Virtuous Species: The Biological Origins of Human Morality

Frans de Waal

Human morality springs from evolutionary foundations that were handed down from our pre-human ancestors and can still be seen today in our primate cousins, says noted zoologist Frans de Waal. But these foundations use compassion and caring as well as competition to achieve their evolutionary ends, giving us a more free and flexible vision of human nature, he says in this exclusive interview with Science & Spirit.

 “Where does this tenderness come from?”

                                                                   -Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva

Human beings, we’ve been told, are selfish creatures, driven by selfish genes in a relentless Darwinian war of all against all. We are inherently violent, aggressive, dominating: “killer apes,” captives of our evolutionary development. Only the most stalwart vigilance, the most strenuous effort, can keep us from lapsing into the mindless, bloody and self-seeking behavior that springs from our biological origins — and history shows that this vigilance fails us at almost every turn.

Yet somewhere in the midst of this evolutionary maelstrom, the human species has been able to develop a profound moral sense, exemplified in spectacular feats of self-sacrifice, as well as in the countless small kindnesses that fill our everyday lives. How can this be? Surely some supernatural hand has been at work, implanting in us a strength and wisdom to overcome our own ingrained, selfish nature?

Frans de Waal thinks that science can show us a way out of this apparent evolutionary conundrum, which holds a vicious, biological amorality in one hand and a divinely inspired transcendence of nature in the other. The fault lies in the erroneous view that there is only one path to evolutionary survival — the hard and brutal way of the “selfish gene.” In fact, natural selection provides several different strategies for survival, says de Waal; and our moral sense, our capacity for self-sacrifice, far from requiring supernatural intervention, is actually an evolved characteristic, whose foundations can be seen in other animals, and not uniquely in ourselves.

In years of research, detailed in such best-selling books as Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, and Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, the Dutch-born zoologist has examined “the profound paradox that genetic self-advancement at the expense of others — which is the basic thrust of evolution — has given rise to remarkable capacities for caring and sympathy.”

His argument is at once both simple and profound. “Given the universality of moral systems, the tendency to develop them must be an integral part of human nature,” he wrote in Good Natured. Human nature is a product of both biology and the environment; morality, then, must be, in part, a product of evolution. As such, it has roots in prehuman species — roots which can be observed in our closest animal relatives, the primates.

De Waal’s work has helped transform our view of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” To be sure, there is violence, aggression, even murder and war among some primates — a bleak template for human behavior. But de Waal has also uncovered a set of “tendencies and capabilities” in primates that can also be found at the center of human moral systems. These include sympathetic behavior toward the disadvantaged, sharing of resources, social rules governing the exchange of services (grooming, food-sharing, etc.), with punishment (e.g., ostracism, withdrawal of sharing privileges) for violators and rewards (extra sharing, protection) for “good citizens,” and, perhaps most remarkable of all, an obvious concern for the peace of the community, expressed in numerous acts aimed at conflict resolution. (For example, de Waal writes of observing female chimps intervening between two males riled for combat; the females stepped in and took away the sticks and rocks the males had picked up as weapons.) And he has found that not all primates engage in the kind of aggression which is often seen as inherent in primates — like us.

“I don’t think animals are moral beings as we are,” de Waal says in a telephone interview from his office at Emory University in Georgia. “But many features of their behavior can also be seen in our moral systems. Human morality is not constructed from scratch. It works from a basic foundation inherited from animals, from earlier, prehuman systems. It has an evolutionary basis.”

One cause of confusion over the role of evolution has been the “selfish gene” metaphor, made famous by Richard Dawkins in his epochal work of the same name. Dawkins paints the biological imperative most starkly, writing: “If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

De Waal believes this paints a distorted, overly dark picture of the evolutionary pressures that bear on human behavior.

“To say ‘selfish gene’ is misleading,” says de Waal. “Self-promoting gene would be better. They do promote themselves, but in many different ways, through many different kinds of behavior. Genes which are successful in promoting themselves will be passed on, of course — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they promote selfish behavior. Some animals survive through cooperation, kindness, and supportive behavior, not just by aggression and selfishness. Of course, that doesn’t mean that, in the long run, this cooperative behavior is not the best thing for the gene.”

