Monkey See, Monkey Feel, Monkey Good?

October 6, 2009

It is hard to tell if humans as a species are "naturally" nice. From birth, human infants are enveloped in nurture and they soon imitate culture. Humans naturally use so much culture to cover up any natural traces of any "essence" to our species. This is just an elaborate way of saying that humans don't have a simple natural essence anymore. That's why our cousin primates are so fascinating -- are they really us, or what we would be, without culture? If primates are naturally nice and good, then maybe we should be too, at least before culture gets to us.

Frans de Waal is a highly respected biologist who has carefully studied many kinds of helpful behavior by primates. His new book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society argues that primates are quite adept at genuine altruistic kindness. Altruistic kindness is really important for anything like what we humans call morality -- it is a special kindness that involves not merely trading favors, but instead requiring real sacrifice for another. What could possibly motivate such sacrifice? We humans call it "sympathy" or "compassion", a powerful emotion that gives us sufficient reason to make sacrifices for another without any promise of a return favor.

Human adults are capable of much compassionate altruism and morality too, but not enough that morality isn't a problem for us -- we wish for more. So we are stuck with this uncertain dilemma: are humans naturally nice like other primates, so that culture is mostly about other things besides morality; or are humans naturally selfish, so that culture has a lot of moral training to do? Studying primates may not really help answer this dilemma, or even offer other options.

Reviews of de Waal's book are mixed, not surprisingly. For example, the Wall Street Journal's review can't believe that evidence of helpfulness is any evidence of feelings of compassion. A dubious complaint, since technically I can't know my fellow human beings' feelings as I watch them be nice, either. Social behavior is all we have to go on. And humans do organize themselves quite differently from chimps and gorillas nowadays. A classic complaint against capitalism is that it is unnatural -- that capitalism must use an ideological culture of greed to warp nice human nature. Of course, humans took a somewhat different evolutionary route than the other primates during the past few million years. Just because chimps aren't capitalists, doesn't mean that capitalism isn't smart for us humans today. Morality might not be the sort of thing that can be accurately compared across species. Our current culture, for all its merits and troubles, may be all we have to go on. Looking to other species, or into our deep evolutionary past, might only be a distraction for moral thinking.


#1 Pau (Guest) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 at 7:47am

Not everything is so clear. Murder has been observed to occur in primate socities: four male adults were observed to wait for a fifth member on the group and killed it.
There are forms that seem to be innately wired in the primitive brain. There are certain shapes that frighten recently born mammals from different species. Facial expressions and some gestures, are recognized by infants naturally, without need for learning; a good venue for further exploration of empathy.
One human characteristic that seems unknown in apes, is the ability to ignore, hide or missinterpret emotions, starting with our own and then naturally, those of others. Early experience seems to alter considerably this attitude.

#2 Damien on Friday October 09, 2009 at 3:12pm

Good article, good comment too. However, when it comes to pure nastiness and cruelty I think we culturely indoctrinated humans can go to the head of the class. Compared to us the rest of the primates are saints.

#3 Pau (Guest) on Saturday October 10, 2009 at 3:55am

I can not believe that capitalism has anything to do
with our exagerated agressiveness and cruelty. Capitalism is but a system of production, it does not preach greed nor violence.
I rather think our overdimensioned cortex and faulty connections, makes us missinterpret basic instincts such as territorial imperative, empathy, etc, and gives us the capacity to rationalize our atrocities. We have the capacity to turn grievances suffered in the past, as excuses for stupid and malign behaviour.
A good education in emotional literacy, would go a longer way in fixing our problems that a great education in mathematics and physics.

#4 Tuatara (Guest) on Tuesday October 13, 2009 at 1:52am

Morality as behaviour in interpersonal relationships must have evolved as groups of living beings evolved.
BUT: institutions are NOT persons - whatever advocates of corporate interests may try to make believe.
Gut feelings simply do not apply to such situations.
(that´s where capitalism comes into the scene, pau).
Not only has the US been compated to Imperial Rome, but there is one horrible remnant from that time: the catholic church. 2000 years old and still killing - worse than ever because it succeeded in enforcing the existence of many more victims.
Think of a child born unwanted from the perspective of the woman and her feelings in everyday life; and compare the pope´s hot air and patient papers.

#5 Pau (Guest) on Tuesday October 13, 2009 at 2:22am

Tuatara, I agree in most, except trying to involve capitalism (or comminism or any other -ism) in our moral behaviour. As you said very well, institutions (nor nations) are not persons, therefore devoid of all the neural mechanisms that result in moral feelings. But yes, institutions may be based in different kinds of doctrines. Doctrines based on human and personal belief and can therefore be better or worse for human development and welfare. It is terrible when those doctrines get contaminated by personal whishes and needs, such as silly patriotism, greed or false pride.
I believe that morality - sense of social responsability- started developping much earlier than humans. A certain, empirical kind of morality was required for mammals to take care of their young. Who hasn’t seen a favorite pet look ashamed after misbehaving?

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