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Interview Transcript: Frans de Waal: Primates, the Evolution of Morals, Top-down and bottom up Morality


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By Rob Kall (about the author)

Capuchin Monkeys Sharing

The first part of a two part Interview conducted September 11, 2013

Link to audio podcast.

Transcript checked by Dick Overfield.

R.K.: Welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show WNJc1360 AM out of Washington Township New Jersey reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey. Sponsored by My guest tonight is Frans de Waal, he's a Dutch-American biologist who has been named among Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People," He is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior in the Emory University psychology department in Atlanta, Georgia, he is the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and is the author of numerous books including Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape. His latest, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. His research centers on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequity aversion, and food-sharing. Welcome to the show.

F.W.: I'm happy to be there.

R.K.: You've been working for almost forty years with primates. What is the number one thing you have learned in working with them?

F.W.: Well, I have always focused on social behavior and I've always been impressed by how intensely social they are. Of course, when I started primates were usually depicted like all animals, as competitive and aggressive and only selfish, and so on. This whole view of nature as a competitive place, a dog-eat-dog world and the main thing that I've learned is, yes, there is plenty of competition, there's no denying that, but there's also plenty of cooperation and actually primates live in groups, in large groups sometimes, for cooperative reasons. Otherwise they would be living alone, of course.

R.K.: Okay. Now your new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, brings in a constant that you have been writing about in the New York Times, in the scientific journals, this idea of a bottom-up roots, or approach to morality. Can you talk a bit about that starting with definitions of top-down versus bottom-up per your ideas?

F.W.: Well, the top-down view of morality is of course the dominant view is that some people believe morality comes from God and that God told us how to behave and others, after God's word became less popular during The Enlightenment, the philosopher's told us, well, maybe it doesn't come from God, it comes from reasoning and logic. We reason ourselves to moral principles and then we apply them in society and so that's the top-down view which is extremely popular still in many people.

But of course the bottom-up view is exactly the opposite. It's that you have moral tendencies in you and that you're born with them and actually we have evidence that young children, even one year old children, you can show them a puppet show with good guys and bad guys and they have already preferences for one, or the other and so moral judgments actually don't necessarily require a God, or a philosopher for that matter. My studies are on primate behavior and many of the tendencies that you see in young children you can also see in other primates such as the tendency to help others, to be empathic to others, to be sensitive to fairness, to have a tendency to cooperate with others and to maintain good relationships.

All of these tendencies are part of our usual moral systems and so all of these things can be acquired by our species without God and without philosophers and that's the bottom-up view and that's now also supported by some psychology experiments, by some neuroscience experiments, and so the bottom-up view is basically that morality comes from within. That doesn't mean that religion has no role, or that doesn't mean the philosophers have no role in all of this, but it means that the tendencies are already there and we can modify them through religion and so on, but that's only marginal in a way.

R.K.: And you mention in 2010 in a New York Times oped that, Reverend Al Sharpton opined that "If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there's nothing in charge." And you have a very different approach to that. You actually said that you are wary of any one whose belief system is the only thing standing between them an repulsive behavior. Could you explain that?

F.W.: If someone says that he, or she is moral because of their beliefs and that's all there is, well, you say I follow the Ten Commandments, or whatever you're going to tell me; I am not very happy with that kind of people. They are only moral because they think that God needs to approve of their actions, or will disapprove of their actions and that's not really an inherently moral person. That's a person who is only worried about what God thinks about what he does and, well, that's an issue that goes back to Dostoevsky where he wrote about that. Some people they say, if there's no God there is no morality, but that's a very pessimistic view and in my view, our current religions are only two, or three thousand years old, for the biologist that's really nothing.

Our species is much older and you're not going to tell me that a hundred thousand years ago a human society would not have a sense of fairness, or would not have empathy for the sick and the old and would not have some sort of cooperative system, or punish those behave badly.

Of course those societies, they had some sort of moral system going already, long before our religions came a long and so to think that everything started with our current God, who was invented like two, or three thousand years ago, that's just silly.

So I think everything started much earlier and that's why I'm interested in other primates because they share many of the same tendencies. They do punish aberrant behavior, or deviant behavior, and they have social rules that they follow and so many of these tendencies can be observed in other species.
I'm not saying that religion is irrelevant, but it's not the source of human morality.

R.K.: Now, you refer to our current religions being two, or three thousand years old and I know you're a primatologist, not an anthropologist. How far back do religions go?

