Your rating(Clear)Rate this item


There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.

57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
When Charles Darwin published "The Origin of Species", it was greeted equally by widespread acceptance and outrage. The acceptance was due to the realisation that here, at last, was a mechanism explaining the workings of life. The outrage was expressed over what this meant about human beings. Could we be relegated to the status of "mere animals"? Frans de Waal has merged the two views to show that we indeed are closely related to other animals. As a social species we share behaviour traits with other creatures who live in groups. While most of today's objections to "Darwinism" centre on the loss of "morality", the author notes that instead we should rejoice in sharing something so fundamental.

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.

De Waal cites numerous examples of how chimpanzees reconcile after fights, intercede to stop or prevent conflicts, share resources and console those in pain or stress. Young chimps are guarded away from zoo moats because even adult chimpanzees cannot swim. Individuals with no stake in particular events may intercede because a situation may lead to a threat to the entire troop. One example, the ape rescuing a human child in the Chicago Zoo, is well known. A less celebrated but far more significant event is the rescue and release of an injured bird by a bonobo. Not only is this a striking example of cross-species empathy, but the bonobo went to the effort of climbing a tree as high as she could to provide the bird with the optimum means of escape. In the recent past when such circumstances led to the equating of human and animal behaviour, it was derided as "anthropomorphising" zoology. De Waal notes that the terms many object to equating behaviour not only lack substitutes, but merely reflect the evolutionary realities. Our behaviour equates ape behaviour because our species have a common ancestor.

There are other complaints about de Waal's findings and conclusions. The editors have gathered a few notables to assess the material presented here. At the forefront of the commenters stand philosophers, not primatologists. Robert Wright, Philip Kitcher, Christine Korsgaard and Peter Singer among them. While they accept that ape, particularly chimpanzee, actions seem to indicate cooperation and empathy similar to that of humans, they have doubts about motivation levels. They also spend much ink in dealing with the definition of terms. Lack of understanding of how many generations of natural selection can guide behaviour, most of these critics fall into the trap of contriving isolated thought experiment events without considering the long-term biological roots of those traits. It's a common problem when philosophers attempt to deal with evolutionary questions. As de Waal notes, over a generation ago, Edward O. Wilson suggested that the study of ethics be relocated from philosophy departments and placed in biology. That is a step that remains to be taken, but this book should prompt quicker action. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
44 commentsWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
72 of 82 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 22, 2006
Reading Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal made me eager to read this book. I liked de Waal's style in that book -- somewhat rambling and anecdotal, with lots of stories and no footnotes.

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.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2009
Primates and Philosophers is not a comprehensive analysis of the origins of morality, but focuses on one minutia of the subject: whether human morality goes deep into our evolutionary past or is new with the arrival of our bulbous brains and cultures. The answer depends on how morality is defined. If moral behavior falls under the definition of morality, it seems clear that other primates such as chimps share at least rudimentary moral behavior. But if morality is defined as abstract thinking about right and wrong and living by principles derived abstractly, then morality must be pretty recent in humans' evolutionary past.

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. The navigation system doesn't work correctly when the source of light is nearby, and it causes moths to spiral into light sources, sometimes to their deaths. Our genes (and moth genes) provide rules-of-thumb that aren't necessarily survival-enhancing in every conceivable actual domain; it is only necessary that these rules were useful on average to our ancestors in our evolutionary past. So saying that we are "nicer than is good for our selfish genes" in the world we currently live in, which is much different than our evolutionary past, is not to imply some mysterious cause outside of nature accounts for this deviation. Similarly, every time we use contraception we are "rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" because the proper domain (in the technical sense) of sex is procreation, but the actual domain may be recreation. Having as many offspring as possible would be beneficial to our genes, but we can obviously choose not to do so.

In a table on page 22, de Waal compares veneer theory to his own theory of the evolution of ethics. Under veneer theory, he lists Richard Dawkins as an advocate and states that the empirical evidence in favor of that theory is "none." This is a textbook straw man, and I am confident that at least one of the alleged "advocates" is no advocate at all.

