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The Bonobo & the Atheist

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By Frans De Waal

Animals crawling out of the mud recall our lowly beginnings. everything started simple. This holds not only for our bodies – with hands derived from frontal fins and lungs from a swim bladder – but equally for our mind and behavior. The belief that morality somehow escapes this humble origin has been drilled into us by religion and embraced by philosophy. It is sharply at odds, however, with what modern science tells us about the primacy of intuitions and emotions. It is also at odds with what we know about other animals. Some say that animals are what they are, whereas our own species follows ideals, but this is easily proven wrong. Not because we don’t have ideals, but because other species have them, too.

Why does a spider repair her web? it’s because she has an ideal structure in mind, and as soon as her web deviates from it, she works hard to bring it back to its original shape. How does a “mama grizzly” keep her young safe? anybody moving between a sow and her cubs will discover that she has an ideal configuration in mind, which she doesn’t like to be messed with. The animal world is full of repair and correction, from disturbed beaver dams and anthills to territorial defense and rank maintenance. Failing to obey the hierarchy, a subordinate monkey upsets the accepted order, and all hell breaks loose.

Corrections are by definition normative: they reflect how animals feel things ought to be. Most pertinent for morality, which is also normative, social mammals strive for harmonious relationships. They are at pains to avoid conflict whenever they can. The gladiatorial view of nature is plainly wrong. In one field experiment, two fully grown male baboons refused to touch a peanut thrown between them, even though they both saw it land at their feet. Hans Kummer, the Swiss primatologist who worked all his life with wild hamadryas baboons, describes how two harem leaders, finding themselves in a fruit tree too small to feed both of their families, broke off their inevitable confrontation by literally running away from each other. They were followed by their respective females and offspring, leaving the fruit unpicked. given the huge, slashing canine teeth of a baboon, few resources are worth a fight.5 Chimp males face the same dilemma. From my office window, I often see several of them hang around a female with swol- len genitals. Rather than competing, these males are trying to keep the peace. Frequently glancing at the female, they spend their day grooming each other. Only when everyone is sufficiently relaxed will one of them try to mate.

If fighting does break out, primates react the way the spider does to a torn web: they go into repair mode. Reconciliation is driven by the importance of social relationships. Studies on a great variety of species show that the closer two individuals are, and the more they do together, the more likely they are to make up after aggression.6 Their behavior reflects awareness of the value of friendships and family bonds. This often requires them to overcome fear or suppress aggression. If it weren’t for the need to bury the hatchet, it wouldn’t make any sense for apes to kiss and embrace former opponents. The smart thing to do would be to stay away from them.

This brings me back to my bottom-up view of morality. The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time. The most fundamental one 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 to reach a mutually agreeable modus vivendi. We see this filter at work when chimpanzee males suppress a brawl over a female, or when baboon males act as if they failed to notice a peanut. It all comes down to inhibitions.

Tara, the youngest female in our chimpanzee colony, has a naughty habit that drives the older ladies crazy. She sometimes finds a dead rat in the outdoor compound or digs one out of an abandoned hole. She then carries the corpse around by its tail, careful to keep it away from her body, and sneakily places it on the back or head of a sleeping group mate. Her victim jumps up as soon as she feels (or smells) the dead rat, loudly screaming and wildly shaking her body to get this ugly thing off of her. She may even rub the spot on her body with a fistful of grass, to make sure the smell is gone. Tara is quick to pick up her rat and go to her next target. What is most remarkable is the total lack of punishment. Her victims are highly upset, and Tara is at the bottom of the totem pole, yet she faces no consequences. She takes advantage of the extreme patience adults grant the young.

Emotional control comes in handy in life-or-death situations, such as the one described to me by Allan Schmidt, a lead caretaker at the Taronga Zoo, in Sydney. They have one of the world’s nicest chimpanzee exhibits, in which two-year-old Sembe one day got her- self entangled in a rope loop. Naturally, Sembe freaked out, and her screams quickly brought her mother, Shiba, to her aid. Shiba managed to disentangle the loop from Sembe and then took her daughter down to the ground to hold and comfort her. Once Sembe was reassured, Shiba climbed back up the rope and bit the offending loop, cutting it so as to lessen future danger. Think about what it takes to free an infant from a deadly rope. The first impulse is no doubt to pull at the rope or the infant, which would surely make things worse. Instead, the mother provided the right assistance by loosening the loop, thus showing her understanding of its danger. The same understanding explains her subsequent safety measure.

