Book Review: Primates and Philosophers:How Morality Evolved

Primates and Philosophers:How Morality Evolved. By Frans De Waal

1.      De Waal’s primary aim in this book is to criticize a view of morality and human nature that he calls ‘Veneer Theory’. According to Veneer Theory humans are naturally selfish [The intention to serve oneself] and morality is a cultural invention that is designed to control our selfish and competitive tendencies. As such it is at odds with our nature which is selfish to the core and as such is not something that we want to let dictate how we live. This view he attributes to Thomas Huxley, Thomas Hobbes, and more recently to Christopher Badcock, Richard Dawkins and Robert Wright.  For instance De Waal quotes Dawkins (1996) saying “What I am saying, along with many other people, among them T.H.Huxley, is that in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don’t want to live in a Darwinian world” as evidence that Dawkins , like Huxely, is viewing the natural Darwinian world as being in opposition to our social nature and something that we need to overcome. [De Waal p.9].

2.      According to De Waal since ‘Veneer Theory’ holds that morality is a thin veneer that covers our more selfish nature then altruism will be something that is unnatural to us. The problem then becomes how to explain apparent acts of altruism if such acts cannot arise from our nature? Such a theory is committed to skepticism towards putative acts of altruism and suspect that people who claim to act from unselfish motives are engaged in a kind of self-deception whereby they must be hiding their true motives from themselves. They may believe that they and others can act from unselfish motives because they want the world to be a friendly and hospitable place. Such a view is captured in the famous quote by Ghieslen “Scratch an altruist and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed”. [De Waal p.10]

3.      De Waal argues that evolution and altruism are compatible by noting that evolution will favour animals that assist each other, if by doing so they achieve long term benefits of greater value than going it alone. Species that rely on co-operation show group loyalty and helping tendencies and such tendencies will have evolved in a close knit social life in which they benefited relatives and companions able to repay the favor (kin selection and reciprocal altruism). This does not imply that when non-human animals (or humans) help each other they have a return favor in mind.  De Waal then argues that the pro-social impulses can then become divorced from the consequences that shaped its evolution in which case we help strangers outside of our group. In the course of this argument De Waal cites examples of reciprocal altruism in other primates and targeted helping such as that of ‘Kuni’ a female bonobo that protected a bird and helped it onto a high spot so that it could fly out of the cage, as well as chimps expressions of anger at being rewarded unequally when contributing equally to earn food.

4: De Waal takes the behavior of other primates that exhibit empathy such as altruistic behavior and complaint at unfair rewards as evidence that primates have the building blocks of human morality. A key premise is that where there are behavioral similarities between humans and other primates we should posit similar underlying capacities that explain such behavior (absent any other reason to the contrary) as a matter of explanatory parsimony.  So for De Waal what connects human morality and non-human animal behavior is the role of our emotions is generating emphatic responses to the circumstances of others that motive us to help them.  Such a view has its counter-part by psychologists such as John Bargh, Zajonc and Antonio Damascio who stress the primacy of affect and the role of non-conscious decision making in generating moral judgments and guiding behavior.

5: However, De Waal also claims that moral emotions in humans can be disconnected from ones immediate situation as they deal with good and bad at a more abstract level. Hence he holds that it is only when we make general judgments of how anyone ought to be treated that we can begin to speak of moral approval and disapproval. Hence it is the cognitive differences that overlay our emotional responses that accounts for moral action. (This is a point that his three respondents will focus on.) The cognitive layers are added to an already existing set of emotions that govern the social life of other animals. As such De Waal agrees with Darwin that “Any animal whatever, endowed with well marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as the intellectual powers had become as well developed, as in man. (Darwin 1982 [1871]:71-72” (De Waal p.14) With this in mind De Waal finds the imagery of the Russian Doll suitable for capturing this continuity with other animals as it portrays the person as containing layers of past selves or earlier stages of development within the species within themselves.

