can’t see the forest

Biology and Morality

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An interesting article from the New York Times by Nicholas Wade, mirrored from Here’s a peek:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are. . .

. . .Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.

Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.

Dr. de Waal’s views are based on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He noticed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser. But he was waylaid in battles with psychologists over imputing emotional states to animals, and it took him 20 years to come back to the subject.

He found that consolation was universal among the great apes but generally absent from monkeys — among macaques, mothers will not even reassure an injured infant. To console another, Dr. de Waal argues, requires empathy and a level of self-awareness that only apes and humans seem to possess. And consideration of empathy quickly led him to explore the conditions for morality.

So . . .there was some form of morality before the New Testament. How very novel!! If only we enlightened human beings could learn to extend the ‘golden rule’ to other species . . .perhaps that’s the next stage in the evolution of mind?


4 Responses

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  1. timethief said, on 3/21/07 at 5:17 pm

    I think this was a very interesting post. I live on a very small gulf island have seen compassion among animals. I have witnessed my horses babysitting fawns while their mothers ate. And I have watched my horse kneel down so an old arthritic cat could ride on his back all the way to pasture in the morning and then back to the the barn again at supper time. I too hope that inter-species compassion will be the next evolution of the mind.

  2. Curtis said, on 3/21/07 at 5:30 pm

    That’s a beautiful story. I wish I’d seen that (on all counts!) It would seem that our own species is more of an exception to the rule than an exemplar, in this regard. And yet the potential is so great.

  3. The Brothers Bleiman said, on 3/22/07 at 8:48 am

    If you are into this sort of thing, the book “Why Elephants Weep” is definitely a must-read, so is any research/media/books on Bonobos (a great “Nature” episode on them aired recently on PBS), creatures with perhaps the highest capacity for compassion of any species other than our own.

    Love your blog, would love suggestions on ours…we just went live last week.

    the Brothers Bleiman

  4. Curtis said, on 3/22/07 at 10:12 am

    Many thanks for the compliment and for the suggestion, I’ll check it out.

    Good luck! I’ll come visit.

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