Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
February 9, 2007
Reviewed by David L. Brooks
Frans de Waal’s latest book stems from the Tanner Lectures he gave at Princeton in 2003, edited and published with comments by a science writer and three philosophers, and with a response by de Waal. Of the many books on evolution and morality out there, this one frames the issues most clearly and is the one book I’d recommend to anyone who wants to get a handle on the subject.
The view of morality de Waal argues against is one which separates morality from nature. This view, which he labels the Veneer Theory, holds that morality is not something that comes from our evolved nature but is something we have created for ourselves: it comes from our reason, not our genes; it comes from our culture, not our nature. It thus separates us from our primate cousins, for whom, under this view, morality is not a possibility, and it separates us from our evolutionary history, for at some point reason and culture gave us the option to be moral, whereas before we were amoral animals like the rest.
Thus the veneer: “Human morality is presented as a thin crust underneath of which boil antisocial, amoral, and egoistic passions” expected of animals. Proponents of the Veneer Theory range from social contract theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Rawls, to evolutionists like T.H. Huxley, George C. Williams, and Richard Dawkins. That’s quite a line-up!
De Waal argues that this view of morality is false. He points out that “We come from a long lineage of hierarchical animals for which life in groups is not an option but a survival strategy”; and that “there never was a point at which we became social: descended from highly social ancestors—a long line of monkeys and apes—we have been group living for ever.”
Living in groups, being social animals, means that we are naturally moral animals, for we evolved to cooperate, to reciprocate altruism, to “show group loyalty and helping tendencies. These tendencies evolved in the context of a close-knit social life in which they benefited relatives and companions able to return the favor. The impulse to help was therefore never totally without survival value.” Social living depended upon “capacities for reciprocity and revenge, for enforcement of social rules, for the settlement of disputes, and for sympathy and empathy.” And for that, nature equipped our genes.
Thus, de Waal thinks, Veneer Theory gets both the origin and mechanism of morality wrong. Moral behavior is not grounded in culture but in genes. And it was not by reason that we arrived at morality; it was by emotion, especially by sympathy. “Emotions occupy a central role; it is well-known that, rather than being the antithesis of rationality, emotions aid human reasoning. … This is critical for moral choice, because if anything morality involves strong convictions. These convictions don’t—or rather can’t—come about through cool rationality; they require caring about others and powerful ‘gut feelings’ about right and wrong.”
Having laid the conceptual groundwork, de Walls seeks to show that Veneer Theory cannot be correct, and his view of morality is correct, by showing that chimpanzees, our closest primate cousins, behave morally. Here he draws upon decades of close observation of primates and spins many illuminating stories to show that they have “capacities for reciprocity and revenge, for enforcement of social rules, for the settlement of disputes, and for sympathy and empathy.”
De Waal concludes by pointing out that on his view morality it not always something positive and nice. “Morality likely evolved as a within-group phenomenon in conjunction with other typical within-group capacities, such as conflict resolution, cooperation, and sharing.” But this means that morality might not extend to outsiders or to outside groups, and by extension, “the profound irony is that our noblest achievement—morality—has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior—warfare. The sense of community require by the former was provided by the latter.” But this being said, “… we are not hypocritically fooling everyone when we act morally: we are making decisions that flow from social instincts older than our species, even though we add to these the uniquely human complexity of a disinterested concern for others and for society as a whole.”
The commentators attempt to defend reason as the source of morality, or to defend particular versions of Veneer Theory, and this forces de Waal, in his response, to deepen his argument. But he stands by his conclusion that “even if human morality represents a significant step forward, it hardly breaks with the past.”
While such a brief summation cannot do justice to de Waal’s argument, it seems to me that the dichotomy is drawn a little too boldly and the argument laid out a little too simply. And while in one sense a fault, it also allows the issues to be laid out clearly and to bring into bold relief the important points upon which future discussion will turn. I found the book enlightening and entertaining, and I think it makes a wonderful starting place from which to explore the tangled issues of evolution and morality. Highly recommended.
Primates and Philosophers is available from Amazon.com