Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Primate beginnings of morality

Nicholas Wade, in the NY Times science section, presents a nice summary of the views of Franz de Waal, Marc Hauser, and other regarding moral behaviors in primates that are antecedent, and similar, to our own. Here is the PDF of the article, and I show the illustrations by Edel Rodriguez based on source material from Frans de Waal and legends below.

Chimpanzees have a sense of social structure and rules of behavior, most of which involve the hierarchy of a group, in which some animals rank higher than others. Social living demands a number of qualities that may be precursors of morality.

Frans de Waal argues that the building blocks of human morality can be seen in the behavior of nonhuman primates like himpanzees. Mutual grooming, for example, shows a sense of fairness or reciprocity.

Chimpanzees engage in both reconciliation and peacemaking. Male chimpanzees routinely reconcile after fights, which protects their group’s social fabric. And Dr. de Waal has described female chimpanzees removing stones from the hands of males about to fight.

The ability to understand the plight of others — empathy — is clearly an essential part of any moral system. Chimpanzees exhibit a variety of behaviors that suggest they have the capacity for empathy, such as helping a frightened young chimp down from a tree.

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