F.W.: I don't think we know that. We know about burial grave-site analysis indicating that for example, the Neanderthals, they buried their dead so they probably also had some sort of afterlife understanding and some sort of religion going. So, who knows? They may be very old, but we really don't know that.

R.K.: Okay. Now, in your writings you also refer not just to primates. You talked about morals, or the kinds of tendencies, or behaviors that are associated with morals going back to birds and mice and rats. Could you talk about that?

F.W.: Yeah. I'm very interested in the origins of empathy. Empathy is defined as that you are sensitive to the emotions of the situation of somebody else and, if that's your definition of empathy, then of course your average dog has empathy and every one who has a dog will tell you that, that they are sensitive to your emotions and they react to them, sometimes negatively, but sometimes also positively. So the thinking in the field of empathy, which is a growing field, it's also a human studies, is that it is a mammalian characteristic.

Mammals, they go back two hundred million years and whether you are a female mouse, or a female elephant you need to react to your young and so the thinking is that maternal care is actually the original of empathic responses because you needs to be sensitive to the emotions of others if you want to raise them. And so there are now, I think, a dozen studies of rodent empathy where literally they put the word empathy in the title, so they're very convinced of what they're finding where they study how rats, or mice respond to the emotions of others and how they sometimes help others who are in a predicament, and so on.

Certainly in species like, let's say elephants, or dogs, or other primates, or dolphins you find lots of that sensitivity and so the thinking is that all of that can be found in the mammals and so I don't really focus exclusively on the primates even though I'm a primatologist. We also do work with elephants which I think is a very interesting species.

Everyone knows that elephants are intelligent, but no one has really tested them the way we test primates and so at the moment Josh Plotnik, who is a collaborator of mine in Thailand, he is testing elephants on all sorts of things that we test the primates on.

R.K.: Now, you have said that humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it's a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. It sounds like what your work is about is proving that there are very few areas of uniqueness.

F.W.: Yeah. I'm very interested in the continuity, of course. I'm a biologist by training and even though I teach in the psychology department, and psychologists like many social scientists, or many philosophers also, they think that there is a big dividing line between humans and other animals.

That doesn't make any sense to me, but it's a very popular position which ultimately of course is a religious position and the rest, but it doesn't make any sense because if you look at the brain of a chimpanzee, at the brain of a human, there's really nothing in the brain of a human that is new. There is no part that are not present in a chimpanzee brain, there are no transmitters, no neuro-connections that are not present in a chimpanzee brain.

So the human brain is bigger, it is about three times bigger than a chimpanzee brain, and so it is a more powerful computer, so to speak, but it doesn't do anything substantially different. If humans were so absolutely unique as people think they are, you would hope to find a part in the human brain that is found nowhere else, but we haven't found that yet. So for the biologist, it's logical that genetically we're very close to the chimpanzee and our brains are very similar and our bodies are very similar so it doesn't make any sense to postulate a huge difference between the two.

R.K.: Now, you just said that it is elitist thinking that humans are so special and unique and different than the other animals. Not too long ago I interviewed Daniel Quinn who wrote the book, Ishmael. Are you familiar with that?

F.W.: I have heard of that book, I don't think I've read it, no,

R.K.: I think you would love it. I strongly recommend it and he basically introduces us to the idea of how animals think and how they treat each other. How would you describe ways that you ... that primates could teach us some things about how we could be better people?

F.W.: Well, I'm not sure that's... that's not necessarily my goal because you know primates, they do also lots of nasty things to each other. They have the entire spectrum that we also have. There are people who are awfully nice and there are people who are awfully nasty.

That same conflict that we see in human society between how you behave under one circumstance and how you behave under another, we see in other primates and I do believe that humans have more extreme versions of all of this. So for example, when humans are violent, we are more violent than any other species. And so we bomb entire nations, we have genocides; that's at a scale that you're really not going to find in other primates, but also when we're nice, we're actually nicer than any other primates.

So for example, we will send money to victims of a tsunami in Japan, or in Thailand which of course primates would not know how to do that even if they wanted to, but I don't think they have a desire to do that kind of thing because they really don't sympathize much with strangers. And so we humans have more extreme forms on both sides, on both the aggressive side and the altruistic side, so to speak.

That same conflict that you see in humans that we sometimes can be extremely nice and that we sometimes can be extremely violent, you're going to find in other primates. So I'm not sure I would hold them up as the example that we should follow, but I do think we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at other primates.

R.K.: And what are the biggest misconceptions about the differences between humans and primates and other animals that you have come to understand?

