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April 12, 2013
Science Seat: Where morals come from
By Kelly Murray, CNN
Seat is a feature in which CNN Light Years sits down with movers and
shakers from different areas of scientific exploration. This is the eighth
Being nice to others and cooperating with them aren't
uniquely human traits. Frans de Waal, director of Emory University's Living
Links Center at the
Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Lawrenceville, Georgia,
studies how our close primate relatives also demonstrate behaviors
suggestive of a sense of morality.
De Waal recently published a book
called "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the
Primates," which synthesizes evidence that there are biological roots in
human fairness, and explores what that means for the role of religion in
human societies. CNN's Kelly Murray recently spoke with De Waal about the
Read more about his research here
CNN's Kelly Murray: Tell us
about the title of your book.
Frans de Waal: Well, the reason I
chose that title is, when I bring up the origins of morality, it revolves
around God, or comes from religion, and I want to address the issue that I
think morality is actually older than religion. So I'm getting into the
religion question, and how important is religion for morality. I think it
plays a role, but it's a secondary role. Instead of being the source of
morality, religion came later, maybe to fortify morality.
would you say that ethics or morality is separate from religion?
Well, I think that morality is older. In the sense that I find it very hard
to believe that 100,000 or 200,000 years ago, our ancestors did not believe
in right and wrong, and did not punish bad behavior, did not care about
fairness. Very long ago our ancestors had moral systems. Our current
institutions are only a couple of thousand years old, which is really not
old in the eyes of a biologist. So I think religion came after morality.
Religion may have become a codification of morality, and it may fortify it,
but it's not the origin of it.
CNN: Why do people need religion?
De Waal: Well, that's a good question. I'm struggling with that. I'm
personally a nonbeliever, so I'm struggling with if we really need religion.
... I'm from the Netherlands, where 60% of the people are nonbelievers. So
in northern Europe, there are actually experiments going on now with
societies that are more secular, to see if we can maintain a moral society
that way, and for the moment I would say that experiment is going pretty
well. ... Personally I think it is possible to build a society that is moral
on a nonreligious basis, but the jury is still out on that.
do you believe that people are generally good?
De Waal: Yeah, my view
is that you have two (kinds of) people in the world. You have people who
think that we are inherently bad and evil and selfish, but with a lot of
hard work we can be good, and you have other people like myself who believe
that we are inherently good. There's a lot of evidence on the primates that
I can use to support that idea that we are inherently good, but on occasion
when we get too competitive or frustrated, we turn bad.
CNN: So when
the stakes are higher for survival, we're more individualistic than
De Waal: Oh no, we very much survive by group life.
Humans are not able to survive alone. For example, solitary confinement is
one of the worst punishments we can give. We are not really made to live
alone, we would not survive, and so when things get tough we would actually
come together more and be more social when things get tough.
you talk about how being nice to another individual helps you?
Waal: Sometimes people put that in a very narrow sense, and they say that
everything that humans do or that animals do needs to have a payoff, but
that's not true. The example ... of adoption of children, I basically think
it's a costly act with no payoff, and these things happen in animals also.
Animals sometimes help each other even between species. Dolphins may
help human swimmers, and I don't think the dolphins get much out of it. So
individual acts don't necessarily need to have a payoff. So they are not
They are really altruistic, but you have the
tendency to help, and to have empathy for others in general, on the average,
is beneficial. Because you live in a group, you depend on these others, so
you need to care about these others also because your survival depends on
group life, and so there is some sort of general payoff, but people often
think in terms of each individual act needs to (reap) some benefit but
that's not necessarily true.
CNN: Tell us more about the origins of
De Waal: We think that the origin of empathy, in the mammals
at least, has to do with maternal care. So a female, whether you're a mouse
or an elephant, you need to pay attention to your offspring, you need to
react to their emotions when they're cold, or in danger, or hungry, and
that's where we think the sensitivity to others' emotions come from.
That also explains why empathy is more developed in females than males,
which is true in many animals, and it's true for humans, and it explains the
role of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a maternal hormone. If you spray oxytocin into
the nostrils of men and women, you get more empathic (empathetic) reactions
from them, and so the general thinking about empathy is that it started in
the mammals with maternal care, and then from there it spread to other
relationships. So men can definitely have empathy, but they on average have
a little bit less of it than women.
CNN: By empathy, you mean that
they feel each others' pain?
De Waal: Well, feeling someone else's
joy is also empathy. Being affected by the laugh, as humans are, is a form
of empathy. So empathy basically says that you're sensitive to the emotions
of others and react to the emotions of others.
Sympathy is a bit more
complicated. Sympathy is that you want to take action. You want to help
somebody else who's in trouble. So sympathy is a bit more specific, it's a
bit more action-oriented. Empathy is just a sensitivity. Empathy is not
necessarily positive. If someone wants to sell you a bad car for a high
price, he also needs to empathize with you in order to get you to buy it. So
empathy can be used for good purposes; I think most of the time it is, but
it is not always used for good purposes.
CNN: In your book, you talk
about a female primate who is crouching down giving birth while the rest of
the group gathers around, and one of the other females is crouching and
acting like the one giving birth. Would that be an example of empathy?
De Waal: Yeah, that's an act of mimicry and synchronization, which is
the first form of empathy. If you talk with a sad person, you're going to
have a sad expression on your face. You're going to feel sad very soon. That
is the body channel of empathy. You synchronize with the other, and that
female in the birthing scenario was synchronizing with the other. It's a
very early form of empathy; we call it �modes of mimicry,� when you do the
same thing as somebody else. The body channel of empathy is very important
to us and we rely on it every day. If you talk with people and you adopt
their facial expressions, they will be laughing, you will be laughing, and
CNN: Different cultures of humans have different ideas about
morality. Is it the same way in primates? Do different groups of primates
have different cultures and ways of interacting with each other?
Waal: We do think that primates have different cultures. One group behaves
quite differently from another one. I'm not sure that I would say they have
different moralities, but they may have different styles of interacting. But
(with) the human variation in morality, one society may have different moral
rules than another one.
In our current society in the U.S. we have
debates about gay marriage, abortion - we have a lot of moral debates going
on, and years from now we will believe different things from what we believe
now, and so morality changes as a result of society, and that means you
should not look for specifics of your morality in biology.
provides some of the general primate psychology that we have, like
pro-social tendencies, sense of fairness, following rules. Our primate
background provides that kind of thing, but the specific rules that our
society adopts are not contained in biology, and sometimes people confuse
that when I say that morality is contained in our biology, that every rule
we follow has to come out of biology. I don't think it works that way. I
think that we have general tendencies that come from our primate ancestors,
and we turn that into our moral system that is suitable to our way of
CNN: Is there anything we can learn from animals about how to
live a good life?
De Waal: I don't think I can give you specific
lessons for your life out of my animal studies, but I do think the animal
studies have some sort of general message that is important.
of looking at human morality as something we design in our heads -- the
philosophers want us to believe that by logic and reasoning we arrive at
moral principles -- I think it works very differently. We have a lot of
feelings and tendencies that drive us to moral solutions, and yes, we often
then later try to justify these solutions and come up with reasons for them,
but that's often secondarily.
In primate behavior we can see they
have a sense of fairness. They have empathy: they enforce rules among
themselves, they can delay gratification and they can control their
impulses. So many of these tendencies that go into our moralities can be
found in other animals, but instead of them coming from logic and reasoning,
they actually come from our primate psychology most of the time.