On the next page, de Waal hastily concludes that Steven Pinker's brilliant work on human language skills requires "postulating discontinuities" in evolution and thus is saltatory. Apparently he takes it as self-evident that a language module in the brain cannot possibly evolve by gradual degrees, although I'm baffled as to why he thinks that.

In Christine Korsgaard's section, she writes "it is absurd to think that nonhuman animals are motivated by self-interest...acting for the sake of your best interests requires the capacity to be motivated by the abstract conception of your overall long-term good." [p 102] Self interest, I think, can be pretty simply defined as the most effective way of spreading your genes. There is no need to have a conscious conception of what that consists of because the genes that program the best gene-spreading behavior are automatically propagated. I found Korsgaard's chapter to be lacking in scientific rigor. She seemed to make conclusions about empirical questions based on casual observation and reasoning. However, she did provide a clear definition of morality which was lacking from de Waal's part.

In Phillip Kitcher's section, he defines four dimensions of 'altruism space': intensity (the degree to which one meets the needs or desires of others), range (how high can the stakes get before one acts selfishly), extent (the set of individuals one acts altruistically toward), and skill (ability to discern the desires of the beneficiary). He agrees that non-human primate morality lies somewhere in the defined 'altruism space' away from pure selfishness, but until we have a clear definition of the ideal moral individual with respect to these four dimensions, "it's premature to claim that human morality is a 'direct outgrowth' of tendencies [non-human primates] share." [p 129] But if non-human primate morality differs by degree and not by kind (as implied here) is it not reasonable to conjecture that human morality is a direct outgrowth of the tendencies of primates?

Kitcher goes on to say that when chimpanzees are faced with an opportunity for altruism, their impulses for selfishness and altruism duke it out and they are ultimately "vulnerable to whichever impulse happens to be dominant at a particular moment." But I am far from convinced that humans are much different. Since when have we humans overcome our impulses? As Peter Singer argues later in the book, our emotional impulses constitute a large part of our morality. In those rare cases where abstract thinking overturns our gut reactions to moral questions, one could argue we are not acting on impulse but on reason. But those cases probably represent a vast minority of moral judgments. As de Waals mentioned, moralistic and altruistic intuitions come from deep in the evolutionarily ancient part of the brain, and conscious rationalization of those intuitions does not mean we've overcome them. Steven Pinker has revealed a world in which unconscious brain processes have profound impacts on our thoughts and decisions even though, by definition, we don't notice them. But we surely notice when they're gone, such as in people who have suffered damage to various parts of the brain, leaving certain parts of the intellect unscathed while some capacities are completely destroyed.

Peter Singer's section was the highlight of this book. I found his section better-argued than the others and his explanations more compelling. "Like the other social mammals, we have automatic, emotional responses to certain kinds of behavior, and these responses constitute a large part of our morality. Unlike the other social mammals, we can reflect on our emotional responses, and choose to reject them." [p 149] "Perhaps we do so only on the basis of other emotional responses, but the process involves reason and abstraction." Singer points out that this ability to reflect and abstract is evolved not just to make moral choices but is useful in many other parts of life as well.
22 commentsWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2007
In a series of lectures, De Waal attacks the notion that human morality is just a thin veneer of recent invention provided by the intellect, which barely hides a brutal animal, and is unique to humans. He supports his attack with data and observations from his own and from other scientists' research on primates, particularly on capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and bononbos.

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.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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 brings his decades of work with primates, and his habit of thinking deeply about the meaning of evolution, to bear upon a fundamental question about human morality. Three distinguished philosophers and a prominent student of evolutionary psychology then respond to the way de Waal's question is framed, and to his answer. Their essays are at once appreciative of de Waal's endeavor and critical of certain of his conclusions. De Waal responds to his critics in an afterword."