We are mammals, a group of animals marked by sensitivity to each other’s emotions. even though i tend to favor primate examples, much of what I describe applies equally to other mammals. Take the work by the American zoologist Marc Bekoff, who analyzed videos of playing dogs, wolves, and coyotes. He concluded that candid play is subject to rules, builds trust, requires consideration of the other, and teaches the young how to behave. The highly stereotypical “play bow” (an animal crouches deep on her forelimbs while lifting her rear in the air) helps to set play apart from sex or conflict, with which it risks getting confused. Play ceases abruptly, though, as soon as one partner misbehaves or accidentally hurts the other. The transgressor “apologizes” by performing a new play bow, which may prompt the other to “forgive” the offense and continue to play. Role reversals make play even more exciting, such as when a dominant pack member rolls onto his back for a puppy, thus exposing his belly in an act of submission. This way, he lets the little one “win,” something he’d never permit in real life. Bekoff, too, sees a relation with morality,

“During social play, while individuals are having fun in a relatively safe environment, they learn ground rules that are acceptable to others—how hard they can bite, how roughly they can interact— and how to resolve conflicts. There is a premium on playing fairly and trusting others to do so as well. There are codes of social conduct that regulate what is permissible and what is not permissible, and the existence of these codes might have something to say about the evolution of morality”
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For Bekoff, fair play refers to the way a dog ought to behave in order to be a good playmate. A big dog chasing a small one needs to pull its punches, and all dogs need to control their bite. These rules constitute what I have called one-on-one morality. But there is another way fair- ness comes into play, which concerns the division of resources. even though all sorts of lofty principles regarding distributive justice have been formulated, the underlying emotions are, again, more basic than generally assumed. After all, even young children throw a fit if they get a smaller pizza slice than their sibling, shouting, “That’s not fair!” They show first-order fairness, which is resentment at getting less than somebody else. Absent this emotion, why should anyone care about how things are divided?
The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers suggests a long evolutionary history to our preoccupation with resource division. Hunters aren’t even allowed to carve up their own kill, in order to prevent them from favoring family and friends. Anthropologists have played the Ultima- tum game across the globe and found humans everywhere to care about equity. The ultimatum game consists of two players dividing a sum between them. Only if both accept the split, however, will they get the money. Universally, our species favors an even split, probably because the party proposing the split realizes that he won’t be able to get away with a skewed one. Brain scans of players facing unfair pro- posals reveal negative emotions, such as scorn and anger.

The way humans play the ultimatum game is quite complex, because we not only show first-order fairness, which is protest at getting less, but anticipate this reaction in others and try to forestall it. We do so by actively promoting equity, thus reaching second-order fairness, which is a preference for fair outcomes in general. The critical role of conflict avoidance was already hinted at by Thomas Hobbes: “every man is presumed to seek what is good for himselfe naturally, and what is just, onely for Peaces sake, and accidentally.” I agree with the political philosopher, except that I would never use the word  “accidentally.” A human tendency that is so pronounced and universal must be there for a reason.

How ancient this tendency is became clear when Sarah Brosnan and I discovered it in capuchin monkeys. This became an immensely popular experiment in which one monkey received cucumber slices while another received grapes for the same task. The monkeys had no trouble performing if both of them received identical rewards of whatever quality, but rejected unequal outcomes with such vehemence that there could be little doubt about their feelings. I often show their reactions to audiences, who almost fall out of their chairs laughing— which I interpret as a sign of surprised recognition.10 Until then, they hadn’t realized how closely their emotions resembled those of monkeys. The monkey receiving cucumber contentedly munches on her first slice, yet throws a tantrum after she notices that her companion is getting grapes. From then on, she ditches her measly cucumber slices and starts shaking the testing chamber with such agitation that it threatens to break apart. The underlying motivation is not so different from human street protest against unemployment or low wages. Occupy Wall Street is all about how some people roll in grapes while the rest of us live in cucumber land.
Refusing perfectly fine food because someone else is better off resembles human performance in the ultimatum game. economists call this response “irrational,” given that something is always better than nothing. No monkey, they say, should refuse food she’d otherwise eat, and no human should reject any offers, however small. Money is money. If these reactions are irrational, however, it is an irrationality that transcends species. To see it so vividly on display in a monkey helps us understand that our own sense of fairness, rather than being a product of our vaunted rationality, is rooted in basic emotions.