F.W.: Well, the big misconceptions are that people assume that we are conscious and animals are not, that we have emotions that animals do not have. I personally think that socially and emotionally we are very similar to other primates. There are areas such as related to language and abstraction and technology where we outshine them, certainly with language.

Language is a very human characteristic, so there are areas where we are quite different, but that's not in the area of let's say social interactions and social emotions for example primates love power. The males at least love power. Very similar, that's why I wrote Chimpanzee Politics, very similar to our politicians. Of course, you know, they will explain on TV that they are not seeking power; they are wanting to improve our education system, or feed the world, or whatever, whatever the reasons they give us, but in the end of course they are seeking power if they are going to run for office.

And so there's a desire for power. There's a lot of affection and bonding and care for those you are bonded with and other primates. There are the sexual preoccupations that they have which humans have of course also, and so all of these tendencies, the basic tendencies that you have in your life of survival and social relationships and so on, you're going to find in the other primates. It's in the areas of language and abstraction that you're going to find the differences.
R.K.: Alright, that brings me to another question. What you've described from this bottom-up idea of how primates and earlier animals evolved with a lot of the ideas that now are a part of morals is how they are influenced by different things. What are the human inventions that affect how bottom-up tendencies are manifested?

F.W.: Human inventions, you mean? What do you mean "human inventions?"

R.K.: Yeah. Well, when... acquisition of language. Was that an invention, or was that an evolutional development?

F.W.: Well, I think humans are bred to learn language and so we know that, for example, in the first couple of years of life, even sometimes before the baby is born, recent experiments that show that the fetus picks up sounds already and including linguistic sounds and so we humans are really born to learn language and to develop language and so that's an evolved capacity even though learning is part of it. You have to learn a language to speak it. We are pre-programmed to learn and if you try to teach, for example, a chimpanzee, or gorilla language, people have tried that of course, that has been done for many decades, it's very limited what they learn.

They learn a little bit and they learn certain sounds that they associate with certain objects and they can learn to press certain keys, or certain symbols to request an object. So, yes, they can learn to communicate symbolically, but it's extremely limited compared to what even a two year old, or three year old child is doing.

And so we are really a species that evolved to use language and that's our specialization almost because language then influences everything else we do because language is not just a way of communicating with somebody else, but we also use it to organize the world around ourselves and it's a very powerful tool that we have.

R.K.: Now, you have also written that signing, hand-signing, the primates have more success with.

F.W.: Yeah, the primates, chimpanzees and Bonobos, they're very good at gesticulation just like humans and so's actually very interesting with hand gestures... is that they gesture more with the right hand than the left hand and the right hand is of course controlled by the left brain and it's in the left brain where our language centers are. So there's a lot of speculation that hand gestures and language evolution are connected and that maybe humans, instead of starting with speech, they may have started with hand gestures first before they moved to controlling their vocal chords and speaking.

So those are details of the discussion about the evolution of language and apes are very good at hand gestures. There are not many animals who can do this. And so they, if you see, for example, young children play with apes which I've seen in the past, nowadays of course they usually don't mix children and apes anymore, but there was a time when people did those things and it's just remarkable how well children get along with apes that they play with because they understand just in the way that you can send your child to a French school and before you know it your three, or four year old child will get along with children there because of the facial expressions and the hand gestures.

They may not understand each other, but they have lots of other ways of communicating. That's also what happens between children and apes. It's truly remarkable how well they understand each other.

R.K.: So I am going to conclude then that these moral tendencies, the empathy and the fairness, even sacrifice, those are behaviors that evolved before language.

F.W.: Yeah. That's certainly a good point. So for example, fairness- we test it in our primates and so we do an experiment in which, now all over the internet, we put two monkeys side by side. We give one of the monkeys for a simple task, we give them pieces of cucumber and the other monkey, for the same task, we give them grapes and grapes are far better than cucumber and so we do that kind of experiment where we then see the one that gets cucumber gets very upset and so he would not be upset if the other one gets cucumber also.
If they both get the same everything is fine and they will perform the task many times, but if the other one gets much better food they become very upset and they start to refuse their cucumber slices. So we do these kinds of tests on fairness and we have found that that's actually something that can be found in many species. There's also now recently an experiment on dogs that was done and so, that's all before language.

So you can have a sense of fairness before you even have language and you can have empathy before you have language and you can follow rules. The reason the dog is man's best friend is because it's a species that comes from originally a society in which rules are applied. Wolves and dogs apply rules to each other and so they also obey rules that we apply to them. That's one of the things we like about dogs, actually, is that you can tell them to behave and much of the time, not all of the time, they will follow the rules that you impose on them.