The main thrust of de Waal's essay is what he calls "Veneer Theory," which is the argument that morality is only a thin veneer overlaid on an amoral or immoral core. The first to respond is Robert Wright (The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life), who states that he is in fact not an adherent to de Waal's Veneer Theory. Second is Christine M. Korsgaard (Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity), who denies that Veneer Theory is even real. Third is Philip Kitcher (Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (Philosophy in Action)), who generally attacks Veneer Theory as not being relevant to bridging the divide between primates and humans. The fourth, last, and my personal favorite, comes from Peter Singer (The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty). Singer, I believe, does the greatest justice to the entire argument and I happen to agree with almost everything he says. Singer states, "The issue, then, is not so much whether we accept the Veneer Theory of morality, but rather how much of morality is veneer, and how much is underlying structure. Those who claim that all of morality is a veneer laid over a basically individualistic, selfish human nature, are mistaken. Yet a morality that goes beyond our own group and shows impartial concern for all human beings might well be seen as a veneer over the nature we share with other social mammals."

In conclusion, I think this is a valuable book and do recommend it. I would also recommend getting Michael Tomasello's Why We Cooperate (Boston Review Books) as it is similar in nature and style. Lastly, I would also mention that Frans de Waal mentions a research experiment in which he "demonstrates" primate empathy, but as Tomasello points out, "But studies [contra de Waal] from three different laboratories in the case of the capuchins, and from our laboratory in the case of the chimpanzees, have all found that this is a spurious result in that it does not depend on a social comparison at all. One of the studies found that simply seeing and expecting to receive the grape makes the cucumber look less attractive to chimpanzees. No other individuals need to be around. There is no social comparison going on, only food comparison. So nothing related to norms of fairness are at work either (pg. 32)." Hope that helps.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2007
This book is an interesting confrontation between primate research and professional moral philosophers. The aim is to discuss De Waal's attack on `veneer theory', the idea that moral behaviour is not really grounded in our nature but just a thin cultural overlay, but the discussion quickly becomes way more general.
In fact, we quickly see familiar dividing lines appear. Some, like Korsgaard, see morality as based on reason alone, and therefore purely human. Others, like De Waal, see it as primarily based on inborn capacities like empathy, and maintain that we share a lot of our morality with primates.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. Actually almost all the contributors confirm this in some way, but this is obscured by the fact that the authors do not seem to be able to agree on the meaning on the word`morality'.

Semantic confusion and untenable extremes: Nothing new in the world of moral philosophy then? What does make this book interesting, is that this time the discussions are informed by empirical evolutionary research, which means that even the philosophers have to keep their feet on the ground. Apart from the ape-stories being interesting to read, the result is a welcome new perspective on existing moral theories.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2008
"Primates and Philosophers" is precisely what it looks like: a scientific and philosophical exploration of the origins and meaning of human morality. The main contributor to the book is Frans de Waal, the well-known primatologist. (In case you don't know what a "primatologist" is: de Waal studies apes and monkeys for a living!) His ideas about morality are then scrutinized and critiqued by science writer Robert Wright and philosophers Peter Singer, Philip Kitcher, and Christine Korsgaard. (Yes, *the* Peter Singer and *the* Philip Kitcher.) In the final chapter, de Waal responds. The entire debate is excellently and even-handedly introduced by Stephen Macedo and Josiah Ober. In other words, the book is a real meeting of the minds!

De Waal believes that large parts of what we call human morality can be found already in apes, and sometimes even in monkeys. He admits that rational thinking is (probably) present only in humans, but argues that such thinking cannot exist without prior building blocks that do exist among other primates, for instance empathy, reciprocity, a sense of fairness, and at least some steps towards community concern. Thus, human behavior doesn't represent a fundamental break with animal behavior. There isn't a radical discontinuity between animal and human nature. Rather, humans have erected their rational thinking on top of a "tower of morality", most of which we share with apes and some monkeys. De Waal further believes that our rational thinking is somewhat overestimated. We don't really make moral decisions based on abstract rational reasoning around maxims and imperatives. Rather, emotions play a large part in our decisions. This shows that rational thinking is based on emotions such as empathy, present already in apes.

