Frans de Waal, a leading primatologist specializing in sociobiology, tries to solve the problem Charles Darwin once faced: If nature is amoral, how can humans be moral? All behaviors, many sociobiologists believe, can be explained by a so-called “selfish gene.” De Waal, however, seeking biological and evolutionary roots of human behavior, believes morality can be accounted for in the same way as other human traits.
Through de Waal’s eyes the reader sees all kinds of animals help each other, share food, resolve conflicts to mutual satisfaction, and even demonstrate a crude sense of justice. It seems as if chimpanzees in particular do most of the things that humans do in the moral realm, but without the trappings of culture and abstractions of religion. Animals may not have morality, or may not comprehend morality as humans do, but they exhibit the same fundamental tendencies and behaviors, such as altruism and kindness.
De Waal argues that animals possessed a natural sense of morality millions of years before humans even appeared on the evolutionary scene. He writes: “Humans and other animals have been endowed with a capacity for genuine love, sympathy and care.” This fact “can and will one day be reconciled with the idea that genetic self-promotion drives the evolutionary process.”
De Waal does not contend that animals have a morally conscious sense, the way humans do. For example, animals cannot have the concept of right and wrong in a human sense. He hesitates to call the members of any species other than our own “moral beings” but argues that, by observing certain behaviors in animals, humans can account for the genesis of their own moral sensibilities and practices.
Chimpanzees, the closest relatives of humans, exhibit reconciliation, sharing of food, and signs of distress over the suffering of their group members. They also show signs of guilt and shame when violating the social rules of the colony in which they live. De Waal presents numerous anecdotes to illustrate animal shame and guilt. These characteristics, he believes, antedate the appearance of humans. That is why he thinks the study of social behaviors among apes and other animals can establish the biological foundation of morality in humans.
In dealing with animal behavior, it seems as if de Waal has given voice to what animals would say if they could speak. In the last few decades animal behaviorists have attempted to show the correspondence of ape social life with that of humans. One popular example is the sense of kinship and reciprocity discovered by David Attenborough in his encounters with gorillas. De Waal unabashedly claims that animals possess a kind of primitive moral faculty which is at root similar to human morality.
According to most religions, humans are stuck in a peculiar realm between the angels and apes, always striving heavenward but always being pulled downward by their base, animal nature. De Waal believes there is only the realm of nature which contains morality as a function of sociality. Humans have evolved to be morally more complex than other animals but still remain within the purview of evolutionary biology, not within a divine realm or a realm of Kantian Categorical Imperatives. Humans ought to be good simply because it makes sense within the sociobiological, evolutionary framework.
De Waal demystifies the humanocentric ownership of morality and extends humanism beyond the human species. The question of good and evil for some people is “a veneer beneath which we have remained as amoral or immoral as any other form of life.” De Waal refutes this idea and instead gives an account of morality that includes both animals and humans. In short, humans are moral beings and there is no escaping the responsibility that comes with it. Primatologists often focus on the dark side of human and animal nature. Yet by uncovering some of the similar noble impulses in closely related species, such as apes and chimps, humans can recognize the nobility in their own nature. This result is a culmination of the thoughts lucidly expressed in de Waal’sChimpanzee Politics (1982) and Peacemaking Among Primates (1989).
How does de Waal come to such conclusions? He employs philosophy, anecdotal reports, and scientific data. It is this combination of sometimes incompatible methodologies that makes his explanations and claims interesting and dynamic. He uses philosophy to connect animal morality with human ethics. His approach is similar to that of Alan Gibbard, one of the leading philosophers of evolutionary ethics and author of Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgement (1992).
De Waal employs anecdotal reports both as evidence and as a means of charming readers into accepting his metaphors and anthropomorphism. He admits that anthropomorphism cannot take the place of scientific data but thinks it can serve the same function as intuition does for scientific or mathematical discoveries and inventions. He warns against taking anecdotes and parallelisms between animals and human too seriously but is still able to combine science, personal experiences, and anecdotes in a coherent investigation.
(The entire section is 2121 words.)