Morals: More Than Nice, They're Evolution
Last summer, a three-year-old boy fell into the
gorilla habitat at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. A female lowland gorilla
named Binti Jua fist-walked over to the unconscious child and carried
him safely to the spot she associated with food and humans.
The boy survived to play another day. Binti became a celebrity. And long-term
NSF grant recipient and zoologist Frans de Waal was able to document another
example of ethical behavior in the animal kingdom.
"Altruism is not limited to our species," he writes in his recent book Good
Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. "Aiding
others at a cost or risk to oneself is widespread in the animal world."
In fact, de Waal, of Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory
University, argues that the behavior we associate with morals (e.g., sympathy,
reciprocity, attachment between individuals, etc.), usually studied by
philosophers, is also part of biology.
There is more at stake than ownership of a term. De Waal is also pushing
scientists to accept a more complex explanation of evolution.
If strict survival of the fittest were the only mechanism operating in
nature, unfit animals would always die, but they don't. De Waal offers
the example of the Japanese monkey, Mozu.
"Mozu looks like any other Japanese monkey except for missing hands and
feet and an arresting countenance that appears to reflect lifelong suffering.
She roams the Shiga Heights of the Japanese Alps on stumpy limbs, desperately
trying to keep up with more than 200 healthy group mates."
Mozu, de Waal writes, is an accepted part of the group. When her group
split and there was an internal struggle for control of the food in the
park, Mozu's side lost. But Mozu succeeded in switching to the dominant
band where food was plentiful.
"In no society worthy of the name do the members lack a sense of belonging
and a need for acceptance. Each member contributes to and benefits from
the group, although not necessarily equally or at the same time.
"Mozu's case teaches us that, even though primate groups are based on
such give-and-take contracts, there is room for individuals with little
value when it comes to cooperation. The cost to the others may be negligible,
but their inclusion is remarkable, given the realistic alternative of
Throughout his book, de Waal uses both hard data and anecdotes to show
that "moralistic" behavior is natural, recognizable and often beneficial
to the long-term survival of the group. Furthermore, while great apes,
such as Binti, look most familiar to us--they share food, stop quarrels,
and help others without getting immediate rewards--other animals also have
unselfish dealings with one another.
In short, de Waal points out a profound paradox in all animal life. Genetic self-advancement at the expense of
others--the basic thrust of evolution--co-exists with the capacities for
caring and sympathy. "Just as in animals," he says, "for humans, making
peace is as natural as making war."