Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality EvolvedPrimates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal

Thought provoker, but then de Waal tends to do that. I finished this a couple of days ago and still don’t know if I can do this review justice, but… The basis of this is his criticism (and dismissal) of the Hobbesian view that morality is a layer (a veneer) overlaying the baser, brutish animal that humans really are. This Veneer Theory, as dubbed by de Waal, has advocates and opponents (de Waal being one) and his leading essay here outlined his positions as to why the veneerists are wrong…in his view. No, humans are not moral “by choice” as Hobbes, Huxley and, it seems, Dawkins would have…rather, morality evolved from social constructs evidenced by some of our primate cousins. Four essays respond to his, and then he responds to them…an interesting format. A civilized debate; a food network throw down for people who actually think. They want to address “why don’t we think it is good to be bad?” And none of the five feel “that there is any reason to suppose that humans are different in their metaphysical essence from other animals, or at least, none base their arguments on the idea that humans uniquely possess a transcendent soul.” See? For people who think.

The editors observe that all five share the understanding that

moral goodness is something real, about which it is possible to make truth claims. Goodness requires, at a minimum, taking proper account of others. Badness, by the same token, includes the sort of selfishness that leads us to treat others improperly by ignoring their interests or treating them as mere instruments. The two basic premises of evolutionary science and moral reality establish the boundaries of the debate over the origins of goodness as it is set forth in this book. This means that those religious believers who are committed to the idea that humans have been uniquely endowed with special attributes (including a moral sense) by divine grace alone are not participants in the discussion as it is presented here.

Emphasis mine. Some of the counterarguments call out de Wall for anthropomorphizing his studies (more on that), but he has long observed enough behavior that he justifies well his “scientific anthropomorphism” (as distinguished from the Peter Rabbit-ish writings.)

The point is that de Waal’s evidence, quantitative and anecdotal, for primate emotional response is based entirely on observations of actual behavior. De Waal must base his account of primate morality on how primates do in fact act because he has no access to their “ought” stories about what moral reason might ideally demand of them, or to how they suppose they ought to act in a hypothetical situation.So there seems to be a risk of comparing apples and oranges: contrasting primate behavior (based on quantitative and anecdotal observation) with human normative ideals.

(their emphasis) Important distinction. There is no anthropomorphism in that. Humans want to project “ought” and it is the duty of the impartial scientific observer to maintain a distance.

So, to frame the argument, de Wall says

Hobbes and Rawls create the illusion of human society as a voluntary arrangement with self-imposed rules assented to by free and equal agents. Yet, 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 forever. Free and equal people never existed. Humans started out—if a starting point is discernible at all—as interdependent, bonded, and unequal.

Our evolution didn’t spontaneously pop out a “moral” product.

For a human characteristic, such as empathy, that is so pervasive , develops so early in life, and shows such important neural and physiological correlates as well as a genetic substrate, it would be strange indeed if no evolutionary continuity existed with other mammals. The possibility of empathy and sympathy in other animals has been largely ignored, however.

I don’t know how anyone can deny that some animals have empathy and either it developed independently (which has happened for multiple many features) or has passed down from some earlier species. de Wall argues that Veneer Theory “lacks any sort of explanation of how we moved from being amoral animals to moral beings. The theory is at odds with the evidence for emotional processing as driving force behind moral judgment.” de Waal:

If human morality could truly be reduced to calculations and reasoning, we would come close to being psychopaths, who indeed do not mean to be kind when they act kindly.

Extreme? perhaps, but it bears thought. He notes this on morality:

It should further be noted that the evolutionary pressures responsible for our moral tendencies may not all have been nice and positive. After all, morality is very much an in-group phenomenon. Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside.

This is lost on so many people! Racism, xenomisia, nationalism…hello!

Morality likely evolved as a within-group phenomenon in conjunction with other typical within-group capacities, such as conflict resolution, cooperation, and sharing.
The first loyalty of every individual is not to the group, however, but to itself and its kin. With increasing social integration and reliance on cooperation, shared interests must have risen to the surface so that the community as a whole became an issue.

