Many people, even today, like to see humans as something apart from the rest of the world—the special species that either has so far outdistanced our nearest relatives that comparisons are no longer useful or even possible; or the special species created by God in his own image and likeness, and therefore not even related to the rest of brute creation. Either view massages the human sense of ourselves as elevated, different, and with ultimate dominion over all our planetary co-habitants. Made by God or Nature to rule, we can do whatever we wish to not just the domestic animals we raise and manipulate for food, but to all wild animals as well. And what particularly gives us this sense of ourselves as unique and uniquely in charge is our morality. Though our bodies may run on the same kinds of energy and operate with the same kinds of cells and bodily structures and even brains common to most life forms, and though some primates may be able to communicate using signs we’ve taught them, no other animal has an even remotely comparable sense of fairness, of compassion, of justice. And all those abstract qualities depend chiefly on our highly developed sense of reason—on our brain-centered rationality. We alone can look at a problem, figure out its origins and causes, and come up with a rational solution.
Now anyone who has been paying attention to science in recent years knows that such views have been getting a terrible buffeting since the days of Charles Darwin. Far from being separate, Darwin showed what subsequent scientists have filled out and firmed up: we descend directly from the rest of creation, and our distance from our nearest relatives, the great apes, seems ever more narrow. We share at least 98.7% of our DNA with bonobos and chimpanzees. Which, again, might be acceptable and leave us some “special” room if only we could still claim some distinction like morality. Alas, according to Frans deWaal, a researcher at Emory University’s renowned primate lab and author of The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (Norton: 2013), this small comfort can no longer be maintained. According to deWaal, and several others he cites, recent research using neuroscience demonstrates that most of our vaunted moral and social distinctions can be found in similar form among bonobos or chimps, or both. Their roots can even be found among just about all mammals as well. What this means is that far from being a gift from the God we’ve been worshipping for several thousands of years in a variety of religions (that great theologian Ronald Reagan in 1984 said: “as morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related…”), morality is actually built into our brains, especially our emotional brains.
This seems to me to be good news. It explains that unlike many conservatives and religionists, who see humans as basically ‘bad’ and therefore in need of harsh rules and punitive controls to ‘civilize’ us, we humans, with our basic equipment deriving from apes, are programmed not only to be good but also to do good. deWaal quotes his colleague at Emory, James Rilling, to the effect that we have “emotional biases toward cooperation that can only be overcome with effortful cognitive control” (49). As deWaal explains it, this means “that our first impulse is to trust and assist; only secondarily do we weigh the option of not doing so, for which we need reasons.” Using brain-monitoring techniques, Rilling showed that when normal people aid others, “brain areas associated with reward are activated.” As deWaal succinctly puts it: Doing good feels good. To be sure, there are psychopaths in any population whose brains, for whatever reasons, lack these emotional rewards. But in a later section, deWaal follows Chris Boehm in surmising that evolution has probably worked to marginalize these outliers: the penalty, in social groups, for not cooperating can be harsh, ranging from ostracism to complete elimination—thus minimizing the propagation of those with such genes.
What deWaal does in the rest of his book is to show that far from being imposed from above by a law-giving God, or from reasoning by deep-thinking philosophers, the moral law in fact “arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time” (228). This is especially true among animals who live and hunt cooperatively, like dogs, chimpanzees and bonobos:
The most fundamental one [i.e. value] derives from the survival value of group life. The desire to belong, to get along, to love and be loved, prompts us to do everything in our power to stay on good terms with those on whom we depend. Other social primates share this value and rely on the same filter between emotion and action [i.e. on inhibitions] to reach a mutually agreeable modus vivendi. (228).
