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He studies where morals come from
By Kelly Murray, CNN
Tue May 7,
(CNN) -- 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
More about de Waal's research
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.
CNN: How would you say that ethics or morality is separate from
De Waal: 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.
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.
CNN: So 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.
CNN: Can you talk about how being nice to another individual
De 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 selfishly motivated.
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 empathy.
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.
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.
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.
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 so on.
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?
De 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
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.
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 living.
CNN: Is there anything we can learn from animals about how to live a good
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.
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.