This makes sense, no? de Waal:

Obviously, the most potent force to bring out a sense of community is enmity toward outsiders. It forces unity among elements that are normally at odds. This may not be visible at the zoo, but it is definitely a factor for chimpanzees in the wild, which show lethal intercommunity violence. In our own species, nothing is more obvious than that we band together against adversaries. In the course of human evolution, out-group hostility enhanced in-group solidarity to the point that morality emerged. Instead of merely ameliorating relations around us, as apes do, we have explicit teachings about the value of the community and the precedence it takes, or ought to take, over individual interests. Humans go much further in all of this than the apes, which is why we have moral systems and apes do not.

Still. the fringe elements supported and promoted by the current US administration seem to have a closer connection to the cousins…

Journalist (and sociobiologist/evolutionary psychologist) Robert Wright picks at de Waal’s use of anthropomorphic language in his writings and arguments. He says

There are two broad categories of anthropomorphic language. First, there is emotional language: We can say that chimpanzees feel compassionate, outraged, aggrieved, insecure, et cetera. Second, there is cognitive language, language that attributes conscious knowledge and/or reasoning to animals: We can say that chimpanzees remember, anticipate, plan, strategize, et cetera.

His beef with de Waal seems to be that “It isn’t always clear from the behavioral evidence alone which kind of anthropomorphic language is in order.” and that de Waal seems to prefer cognitive anthropomorphism. de Waal does tend to impart a more human reasoning to explain some of his (many) observations of simian behavior, the cognitive anthropomorphism, but then he does have decades of behaviors observed!

Philosopher Christine Korsgaard sides with de Waal in arguing against Veneer Theory in her essay:

There are a number of problems with Veneer Theory. In the first place, despite its popularity in the social sciences, the credentials of the principle of pursuing your own best interests as a principle of practical reason have never been established. […]
In the second place, it is not even clear that the idea of self-interest is a well-formed concept when applied to an animal as richly social as a human being.[…]
So the idea that we can clearly identify our own interests as something set apart from or over against the interests of others is strained to say the least.
And yet even this is not the deepest thing wrong with Veneer Theory. Morality is not just a set of obstructions to the pursuit of our interests. Moral standards define ways of relating to people that most of us, most of the time, find natural and welcome.[…]
It is absurd to suggest that this is what most human beings are like, or long to be like, beneath a thin veneer of restraint.
But it is also absurd to think that nonhuman animals are motivated by self-interest. The concept of what is in your own best interests, if it makes any sense at all, requires a kind of grip on the future and an ability to calculate that do not seem available to a nonhuman animal.

She then looks at de Waal’s consideration of intent as he establishes the primacy of the bases for the evolution of our morality.

The question of intention is a question about how an episode in which an animal does something looks from the acting animal’s own point of view, whether it is plausible to think that the animal acts with a certain kind of purpose in mind. I think there is a temptation to think that the question whether we can see the origins of morality in animal behavior depends on how exactly we interpret their intentions, whether their intentions are “good” or not. I think that, at least taken in the most obvious way, this is a mistake.

She has a point – interpretation is necessary, as we cannot (yet) know what animals are thinking, so care must be taken to normalize that interpretation.

Peter Singer, philosopher, in his response essay “Morality, Reason, and the Rights of Animals” points out

Once we recognize that nonhuman animals have complex emotional and social needs, we begin to see animal abuse where others might not see it […]

I didn’t pull much from his counter, but I thought that worth sharing. In de Waal’s response to the responses, he asks

So, we need to distinguish intentional selfishness and intentional altruism from mere functional equivalents of such behavior. Biologists use the two almost interchangeably, but Philip Kitcher and Christine Korsgaard are correct to stress the importance of knowing the motives behind behavior. Do animals ever intentionally help each other? Do humans?
I add the second question even if most people blindly assume a affirmative answer. We show a host of behavior, though, for which we develop justifications after the fact.

I submit that Daniel Kahneman answers that. Our emotional brain reacts first, much as we rational beings hate to admit it, and that emotional brain developed much earlier than the human primate overlay.

Okay, I veneered the second half of the book (first half, too, really, but…) I need to read more de Waal, but my confirmation bias thinks he’s right, whether he uses the appropriate descriptive language or attributions.

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