Book Review: Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (NJ: Princeton UP 2006) 209 pp.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at

Are humans essentially good or bad?  Is morality based in biology or culture; is its foundation emotional or rational?  Can other intelligent primates be reasonably classified as moral; and, regardless, might such animals’ behavior enlighten us to the character and origin of human morality?  These are the questions considered by and debated among five distinguished scholars in Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers.

De Waal, professor of primate behavior at Emory University, argues that people are fundamentally good, that morality is deeply rooted in human nature.  He bases this claim primarily on the observed behavior of our closest primate relatives with whom we share an ingrained social disposition.  Intelligent primates, de Waal concludes, exhibit tendencies toward empathy, sympathy, sharing, and conflict resolution, each of which is elemental to all ethical systems.

Two schools of thought have long dominated the debate over moral origins.  “Veneer theory” is dualistic in nature, distinguishing morality as a cultural innovation achieved by humans alone.  Goodness is deemed a matter of rational choice, a thoroughly self-serving and competitive afterthought.  As Michael Ghiselin once quipped, “Scratch an ‘altruist,’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”  According to de Waal, veneer theory’s most prolific proponents, past and present, include Hobbes, who saw community as an artificial construct; T.H. Huxley, who viewed human morality as a triumph over evolution; Freud, who distinguished a cultural superego; Richard Dawkins, who famously declared, “We alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”; and contributor Robert Wright.

But despite both historical and popular opinion, morality is an integrated phenomenon, de Waal argues, a social expansion from an emotional and intuitive core.  Empathy, which likely evolved from mere emotional contagion as a prerequisite to effective parental care, is universal among mammals.  In more advanced species, it serves as the perfect mechanism for evaluating and responding to the emotional condition of others.  “Targeted helping,” or altruism tailored to the perceived needs of others, has been observed among apes in particular.  Chimpanzees will gently hold and console the victims of aggression, more so if the aggression was severe.  During a 1978 “theory of mind” experiment, a chimp named Jackie observed her former caretaker, Krom, as the latter attempted to dislodge a favored, water-laden tire from a tight row of many confined to a log.  After Krom gave up, Jackie completed the task on her behalf, carefully delivering the tire without spilling the water.

That cooperative impulses such as reciprocity and sharing can be recognized in other species, de Waal continues, is further evidence that morality is inherent in human nature.  Chimpanzee adults, for instance, are more likely to share food with others who had groomed them earlier.  Although some might say that such sharing proves only that groomed chimps are happier than non-groomed chimps, the data shows that sharing was typically bestowed on specific groomers, even after significant time delays.  Capuchin monkeys have demonstrated an appreciation of social regularity, which de Waal likens to a rudimentary sense of fairness.  During an exchange experiment where subject monkeys were measured for their reactions to situations in which partners received superior rewards for identical tokens, individuals proved far less likely to complete the exchange or accept the reward.  The monkeys balked even more frequently when their partner received a reward for no token at all.  De Waal surmises that, because capuchins seem to appraise rewards in relative terms, other primates, like humans, are guided by social emotions.  He recognizes, however, that these experiments expose only monkeys’ egocentric expectations of how subjects ought to be treated, not more advanced, disinterested expectations of how all monkeys should be treated.

Because the transition from social to moral animal began with kin and reciprocal altruism, de Waal infers that morality probably evolved as an in-group phenomenon.  At some point, however, certain animals developed a concern for their community.  Apes will go out of their way in order to preserve a cooperative atmosphere.  Females will reconcile males one to another, and dominant males will break up fights evenhandedly.  Like humans, chimpanzees bind together to make war on other communities.  The attitudes of human children apparently depend on something much deeper than simple systems of reward and punishment because, at an early age, they comprehend the difference between cultural conventions and moral principles.  By the age of one, children spontaneously comfort others in distress.  Morality, the author reemphasizes, is no mere act; it is the foreseeable evolutionary extrapolation of our innate, cooperative tendencies.

Science writer Robert Wright responds to de Waal on two fronts.  First, he criticizes the author’s use of anthropomorphic language of the cognitive variety.  Although social support can be governed emotionally or cognitively, the empirical evidence, Wright vies, is inconclusive as to which theory applies best to modern apes.  Emotions evolved first in primates, before conscious calculation.  As a matter of parsimony, then, Wright suggests that we limit ourselves to emotional anthropomorphic language when describing animal behavior.  Second, he objects to de Waal’s characterization of him as a veneer theorist, as far as such characterization goes.  While Wright agrees that people often cover their self-serving motives with a moralistic veneer, he argues that the veneer, and the human moral infrastructure that supports it, is genetically guided as well.

Christine Korsgaard and Philip Kitcher, professors of philosophy at Harvard and Columbia, respectively, emphasize the moral distinctions between humans and apes.  Although Korsgaard admits that chimpanzees, for instance, are capable of complex evaluations, she finds no evidence to suggest that they benefit from what Adam Smith called an “internal spectator,” the ability to ask one’s self whether beliefs are justified and to adjust those beliefs accordingly.  A being motivated by values and principles, she argues, is quite morally discrete from a being governed only by desires and emotional instincts.  Kitcher agrees, arguing that we should not infer that chimps possess the building blocks of morality from the mere fact of their psychological altruism.  So, while the Jackie-Krom case, for instance, demonstrates that all animals are not entirely egotistic, that is insufficient.  Chimps are “wantons,” Kitcher contends, incapable of resisting dominant impulses.  Only in hominid evolution was this wantonness overcome, perhaps along with or shortly following our linguistic achievements of approximately 50,000 years ago.  Truly ethical standards and behavior, Kitcher argues, have developed only from language, the emergence of normative guidance and self-control, and thousands of years of cultural evolution.

Having previously rejected the ideas that morality is culturally rather than biologically crafted, and that it is a uniquely human phenomenon, bioethicist Peter Singer nevertheless disparages de Waal’s failure to acknowledge the profound difference between human morality and the social behavior of other primates.  Reason, Singer suggests, allows us to abstract our personal situations in order to appreciate their objective similarity to others’ circumstances.  Our emotional impulses might verify that human morality is anchored in animal sociality, but it is our ability to reflect upon and resist those impulses that has so vividly marked the evolution of human ethics.  Perhaps unlike Korsgaard and Kitcher, however, Singer views the distinction as one of mere degree only and, because of the excellent work of people like de Waal and Jane Goodall, would afford special moral status to all great apes.

In his reply, de Waal first argues that the essence of morality can be reduced to loyalty and altruism, the tendency to help and not hurt others.  Even so, he suggests that of the three levels of morality—moral sentiments, social pressure, and judgment and reasoning—only two are obviously present among non-human primates.  Higher animals, he persists, demonstrate capacities for empathy, reciprocity, and fairness.  Through policing, they express community concern as well, though not to the qualitative or quantitative extent of humans.  Finally, although some primates seem to internalize others’ needs and goals, de Waal concedes that they lack judgment and the responsiveness and responsibility inherent in Smith’s internal spectator.

But moral reasoning, de Waal insists, cannot be completely distinguished from advanced social tendencies.  Jackie’s altruism in favor of Krom, after all, was every bit as genuine as typical human benevolence in that it was motivated by something other than the anticipation of reward.  “To neglect the common ground with other primates,” de Waal surmises, “would be like arriving at the top of a tower to declare that the rest of the building is irrelevant.”


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