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Morals: More Than Nice, They're Evolution

January 1997

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 ostracism."

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."


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