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.