Dawkin’s powerful metaphor “has given rise to the idea that everyone is selfish,” says de Waal. “But if you look at human behavior, we are in many ways a very altruistic species. Adopting children, for example — an act of great generosity, investing enormous resources in an individual who is not related to you. Or the people who risk their lives to save strangers in earthquakes and other emergencies.

“At the same time,” he adds quickly, “we are very competitive species. No one can deny that.” But the mix of altruism and competition “is true for other animals. Both approaches are compatible with natural selection.”

Beyond Nature and Nurture

Another problem, he says, is the widespread equation of human and primate behavior. There are clear links — the behaviors spring from the same common root, and that’s why the study of primates can yield considerable insights into human behavior. (Insights which are sometimes applied in surprising ways; one of de Waal’s books, Chimpanzee Politics, was taken up by some American politicians in the early 1990s as an almost Machiavellian model for political maneuvering.) But the popular conceptions often focus on a too-narrow view of primates, fixing on chimpanzees, because of their close genetic kinship to humans.

“There is a lot of cynical literature out there,” de Waal says. “It’s cynical about the human species, describing it as entirely selfish. Chimpanzees are used to support this — ‘Look at how they kill! And they are the closest to us!’ and so on. But bonobos are equally close to us, and they don’t display this kind of violent behavior.”

The bonobo can best be characterized “as a female-centered, egalitarian primate species that substitutes sex for aggression,” de Waal has written in The Forgotten Ape. “Whereas in most other species, sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it has become an integral part of social relationships, and not just between males and females…Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination: male-male, male-female, female-female, male-juvenile, female-juvenile, and so on.” Such sexual contact is not, obviously, restricted to reproductive purposes, but is also used to express affection, to restore harmony after disputes, and for simple pleasure. In social structure, bonobos are dominated by a loose hierarchy of females, who tend to bond more closely with each other than with males. Violence is not unknown among bonobos, but cooperation and conflict resolution are the hallmarks of the society, in contrast with the more contentious, competitive chimpanzees.

These “forgotten apes” play a key role in de Waal’s thinking, and he presses home the point. “We have the old assumptions: that warfare, male dominance, and violence are ‘in our nature,’ we are ‘killer apes,’ etc. But these behaviors are not practiced by the bonobos, and they are as close to us genetically as the chimpanzee. This opens up a new theoretical perspective on human evolution: other strategies are available. The use of chimpanzees as a comparative model is not bad in itself, of course; but it is not the only model.”

This new perspective is important, says de Waal; it means that “there is more flexibility in our lineage with respect to social outcomes than was once assumed.”

“Human evolution was once seen as a steady progress that required the elimination of hominids who were less aggressive,” he says. “Warfare and aggression were seen as major parts of human evolution. Now, with new studies, we see that other aspects have been important: language, the role of women — which was totally ignored in the past — tool use, and conflict resolution skills. I would even say that conflict resolution is one of the hallmarks of the human species.”

The earlier grim scenario of human evolution was quite understandable, adds de Waal. “It was a scenario informed by the Second World War. After that, people became very pessimistic about the human species. We had seen, in those horrors, what we were really capable of.”

But this view also became “a whitewash” by some biologists, he says, an excuse to delve no further into human nature, and to base public discourse on a harsh determinism. “There was the idea of instinctual violence and aggression: ‘We are, after all, an aggressive species, biology is destiny’ — as if we have no other option.”

Yet while some promoted (or sadly accepted) this bleak interpretation of Darwinian thought, others, especially in the general public, became wary of all evolutionary views of human behavior. This too is “fully understandable,” de Waal says.

“This also comes out of World War II. There we saw how biology was clearly abused. The fear of this is not irrational. Biologists will always have to live with the legacy of these abuses.”

But there is another risk as well, he adds. “If we take the opposite view, and say that we can be anything, that we can shape humanity in any way, through cultural forces — there is danger in that as well. We saw this in the Communist countries. It was a doctrine in conflict with human nature, submerging individuality for the common good, for the state, the collective. We saw large-scale indoctrination and schooling, thousands chanting the poems of Chairman Mao — an enormous effort to modify human behavior. It failed miserably, and in that failure killed millions of people. So there is danger from both sides: the abuse of biology, and the abuse of the idea of total cultural flexibility.”