R.K.: Now, when you talked about the study with the monkeys getting grapes, or cucumbers and the way the monkeys showed their sense of fairness, you referred to Occupy Wall Street protestors. Can you talk about that?

F.W.: Well, the Wall Street protest was all about the bonuses of the bankers and the one percent who gets all the money and we are very sensitive to inequity, just like those monkeys and that's actually a very important problem in society is that one of the speculations about human health in this country for example has to do with inequity.

So there's a scientist, Wilkinson is I believe his name in the U.K., who analysis all over the world inequity and association with health outcomes, and he argues that if you have high inequity in a country, meaning that the rich have more of the resources than anybody else, if you have high inequity you have poor health outcomes.

And so for example, the U.S. has a health care system that takes up twice as much money as in most other industrialized nations, but the longevity in the U.S. is actually shorter than in most other industrialized nations, shorter than in Japan, shorter than in most countries in Europe. So how come that the U.S. has poorer health outcomes despite the fact that you put a lot more money?
Well, one of the reasons is of course the inefficiencies of the health care system, but even the rich in this country, the wealthiest people in this country, even those they live shorter than the wealthiest people in Europe and so the reasoning of some of these democracies is that high level of inequity creates tensions and these tensions translate into tensions in society and that they translate into stress levels that are higher which is why people live shorter lives.
So inequity has all sorts of consequences. Our monkey experiments that we've done similar things with chimpanzees and with other species indicate that it's a very profound and very ancient reaction to react negatively to getting something less than somebody else. Basically, it has enormous consequences, probably also health consequences in human society.

R.K.: I have been very interested in billionaires and I've written a number of articles about calling for an end to billionaires because I have mostly looked at it from the point of view of indigenous tribal cultures. I believe that, and I have talked to anthropologists about this, that in an indigenous tribe if somebody acted like a billionaire, hoarding four hundred times more than anybody else, or even more, they would be treated as crazy, or they would become outcasts.

F.W.: Yeah. I think that's probably true

R.K.: How does that apply to primates?

F.W.: Yeah. that's probably true. It's that" certainly primates who share food like chimpanzees, or Capuchin monkeys, they share food and so they will protest if they don't get from somebody... so let's say, you have an enormous amount of food and you are not sharing with anybody, you're keeping that all for yourself, yeah, there will be a revolt probably at some point.

That will not be accepted, that kind of behavior. You may keep more for yourself than you give away, that's very well possible, but not sharing at all I think is a poor strategy in a primate society like that. So, yeah, I think the point that you make is entirely true.

There are many human societies that are quite egalitarian where certain individuals may have a little bit more than others, but those differences cannot be too great because if they become too great then there's going to be negative consequences. I think that's happening in the U.S., for example you have gated communities. You know that's not known...I'm from the Netherlands. We don't know that in the Netherlands. We've never heard of a gated community. Why do you have gated community is because you have created such big differences in income that there are people who want to take from you even though that's not allowed. So you need to live behind fences to protect yourself.

So that's a very third world type of solution to the problem. Certainly from a European perspective because inequalities are not nearly as great as in Europe and as a result tensions between the rich and the poor are not nearly as great.
R.K.: How would primates handle another primate that attempted to not share in a very aggressive way? How would they handle it? What behavior would they manifest? I know in your video of the study of fairness just in terms of sharing food, one throws food and others you see them spitting. What could you expect to see from a primate if another one didn't share?

F.W.: Well, if the reaction is not violent, which it doesn't need to be violent, because what would happen is that if I collect a lot of the resources and I am eating and consuming them and not sharing with anybody I will become very unpopular. So they don't need to be necessarily violent to me, but they will not cooperate with me.

They will not draw me into their line of cooperation because I am the one who keeps everything for myself. And so I would just lose opportunities for cooperation with others and that's enough of a punishment I think and I think that's also is why in many human egalitarian societies you cannot really hoard everything for yourself because people will turn away from you. In primate societies, it's very common in chimpanzees for example, that they share food and they will be pestering you until you give them food and so they will be throwing tantrums at your feet and making clear that if you don't share with them they get very upset. And imagine you have someone who is absolutely incapable of sharing and keeps everything for themselves, they will become socially isolated and they will become at some point irrelevant to the community. The community will just ignore them and not deal with them.

R.K.: And in terms of cooperation, you've done studies that showed that monkeys not only cooperate to achieve common goals, but they'll even help other monkeys, or other primates when they're not going to be rewarded themselves. When they're already fed they'll help another monkey, or whatever get food. Sharing work is required and you also found that in elephants, right?

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