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Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton Science Library) Paperback – February 1, 2009
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Top Customer Reviews
In these exquisitely written essays - the Tanner Lectures - de Waal shows how behaviour in various species, particularly our closest cousins the great apes, exhibits moral issues daily confronted and resolved. His research has led him to challenge one of Western society's most commonly held shibboleths - that morality is limited to human beings and that it lies as a thin layer over our animal instincts. Labelled by de Waal as the Veneer Theory, he attributes its source to Thomas Henry Huxley, also known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his defence of natural selection. Huxley, along with Alfred Russel Wallace, thought that human reasoning was to ?? mechanism lifting us above the remainder of the animals. The author notes the irony of Darwin's most vocal defender countering the naturalist's own stance that morality in humans is reflected in ape behaviour. De Waal forcibly contests Huxley's view, arguing that moral decisions result from our being a social species. Survival meant cooperation from our earliest evolutionary state, and was strengthened by selection pressures over time.Read more ›
But I did not find that here. Primates and Philosophers is a very different kind of book. Only about half of it was written by de Waal. And that half is written in a much more scholarly style than typical de Waal writing. Perhaps the fact that he had two editors had something to do with it. Or the fact that this book grew out of lectures at Princeton and is published by the Princeton University Press.
Whatever the reason, I missed de Waal's fresh and breezy style and found this book to be hard to get through. The format did not help much either, with de Waal writing first and last, and commentators getting their critique in in between. Although an interesting concept, here it seemed to stretch too little meat over too many bones.
There are some interesting ideas in the book. Even a few ape stories. Too bad the ideas and the stories are presented in a style that tends to hide them among somewhat pedantic prose.
Unlike de Waal's other books, which are a fun and delightful read, this book requires hard work. To me, it was probably worth it -- once. But this is one de Waal book that I will not be reading again.
De Waal quotes Richard Dawkins as saying "we, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" and "[we are] nicer than is good for our selfish genes." De Waal takes this as lending support of what he calls 'veneer theory', the position that morality is "a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature." Having read seven of Richard Dawkins' books, I feel like I understand his views pretty well, and I don't think he would agree with veneer theory at all. I think there is some ambiguity here between proper domain vs. actual domain. The proper domain is the conditions under which a behavior evolved, and the actual domain is the conditions under which the behavior is manifest. Sometimes they are the same, sometimes not. For example, the proper domain of a moth's light-sensitive navigation system is a light source in the dark that an ancient moth would have encountered, such as the moon. But today, the actual domain may be a light bulb, candle, or bug zapper.Read more ›
Robert Wright, Christine Koorsgard, Philip Kitcher and Peter Singer respond to De Waal's arguments with their own observations, and De Waal responds with an final argument to close the book.
Most of the counterarguments agree with DeWaal's hypothesis that the basis of morality can be observed time and again in other species, and that empathy, sympathy and the rudiments of self-sacrifice are already present in the higher primates. They criticize De Waal's oversimplification of their positions. However Koorsgard, with the longest and densest response entry, seems recursive, and her final position is not clearly far from "veneer theory".
This book, along with the previous books and journal articles by Frans De Waal and other scientists and philosophers, adds tremendous weight to the idea that by studying other species, especially our closest relatives, we can understand much more about our psychology, our cognitive abilities (including morality), and our place in nature.
However, this is not the best book for those who want to start getting information about this subject. De Waal's "Chimpanzee Politics", "Good Natured", "Peacemaking Among Primates", "Our Inner Ape" and "Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape" are much better starters into De Waals research and hypotheses.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Excellent book; Very informative on the topic. This was the "go-to" source for my Philosophy Senior Thesis on sapience and pan troglodytes.Published 3 months ago by Jacob
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how humans became so ..."human"
This area is far from settled in my mind, but I think this text goes a long way to... Read more
Frans de Waal is one of my favorite writers about what makes us human, and in that context I was a bit disappointed in this book. Read morePublished on December 24, 2013 by Anne Mills
This is a fascinating discussion between Frans v d Waal and several philosophers on the nature of the connection between our primate relatives and ourselves, particularly whether... Read morePublished on October 18, 2013 by Geoff Gaskell
In this book, Frans de Waal takes on what he calls the "Veneer Theory" of morality. Veneer theory, which de Waal most identifies with T.H. Read morePublished on December 18, 2011 by Doctor Moss
For me the most interesting part are the experiments with apes and monkeys and the examples of their behaviour, that proof the continuity between human morality and animal... Read morePublished on August 6, 2010 by Pedro Villarias
There is absolutely no scientific evidence explaining how we evolved from a long line of animals, and a pure farce that the author is drawing on any recent scientific advances. Read morePublished on August 3, 2010 by Marvin G. Taylor
This is a great book if only because it provides views from five different scholars. "In the Tanner Lectures on Human Values that became the lead essay in this book, Frans de Waal... Read morePublished on February 6, 2010 by Amazon Customer