Biology in the News Explained

Morality is not a human construct

Frans de Waal is my new hero. He has performed a body of research on various non-human primates which has demonstrated that at least a minimal level, morality is a byproduct of sociality, rather than a unique human construct. His experiments are well designed, and essentially make it clear that the “golden rule” morality of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is an important system that helps hold many primate groups together.

As he writes in an essay from the New Scientist (“The animal roots of human morality,” October 14, 2006, pp. 60-61):

In The Descent of Man [Darwin] wrote: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts… would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

It is not hard to recognise the two pillars of human morality in the behaviour of other animals. These pillars are elegantly summed up in the golden rule that transcends the world’s cultures and religions: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This unites empathy (attention to another’s feelings) with reciprocity (if others follow the same rule, you too will be treated well). Human morality as we know it is unthinkable without empathy and reciprocity.

It has always been strange and interesting to me (as de Waal makes it clear it is interesting to him as well) that this basic rule does not seem to be recognized by a lot of people as the cornerstone to human morality. I believe it is embraced by secular humanists, but in many cultures, religion has interfered with and been confused with human morality, when in fact morality predates religion and in fact has nothing to do with religion. Religious morality is actually a set of rules to distinguish the practitioners of certain religions from the rest of the world, the “outsiders:”

Our evolutionary background makes it hard to identify with outsiders. We’ve been designed to hate our enemies, to ignore people we barely know, and to distrust anybody who doesn’t look like us. Even if we are largely cooperative within our communities, we become almost a different animal in our treatment of strangers.

Empathy is the one weapon in the human repertoire able to rid us of the curse of xenophobia. It is fragile, though. In our close relatives it is switched on by events within their community, such as a youngster in distress, but it is just as easily switched off with regards to outsiders…
(de Waal, “The empathic ape,” New Scientist October 8, 2005 p. 52)

This relates to a previous post of mine on the tendency for humans to “switch off” their empathy when communicating over the internet, either to a specific individual through email, or via the blogging culture of mass demonization of a defined group or individuals supposedly representing that group.

It also turns out that the effort to conform in order to fit into society is not limited to humans, either. In a Nature article (Andrew Whiten, Victoria Horner & Frans B. M. de Waal, 2005. Conformity to cultural norms of tool use in chimpanzees.
Nature 437:737-740), de Waal and colleagues found that when two chimpanzees, from two different social groups, were each taught a different way of working the same machine to receive food, chimps not only learned the method taught the chimp from their group, but preferred it even when they figured out the other way too. From the abstract:

… A subset of chimpanzees that discovered the alternative method nevertheless went on to match the predominant approach of their companions, showing a conformity bias that is regarded as a hallmark of human culture.

The conclusion of that article states their experimental results plainly:

…[W]e found evidence of a conformist bias, identified in numerous human studies as a powerful tendency to discount personal experience in favour of adopting perceived community norms…

These results suggest an ancient origin for the conformist cultural propensities so evident in humans.

Here’s one more interesting paper, which found that primates participating in games designed to see if animals will always act in their self-interest, often did not. This is a well known idea about humans in economic circles. For example, there is a game in which two people have to agree to accept a certain amount of money. If one person does not agree, neither gets the money, but if they both agree, they both do. If two people are given the same amount of money, each happily takes the reward. But although it is always to a person’s benefit to accept any amount of money, most people will reject the money if they find out that the other person would get significantly more than they do. This result probably is not too surprising to most of us.

It is interesting, though, that de Waal and his colleagues have found a quite similar behavior in primates (Sarah F. Brosnana,and Frans B. M. de Waal, 2005. Across-species perspective on the selfishness axiom. BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES 28:818):

We know that some nonhuman primates react to being relatively underbenefitted compared to a conspecific, which is irrational according to a strict self-interest paradigm.

I find myself disagreeing with the statement that this behavior is irrational, however. In the context of sociality, it is not, necessarily. The basis of sociality is reciprocity, and therefore it makes sense that even animals behave as if there has been an injustice in this case. I think a functional society needs to demonstrate that there is a minimum of justice. Those human societies in which this minimum is not met are not productive, or functional, in my opinion.

And based on experiments to look at the idea of sharing, another social behavior, in primates, these same authors state:

…there was virtually no sharing between the privileged individual and their less well-endowed partner…It is interesting, therefore, that the relatively benefited individuals did not exert more effort to equalize rewards.

Interesting, perhaps… but certainly consistent with human behavior as well.

Based on this extensive research on non-human primates, the origins of both conformity and morality are clearly pre-human. Each is a double-edged sword – the dangers of groupthink (especially within a “social group” of leadership) should be clear to everyone, and the “golden rule” can create problems when people across cultures (an everyday occurrence in today’s world) are attempting to interact – treating someone the way you would want to be treated results in people taking offense all the time.

Humans love to believe we transcend biology, because we are not mere “animals.” Based on de Waal’s work, however, it seems we may be doomed to be limited by the structure of brains adapted to functioning within small societies. Globalization has been far too rapid to even imagine that any evolution to cope with its intricacies has occurred.


One Response to “Morality is not a human construct”

  1. OGRastamon says:

    While these are interesting and even heartening discoveries, I do not see the logical progression that leads to your statement that morality is not a human construct. This would equate to observing the behavior of beavers and concluding that the Hoover Dam is not a human construct.
    This discovery only strengthens the notion of morality as a construct which is adaptable to the needs of individuals and societies and undermines the idea of absolute or intrinsic value.

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