It also applies to our Neanderthal relatives, who, recent fossil evidence shows, took care of the infirm (individuals afflicted with dwarfism, paralysis, or the inability to chew survived into adulthood) in the same way early humans did. Since Neanderthals lived hundreds of millennia before civilization and its gods, this means, again, that morality and its basis in empathy existed well before civilization itself. Further, since the evidence of empathy among primates is by now well-established (mirror neurons, the brain cells that mediate empathy and allow us to feel what another is going through, were first discovered in macaque monkeys), it seems quite clear that humans easily adopted the moral laws promoted by religions (like the ten commandments) primarily because they were already inclined to be moral. To cooperate. To help others in order that more of the group might survive. And, from the negative side, to avoid hurting others by inhibiting the impulse to do them damage. As deWaal sums it up, “a social hierarchy is a giant system of inhibitions, which is no doubt what paved the way for human morality, which is also such a system” (150).
This latter point has great relevance for our time, it seems to me. For we are even now engaged in a great debate about what economic system best fits our human nature. Up till very recently, we have been told that capitalism is “natural,” that competition is “natural,” that the war of every individual against every other individual to monopolize resources is “natural.” But if our primate inheritance prizes cooperation, prizes helping others, inhibits us from hurting others, puts the welfare of the group or community above the individual impulse to harm or to hog everything to oneself, then this attribution of “natural” would seem to have serious shortcomings. Consider what deWaal writes about the ideas of fairness and justice, both fundamental components of any moral law. He first cites the “egalitarianism” of hunter-gatherer groups, where “hunters aren’t even allowed to carve up their own kill, in order to prevent them from favoring family and friends” (231). In other words, the inhibition against taking all for oneself or one’s family is a primary form of fairness—and ultimately, of course, a way to ensure not only that all members of the group get a share in any one individual’s luck, but also that reciprocity will dictate that the same fair division will happen when another individual brings home a kill. Many experiments have shown how ingrained this preference or insistence on an even split is, not only among humans, but also among our primate relatives. In one experiment, capuchin monkeys were playing a game, the reward for which was cucumber slices. All the monkeys were ok with this, and played the game. But when the experimenters started to reward some of the monkeys with grapes (a preferred food), the ones still given cucumbers vehemently protested, and indeed, refused to accept the cucumbers at all. They actually tried to destroy the whole game. Economists would call this refusal of perfectly good food “irrational;” but, as deWaal points out, “it is an irrationality that transcends species.” It is a deeply emotional fairness response that all primates exhibit, and that even dogs (also group hunters) exhibit as well. deWaal cites a finding by Friederike Range at the University of Vienna where “dogs refuse to lift their paw for a ‘shake’ with a human if they get nothing for it while a companion dog is rewarded” (234). deWaal summarizes these findings about fairness and justice as “ancient capacities,” which “derive from the need to preserve harmony in the face of resource competition” (234).
Preserving harmony. The primacy of group welfare. Cooperation. Anger and refusal in the face of inequity. Suddenly it seems that much of the discontent coursing through modern societies is not derived from some outlandish and artificial notion of social justice and fair play. Suddenly it seems that humans, like all other primates, are primed to react emotionally—however irrational it may seem to some—to perceived unfairness and the unequal distribution of goods. When Occupy Wall Street protesters shout and protest about the 1 percent taking all the wealth, leaving the 99 percent with crumbs; when Bernie Sanders, running for president, rages about the obscenely unequal distribution of wealth in the United States; when fast-food workers demand a living wage in spite of their low-skilled jobs; when Greeks demand that their government refuse to pay off loans to predatory banks while cutting pensions and health care; when we all react with nausea when we read of corporate heads paying less in taxes than their secretaries; we should begin to see this not as illogical or irrational but as an upwelling from an ancient part of the primate brain that is built in to what it means to be human. And the constant harping on individuality and “looking out for number one”? That we should see as a regrettable leftover from outlier impulses that should have been, and should still be relegated to the genetic waste bin. Morals and the moral code itself derive from our deep inheritance as cooperating animals whose primary impulse is to get along in order to survive; to inhibit self-centered accumulation as destructive of group harmony; and to help others because helping others feels good.
Only then, after we have caught up with our primate kin, might we be ready to fulfill our role as fully-human human beings. Which is to say, going even beyond the primate need for in-group survival and realizing, as only humans can, that we must share our empathy and our protection to all life forms that share this planet with us, that literally make it possible for us to even be here.