De Waal emphasizes role of evolution
Can humans be moral without religion?
Is morality a gift from God bestowed only upon humans, or is it also found in other animals, and can it be explained by natural selection?
Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal says his and others' studies support Charles Darwin's theory that morality is a product of evolution. De Waal spoke in a packed law school auditorium Monday as part of the biology department's A.C. Moore Lecture series.
De Waal — author of "Age of Empathy," "Primates and Philosophers," and other works — showed examples of empathy in chimpanzees and other intelligent animals to convey that humanity's altruism is an evolutionary trait.
"I would never argue that a chimpanzee is a moral being like we are moral beings, but it is easy to see human morality would never evolve without this," de Waal said.
The opposing school of thought — that morality is a man-made "veneer" that couldn't have been created by the cruel reproduce-or-go-extinct process of natural selection — is common even among Darwin's greatest proponents.
Thomas Huxley, a 19th century English biologist who so vigorously advocated evolution he became known as "Darwin's Bulldog," believed morality was uniquely human. Even famous atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins wrote that "we, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators," suggesting that human genes aren't programmed for morality but only for self-replication through reproduction.
De Waal used examples from nature — many humorous — to show the opposite: that morality is an evolved trait commonly found in nature. For example, chimpanzees kiss each other after fighting as a form of reconciliation.
De Waal showed how the infamously sexual bonobos reconcile ... differently.
Chimpanzees compress their lips to make a distinct reconciliation face. He showed the same face on several politicians, including former president Bill Clinton and former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
De Waal posited that morality evolved from the need for mothers to care for their offspring, a possible explanation for women's increased level of empathy relative to men.
"Females need to be exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of their offspring," de Waal said.
Even mice, which are much less intelligent than apes, show empathy. A study showed that if pain is inflicted on a succession of mice, the last mouse will feel more pain than the first.
"It becomes more sensitive," de Waal said.
But de Waal said for more complex forms of morality, such as targeted helping, a sense of fairness and self-sacrifice, an animal must have a sense of self-identity. Self-identity is determined by whether an animal can recognize itself in a mirror, a feat only accomplished by chimpanzees, dolphins and, as de Waal's studies show, elephants.
He showed a video of a herd of elephants becoming emotionally upset by a calf drowning in mud and the animals working intelligently together to save it. De Waal's studies also showed that, given the choice, a chimp prefers to provide food for itself and another rather than just itself.
Even monkeys hold a sense of fairness. When two are given cucumber slices, they are equally unhappy, but when one is given a delicious grape, the other throws the cucumber back. Chimps are even more complex; one stopped accepting grapes until its partner was also given them.
As one student pointed out at the end of de Waal's lecture, some consider morality separate from mere empathy in that morals are universal laws. De Waal said he doubted the existence of any flawless universal morality and thought morals were more accurately the day-to-day decisions we make in dealing with others.
"Religion comes after morality," de Waal said. "If you look at the current religions, they are 2,000, 4,000 years old. That's very brief, and I think humans were probably moral beings like 100,000 or half a million years [ago]. I cannot imagine our ancestors lived in small societies where they didn't care about fairness, where they didn't care about empathy."