The Evolution of Morality

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 25 November 2016

The Evolution of Morality

De Waal, author of Good Natured, is one of the most foremost proponents of debate over the evolution of morality. He is a famous primatologist and ethologist who bases his opinions partially on Darwinism and partially on his own personal viewing of primates. According to De Waal, morality comes from two separate sources. De Waal’s theory of morality rests upon the observations of primate behaviors of empathy and sympathy, the selection of kin, reciprocal altruism with regards to fairness, and the simple ability to get along, in conjunction with the idea that one part of our human morality is biological and one part is a result of cultural development.

If the idea of a moral code were to be described using only one source, the theory would fail almost immediately. In the human sector, de Waal suggests that our cultural norm is a result of the collaboration of two separate things. The first would be our biological makeup. He claims that all humans are born with some sort of moral ideas. These are, in some cases, fueled by the simple needs and desires that simply come with the territory of being an infant, adolescent, or adult.

However, the simple existence of an awareness of what is right and what is wrong is in no way weighty enough to incur a full-fledged code of morals. In order for it to be a sense that is strong enough to sway human behavior it needs to be manipulated by another set of values. This is where cultural decision begins to play a part. Much of the human’s idea of a moral code is embedded in what society believes to be correct behavior. This can encompass many things whether it be how a community should function, how other humans would like to be treated, or the innate desire for friendship.

The key point that de Waal is striving to make is that our human morality is consistently evolving with the times. Fairness, normality, and obligation are cultural ideas formed simply by the majority’s expectations. De Waal’s theory rests upon the fusion of these two human traits. However, his ideas also draw from proof of his own scientific observations in the field of primates. However, human morality is not a concept that can be grasped simply by what has occurred to actual human beings over the course of history.

In order to fully understand it, one must take into consideration the fact that there may be other entities that practice or abide by the same moral code. De Waal is famous for stating that “By limiting the concept of morality to the form that is able to be practiced by human beings, we are limiting our understanding of what made us moral in the first place” (4). The “building blocks of morality” encompass many different characteristics that even primates demonstrate. The ones that are most obviously identifiable in animal behavior are empathy, the selection of kin, reciprocal altruism, demonstrations of fairness, and even their need to resolve conflict.

These are all human traits that can undoubtedly be recognized outside of the human spectrum at an undeniable level. This is where de Waal’s theory comes in. His evolution of morality stands on the idea of primates also exemplifying human characteristics. The first and most obvious things that primates show are empathy and sympathy. Some would argue that all animals contain this trait because of the need to nurture and care for young. They are shown through multiple things whether it be emotional attachment, giving simple help to a fellow monkey, or caring for children.

De Waal gives a specific example of this when he tells of Yeroen. This primate has just lost a pertinent fight over who will take leadership in his community. Instead of being left to fend for himself emotionally, another young chimpanzee runs over to console him. De Waal also offers multiple flashbacks of monkeys protectively positioning themselves with and around those who are wounded or are their family. Many of these things are human tendencies and de Waal wastes no time in using them to support his ideas of the evolution of morality. Familial bonds are also something that is, surprisingly, not unique to human nature.

The selection of kin is also seen in primate life. Maternal instincts are strong, and a father is often seen as the head 1 / 2 of his family. De Waal writes: “Attached with an emotional umbilical cord to her offspring, the primate mother is never free” (122). The community also institutes multiple ideas of rank and order within their tribes as well. The story of Socko stealing alpha male Jimoh’s choice female and suffering wrath for it is a prime example. Reciprocal altruism can arguably be the most obvious way in which primates demonstrate a code of morality. This is simply the idea of a Golden Rule.

Often times, cultural expectations are tied to what one person (or in this case primate) will do with the expectation that they will ultimately receive the same treatment. Many societies base their entire code of ethics around this simple truth, so it is impossible that chimpanzees do this without knowing. Fairness is another trait that de Waal rests his theory upon when it comes to what he has observed in the world of primates. He claims that as a community they share food, take revenge, and even executively hand out justice. There are ranks and rules that need to be followed.

This goes hand-in-hand with the final building block which is the ability to resolve conflict. Within a communal setting, this is an inevitable side affect. De Waal writes: “Golden monkeys do it with mutual hand-holding, chimpanzees with a kiss on the mouth, bonobos with sex, and tonkeana macaques with clasping and lipsmacking. Each species follows its own peacemaking protocol” (176). De Waal concludes his book Good Natured with his statements over moral code as a whole.

Ultimately, he lends notability to the idea that humans came up with a case for morality partially because of biological makeup and partially because of cultural compromise and normality. However, his theory is different in his insistence that primates demonstrate the building blocks of a code of morality in their portrayal of empathy and sympathy, their selection of kin, reciprocal altruism, and the ability to get along in regards to fairness and resolving conflict.

The fusion of these three things is what de Waal rests his case upon, with much credibility. References De Waal, Frans. Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996. Print. POWERED BY TCPDF (WWW. TCPDF. ORG).


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 25 November 2016

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