Last month’s column focused on recent research related to the neurobiological underpinnings of belief and faith (our ability to make assumptions and act confidently when we can’t accurately predict the outcome of a looming challenge). Much of this research has focused on the brain systems that process spiritual and religious beliefs (our presumed personal relationship to such ethereal concepts as god and the cosmos).

We live out our life with terrestrial organisms however, and so our search for an appropriate personal relationship with them is important, and at the core of the concepts of morality and ethics.

Morality as a concept is concerned with the general definitional principles of right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair, and so on; and ethics with the development of specific behavioral codes that folks should follow. For example, since it’s immoral to kill someone, the medical profession has developed ethical guidelines that reduce the possibility of death from medical mistakes and malpractice (Sylwester, 2007).

The scientific study of spiritual and religious behavior via neuroimaging technology that was discussed in last month’s column is also occurring in the study of the brain systems and processes that make moral and ethical decisions (Greene, 2005). A more basic issue however is that of how morality and ethical behavior emerged.

One traditional view is that moral behavior is a distinctly human property that we don’t share with animals because they lack both the cognitive capability to make abstract moral judgments, and the language needed to forge ethical systems. This position argues that self—interest and survival are our primary concerns, and a moral concern for others is simply a thin veneer that humans developed to cover a self—centered amoral (if not immoral) base. Scratch an altruist and observe a hypocrite bleed. The theological concept of original sin refers to this presumed need for humans to rise above their basic selfish nature, and to consciously choose to behave morally and ethically.

An opposing view argues that we have always been a social species, so individual survival is only part of our story. If we are essentially individualistic and selfish, we would have neither the innate capability nor the impetus to develop moral/ethical behavior. It thus argues that since collaboration and assistance are essential to the survival of any social species, the biological substrate of the moral/ethical behavior that humans exhibit must also exist at some level within non—human social species—from ants and bees to wolves and primates—and that human moral/ethical behavior evolved from these ancient primitive roots.

Primates and Philosophers
Frans de Waal is world-renowned for his pioneering studies of the social behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest evolutionary relatives. During the past decade, he has written six excellent books for general readers on his discoveries and beliefs (see Resources). His most recent book, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (2006) is especially interesting because four renowned philosophers contributed thought provoking critiques of de Waal’s work and beliefs. The book thus explores key issues about the nature and genesis of morality from several perspectives.

De Waal believes that the biological roots of morality are embedded in emotion, an almost universal arousal system that alerts an organism to dangerous or opportunistic challenges. The ability to also empathetically assess and appropriately respond to a challenge confronting another from within (or beyond) one’s community is central to the success of a social species. De Waal’s writings are replete with examples of such empathetic behaviors in the apes that he and his colleagues have studied.

For example, a female bonobo (Kuni) captured a slightly injured starling. A researcher in the compound urged her to release it. Kuni held the bird in one hand and climbed to the top of a tree where she wrapped her legs around the trunk so both hands were free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide before throwing the bird as hard as she could towards the enclosure’s barrier. When the bird unfortunately fell short of the barrier, Kuni descended from the tree and guarded it for a long time against a curious juvenile.

What Kuni did was appropriate for releasing a bird, but it would have been an inappropriate response for any other animal. That Kuni acted appropriately is important. Although de Waal doesn’t believe that apes have the problem solving and moral capabilities of humans, he argues that they exhibit many of the basic capabilities that have become enhanced in human moral behavior.

What’s central to de Waal’s view of morality is to help (and not hurt) others impartially, without reference to their kinship or friendship. If I as a stranger am in danger and you decide to withhold assistance that you could provide, you are in effect hurting me. The ape studies have recorded many examples of such helpful and hurtful responses.

De Waal differentiates between morality and social conventions. For example, he views such behaviors as public nudity, foul language, and same—sex bonding as cultural and not moral issues. Clothing and other conventions are culturally dependent, but moral behavior (such as exemplified by The Golden Rule) is almost universal.

The complexity of human life has raised many perplexing genuinely moral issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war, industrial pollution, and the use of animals in diet and research. The distinguished scholars who contributed to the book have no simple solutions to the increasing complexity of morality. Further, instant global electronic communication has simply exacerbated the complexity.

Despite this, de Waal argues that the continuing discussion at least shouldn’t deny the deep evolutionary roots of human morality. To do so would be like arriving at the top of a tower and then declaring the lower parts to be irrelevant, that the concept of tower should be reserved only for its summit.

To the question are animals moral? De Waal replies, “Let us simply conclude that they occupy several floors of the tower of morality. Rejection of even this modest proposal can only result in an impoverished view of the structure as a whole.”

This link will activate a riveting eight-minute video that depicts life-ending/sustaining competitive and cooperative behavior in the African veldt. It will trigger many thoughtful comparisons between human and animal behaviors that are rooted in the underpinnings of morality. The cast of characters: a pride of lions, a herd of water buffalo, a pair of crocodiles, and some amazed folks on a safari. Watch it. Think about it.