Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bob Holmes - Tracing the Roots of Human Morality in Animals

Over at New Scientist, Bob Holmes recently (well, okay, in May) reviewed new books from Frans de Waal and Barbara King on morality in animals and on how animals grieve. While Holmes enjoyed de Waal's scientific approach to understanding how morality develops in animals (especially primates), he much less keen on King's anecdotal account of greiving in animals.

The books under review are The Bonobo and the Atheist: In search of humanism among the primates by Frans de Waal and How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King.

Tracing the roots of human morality in animals

21 May 2013 by Bob Holmes
Magazine issue 2917

The Bonobo and the Atheist and How Animals Grieve show that we must be careful when studying animals to learn about the origins of human traits and behaviours

Bonobos are more likely than chimps to have concern for each other 
(Image: ZSSD/Minden Pictures/FLPA)

Book information

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In search of humanism among the primates by Frans de WaalPublished by: NortonPrice: $27.95  ($20.15 at Amazon)
How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. KingPublished by: University of Chicago PressPrice: $25.00 ($18.14 at Amazon)

WHERE does morality come from? Throughout the history of Western civilisation, thinkers have usually answered either that it comes from God, or else through the application of reason.

But in The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that there's another answer that fits the data better: morality comes from our evolutionary past as a social primate. Like our closest relatives the apes, humans evolved in small, tightly knit, cooperative groups. As a result, again like the apes, we are exquisitely sensitive to one another's moods, needs and intentions.

This well-developed empathy provided the trellis on which morality later flowered. De Waal, who is based at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has been making this case eloquently for many years and over several books, notably in Good Natured back in 1997, and in Primates and Philosophers, 12 years later.

In his new work, he bolsters the argument by drawing on a lot of new research, carefully footnoted for those who want to dig deeper. De Waal distinguishes two degrees of morality. The first he calls "one-on-one morality", which governs how an individual can expect to be treated, and the second "community concern", a larger, more abstract concept that extends to the harmony of the group as a whole.

Chimps and bonobos certainly have the former – they respect ownership, for example, and expect to be treated according to their place in the hierarchy. But de Waal presents several examples – such as a chimp stepping in to stop a fight between two others – that suggest that they also have a rudimentary form of the latter.

The book's title, incidentally, draws on bonobos because they are more likely than chimps to behave morally, to have concern for each other, to value harmony and so on. This, imagines, de Waal, is something morally inclined atheists would want to emulate.

If humans inherited morality from our ancestors, though, what are we to make of religion? Here de Waal moves into territory he has not explored before. Clearly, religion must do something important, since every human culture has it. But instead of religion giving us morality, de Waal turns the tables. Morality, he argues, probably gave us religion as a way of reinforcing the pre-existing community concern.

If he's right, then there may be no absolute code of right and wrong out there to be discovered. Instead, each individual's evolved sense of empathy and concern for the group may help shape the group's consensus on what kind of behaviour is appropriate. In short, says de Waal, morality may be something we all have to work out together. It's a persuasive argument, and de Waal's cautious and evidence-based approach is one that many New Scientist readers are sure to find congenial.

That careful approach is less evident in another book covering some of the same ground. In How Animals Grieve, anthropologist Barbara King sets out to explore the question of whether non-human animals grieve for their dead. It's an intriguing question, but unfortunately King's book is largely a succession of anecdotes: the cat who roams the house, crying, in search of its dead litter mate; the dog who waits daily at the train station for its dead master; a dolphin trying to keep her dead calf afloat for days.

Some of these stories make a persuasive case for some animals – especially apes, elephants and cetaceans – sometimes grieving. No surprises there: I suspect most readers would have conceded that ground right from the start.

But King makes little effort to dig any deeper by exploring, for example, the neural machinery and cognitive skills an animal needs in order to be capable of grief. After all, solitary species such as cats have less need for empathy – and its corollary, grief – than social animals, and small-brained creatures such as turtles may simply lack the brainpower or not form lasting pair bonds.

To his credit, de Waal takes full note of such distinctions; King, not so much.

This article appeared in print under the headline "The making of morality"
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