6: Hence to come back to the books starting point De Waal wants to say that since empathy and concern for others has a deep rooted evolutionary tendency that is to some extent shared by our closest primate relatives then our Darwinian nature is not something that we need to overcome (contra Dawkins et al) but something that we should want to cultivate. This debate over human nature is nicely illustrated with a dialogue from ancient Chinese philosophy between Mencius and Kaou Tsze where human nature is compared to the ke willow. De Waal firmly sides with Mencius in holding that we do not do violence to human nature (the ke willow) in the formation of benevolent traits in others but instead refine the sentiments that we find already existing in young children and social animals. These are the traits that De Waal claims are the building blocks of our morality.” [De Waal p. 57].


De Waal’s commentators are all critical of the notion that other primates have the building blocks of morality as it is found in humans. The first two responses are from Mark Wright and Christine Korsgaard. Ironically Mark Wright who De Waal singled out as a veneer theorist comes closest to agreeing with De Waal over the commonalities between human and primate behavior. But Wright makes the point that our morality is too easily corrupted by our inherent tendencies to form biased judgments in favor of our friends rather than enemies and as such human morality is a thin veneer over our natural tendencies.   Christine Korsgaard also stresses how human moral behavior is different from the behavior of primates to such an extent that primate behavior cannot be seen as moral at all.  “We have ideas about what we ought to do and to be like and we are constantly trying to live up to them. Apes do not live in that way. We struggle to be honest courteous and responsible and brave in circumstances where it is difficult. Even if apes are sometimes courteous, responsible and brave, it is not because they think they should be.” [De Waal 117]

The next two commentators Philip Kitcher and Peter Singer also stress the differences between human and non-human primate behaviour.  Kitcher is sceptical of the De Waal’s talk of ‘building blocks’ of morality as he holds that this phrase is too vague to be of use. In a foot note [De Waal p.131] Kitcher is sceptical that De Waal’s fairness experiment regarding Capuchin monkeys receiving unequal rewards (a cucumber rather than the preferred grape)  for the same amount of work actually reveals a sense of fairness as the monkey may just be protesting in order to get what its collaborator in the task received.  However, it would be a different situation if the monkey that received the higher reward (the grape) threw down the grape in joint protest but that does not occur.  Singer also holds that we can only speak of moral approval and disapproval rather than approval and disapproval. For Singer the extension of morality to others including other species is determined by reason (Singer views moral reasoning is like an escalator that we cannot get off until we have reached our destination) but is also fragile and hence could be seen as a veneer that is contrary to our nature.  Singer highlights the continuity and difference between humans and other species by reference to the ‘Trolley Problem’. He holds that whilst our emotional responses to harming someone are deep rooted and the result of our evolutionary past we are able to overcome them and think about whether it is right to sacrifice one person’s life in order to save another. It is this sort of consequentialist weighing up of situations and the ability to over-ride our initial emotional responses reasoning that sets us apart from other animals.  Singer makes the point that patterns of human social behaviour may reside in our evolutionary past that we share with other animals that this claim is distinct from saying that all of human ethics derives from our evolved nature as social mammals. This latter point we must reject.

De Waal finishes by saying that whether animals are moral or not may be a semantic dispute  (depending on whether you see moral behaviour as composed of helping others and withholding from harming them or whether you see moral behaviour as following moral principles concerning fairness and impartiality) that will keep academics engaged for some time.  However he again stresses that our closes relatives possess the building blocks out of which human morality has evolved even if human morality has unique components that distinguish our behaviour from our relatives.  Over all this is a succinct and very enjoyable book written in a way that is accessible to a wide range of audiences.

There is an explanation of the ‘fairness’ experiment given by De Waal here


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One Response to Book Review: Primates and Philosophers:How Morality Evolved

  1. I thought Kitcher’s comment regarding the fairness experiment with monkeys was itself unfair. How many people actually refuse to get paid wages higher than their female counter-parts when they realise they are doing the same work but for more?

    There are none that I know of and yet it is common for people to protest when they see themselves getting less than others for doing comparable work. Hence I think De Waals point that this reaction to unfairness has its roots in our evolutionary past and can be seen in Capuchin monkeys is a sound one to make.

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