007at 11:24am Posted by Eli

Fascinating story in yesterday’s NYT Science Times about primate morality:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.


Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book “Moral Minds” that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language. In another recent book, “Primates and Philosophers,” the primatologist Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes.

Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.

Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.

Dr. de Waal’s views are based on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He noticed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser….He found that consolation was universal among the great apes…. To console another, Dr. de Waal argues, requires empathy and a level of self-awareness that only apes and humans seem to possess. And consideration of empathy quickly led him to explore the conditions for morality.


Social living requires empathy, which is especially evident in chimpanzees, as well as ways of bringing internal hostilities to an end. Every species of ape and monkey has its own protocol for reconciliation after fights, Dr. de Waal has found. If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands.

Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.

There’s rather a lot of intriguing philosophical discussion about the nature of morality, and whether other primates truly possess it. One of the things the story reminds me of is the human tendency to utterly dismiss animals’ capacity for emotion, which makes it easier for us to treat them as, well, animals, and not worthy of any special consideration. So we can neglect, mistreat, torture, and slaughter them as much as we like, and it’s okay because they don’t have the sensitivities to feel things like we do. I personally think this is self-serving bullshit. I can go along with the idea that most animals don’t have morality as we know it, but I think their capacity for emotion, empathy, and altruism is considerably (and deliberately) underrated.

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science


  • 1. charley  |  March 21st, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    Vital Dust by Christian Duval discusses the evolution, well, of everything.

    the end of the book deals with the complexity of the human brain. how and why it may have evolved.

    then there is some discussion about alien life forms. some scientists arguing yes, and some arguing no. the best was the guy who said he didn’t know, but considering how we treat what we consider inferior species on our own planet he sure as hell hoped the answer was no, and if yes, may they never find there way to this lot of dumb brutes. ok, i editorialized that last part.

  • 2. Eli  |  March 21st, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Well, it does raise an interesting question: is our short-sighted destructive assholishness a necessary condition of our intelligence and self-awareness, or is it an aberration?

    Is it reasonable to expect that a peaceful, cooperative, and empathetic species could develop intelligence without becoming aggressive and destructive?

    It’s possible that the problem is civilization and technology. Low-tech peoples rely on nature; high-tech peoples try to enslave or defeat nature – it’s a much more adversarial relationship. To some extent, this is inevitable, as population pressures and machinery require lots power and resources to manufacture and operate. And the uneven distribution of those resources and the need for them is one of the drivers for war and territoriality.

    It may not be a given that an intelligent species must be in conflict with itself, if it’s sufficiently homogeneous and/or cooperative. But if its civilizational and technological ambitions outstrip its planet’s carrying capacity (which is likely), conflict with nature is inevitable unless their technology is so advanced as to be able to minimize its own effects.

  • 3. charley  |  March 21st, 2007 at 8:41 pm

    i think nature is just brutal. i’m sort of cynical.

    in the words of my favorite spiritualist “success implies brutality” j. krisnamurti.

    i will say i’m not a big fan of SETI.

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