Primal Empathy & The Roots of Morality

By Jason Marsh | March 20, 2007 | 0 comments

The New York Times Science section has a long piece today about the biological and evolutionary roots of human morality. The article features primatologist Frans de Waal's work with chimps and monkeys, which has strongly suggested that these primates possess basic forms of empathy and exhibit emotions and behaviors that provide the building blocks for human morality.

Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates.
Social living requires empathy, which is especially evident in chimpanzees, as well as ways of bringing internal hostilities to an end. Every species of ape and monkey has its own protocol for reconciliation after fights, Dr. de Waal has found. If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males' hands.
Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.

De Waal, who's a Greater Good editorial board member, made this argument in more detail in a compelling essay in Greater Good last year.

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About The Author

Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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