De Waal looks forward to the day when the old Nature/Nurture debate is finally cast aside in favor of a more holistic and unified view of human behavior.

“Biologists used to be on the defensive in the 70s and 80s: there was much opposition when they argued that a lot of human behavior had a genetic component. Now, it’s almost the opposite. Almost every day, you’ll see a ‘new gene’ for this or that announced on TV. People all too readily accept genetic influence on behavior. It exists, of course, but the environment also plays a part.”

But the old categories are still there, he says. “You see people describe a behavior as 30 percent genetic, 70 percent environmental. They need to add up to 100 percent. But what if behavior is constructed in a free-flowing way, in a dynamic, integrated process?

“At some point we need to get out of this dichotomy. We need to get rid of the idea that behavior is determined either by genes or the environment. Everything human beings do is profoundly influenced by genes and the environment.”

The same is true of animals. People think of animals as “instinctual machines,” but they too are strongly influenced by the environment. “They are just as much subject to a long history of learning and education as we are.”

A Deeper View

Although his work touches on some issues which are “hot button” concerns for many religious believers — evolution, behavior (the bonobos, in particular, might cause alarm with their free-and-easy sexuality), and the origins of morality — de Waal sees no need for a struggle between science and religion.

“My view, as a biologist, is that religion is something more to be explained than criticized. We need to explain why so many people are attracted to it and find great comfort in it. If you accept , as I do, that human morality comes from a set of biological adaptations we have in our psychology, then religion could be seen as a system to unify the community, to impose morality more forcefully than would normally be possible — a unifying mechanism that puts unity of the community very highly.

“I don’t necessarily see a conflict between science and religion,” he continues. “With literalist Bible readers, of course, you will get into conflict. But that’s a way of being religious that I can’t understand. But a much more spiritual approach, where the emphasis is on the meaning behind the words, on the spirit of the words, not on what is literally said — why should that conflict with science?”

He points to the work of biologist Ursula Goodenough as an example. “She speaks of how wonderful nature is, of being in awe before nature, seeing it as an inspiration for spirituality. Of using scientific knowledge to increase your admiration for what you see. So there is no inherent need for a conflict, except with the literalists — a minority, perhaps, but a vocal minority.

In Good Natured, de Waal famously declared that “we seem to be reaching a point at which science can wrest morality from the hands of philosophers.” Some have taken the statement as confrontational, or perhaps hubristic, but de Waal defuses controversy with a laugh.

“Wrest morality from the philosophers? Only temporarily,” he laughs, then explains. “Philosophers — and social scientists, too — get involved in their theories, and don’t look beyond them. They usually look at our species’ behavior as a recent phenomenon, and try to explain things by reference to recent history. Going back more than 5,000 years is too far for them. But I can’t believe that things like language, morality, culture, and politics arose only in the last few thousand years. We departed from the chimp about 5 million years ago. Half a million years ago our own species emerged. But there was development even before our species existed. It’s unimaginable that we have developed all that we have now out of the blue.

“It’s a narrow, short-term view of what morality is,” he says. “Biology can provide a much broader perspective, reaching back much further in time to examine the foundations of morality — then give it back to the philosophers.”


Chris Floyd is Editor of Science & Spirit. This interview with Frans de Waal, professor of psychology and a research scientist at Emory University, originally appeared in the March/April 2000, (Vol. 11, Number 1) issue of Science & Spirit:

 Mūsdienu cilvēks ir himēra, kurā apvienotas divas būtnes: primāts, kurš ir spiests rīkoties, kuru dzen instinktu prasības, un kultūras cilvēks, kurš deklarējis, izvēlējies, noformulējis savai dzīvei pavisam citas prasības.

Mēs esam kā pagājušā gadsimta tvaika mašīna, kurā evolūcija, pakāpeniski uzlabojot un pārtaisot,  iebūvējusi moderna auto motoru. Un mums ar visu šo mantojumu tagad jādzīvo.


About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence. Artificial Intelligence Foundation Latvia, Editor.
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