Friday, October 29, 2010

de Waal on the Biology of Morality

A colleague pointed out this thoughtful piece on morals without God written by primatologist Frans de Waal.
The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss...but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant...but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.
de Waal gives an engaging review of his observations on primate behavior that show clear evidence for moral and altruistic behaviors that can not be linked to simple "selfish gene" models and he ends with this comment about monkey and chimpanzee behaviors:
...they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.


  1. Being a theological thinker, as well as a scientific one, this accounting excites me. For me the question, "does god exist?" no longer seems useful; any god that is a being among other beings, may be see-able, but then couldn't be god.

    A more fascinating question for me is "does love exist?" Not the love we might account for through anthropology, but a love that exists more ontologically as something we have to reach for, or inhabit.

    I see these chimpanzees motivated by something more than an unaware utility.

  2. Interesting musings...thanks for your comments.

  3. I see this behaviour more as an innate behaviour based on experiential patterning learned over time and perhaps generations.
    The reason I say this is while I have seen similar behaviour in humans, we seem to be able to go "tilt" of the care scale much faster, possibly because of more anticipated social responses.
    I don't think god or morals are the driver in this example, just survival (or anticipated homeostasis).
    Survival is still I believe our strongest driver, followed by the need for speed and everything implicit in that urge.
    I work in some very remote and basic locations, and there you find tribes thousands of years old who have evolved in isolation until being discovered by us.
    They don't necessarily have "religion", but they do have well developed and reasoned belief structures, based on the need to explain everything not "human".
    They also have strong moral codes usually based on survival of the tribe, and maintenance of their culture (my word, not theirs).
    We can learn a lot from them I think, if we have the patience to open our ears and think "not right, not wrong, but different".
    Thanks Mike, for the link.

  4. Your welcome Pete. I think your note about getting beyond "wrong or right" when it comes to frameworks of understanding is important: For me, it's not that we can't bring critical thinking to a framework, we can- it's about recognizing that no one framework can capture the complexity that life is. So we're better off looking for useful insights from each other, rather than making fortresses out of frameworks; which seems to be rampant of late.