De Waal's main adversary, at least as he sees it, is something he dubs "Veneer Theory" (VT). According to VT, humans are at bottom selfish, bad and brutish. Morality is a thin veneer, a purely pragmatic response to the fact that the egoist needs other people to get along. "Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed" is the slogan of VT. Thomas Huxley and Thomas Hobbes are prime representatives of this perspective. In reality, de Waal argues, humans are social, empathic and altruistic by nature. Our morality is hard-wired into our genes. Naturally, the author considers apes to be moral in the same manner, and gives many examples of empathy, cooperation and peaceful conflict solution among chimpanzees and bonobos. At the same time, de Waal also admits that our morality has a darker side. It's only valid within our own group, while very different rules apply to outsiders. At one point, he even exclaims that morality and warfare goes together, and that this too is derived from the apes. Apparently, chimpanzee flocks sometimes attack each other, with deadly consequences.

De Waal's critics share his conviction that morality is something real and objective, and also that humans evolved from apes through natural selection. However, they believe that de Waal has overstated the case against VT, in effect setting up a straw man. They also argue that there is a strong tendency towards anthropomorphism in de Waal's writings, and that he often draws too far-reaching conclusions from his research. The critics suggest that there is a discontinuity between apes and humans in the moral realm, perhaps connected to the rise of language, and that morality cannot be reduced to emotion. They also question whether the behavior of apes can really be called "moral" in any meaningful way. Doesn't morality entail rational reasoning, the concept of an impartial spectator and a universalizing spirit? Apes can solve conflicts within the flock, but their non-rational nature make them easy prey to their emotions, making the flocks unstable, which requires that all their energy is spent on a never-ending cycle of conflict/conflict-resolution. Apes are "wantons", and ape society is stuck. Human society, by contrast, is more socially stable but also more dynamic, precisely because of our rational nature. We can solve in-group conflicts on a more long-term basis, directing our energies to other tasks. One of the critics, Peter Singer, also feels that de Waal isn't sufficiently supportive of animal rights (or perhaps not sufficiently clear on the subject).

As an impartial (?) spectator, I get the feeling that the differences boil down to two things.

First, de Waal fears that the discontinuous perspective offered by Kitcher and others, somehow runs the risk of downplaying Darwinian evolution. If Darwin was right, something all contributors to this volume agree with, shouldn't we expect a more fundamental continuity between ape and man? Shouldn't we expect change to be a modification of already existing structures or behaviors, as when human morality turns out to be a revised version of ape behavior, rather than something dramatically new? After all, that's how evolution through natural selection usually works! To de Waal, the opponents run the risk of veering towards a kind of moral saltationism (unless I'm mistaken, the Kantian philosopher Korsgaard explicitly calls human morality a "saltation" compared to the animals.)

Second, de Waal and his opponents seem to disagree on the following question: What exactly *is* morality? To the critics, morality by definition must be rationally thought out and universally applicable. In-group solidarity cannot properly be called morality at all. De Waal concedes this in an unguarded moment (something Singer uses against him), but his main position seems to be the opposite: morality is based on the instinctive, prerational parts of our nature, and we share these with the apes. To a sympathetic observer, the positive side of this notion is that morality isn't something that dualistically comes from the outside, but is rooted in our very nature, and hence can be empirically studied without a lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo. The negative side, of course, is that war against out-groups is "moral", since the prerational part of our nature tend to divide humans into in-groups and out-groups.

De Waal's solution to this is to look at morality as a pyramid that slowly emerges out of the water. The top of the pyramid represents self-interest plus altruism towards family and close relatives. Altruism towards the nation comes somewhere in the middle, while universal morality is the bottom of the pyramid. How much of the pyramid that emerges above the water depends on the resources available. While this is certainly true empirically, it could still be argued that de Waal cannot explain why we *ought* to share large resources with out-groups. Why not keep them to ourselves? I suppose his response would be that somehow our prerational empathy reaches out to others like us, in this case out-group humans (or even apes in medical research!), provided scant resources doesn't stop us.

While I'm not sure if I fully agree with Frans de Waal, he at least gives the reader much food for thought.

The book is warmly recommended.

PS. I agree with another reviewer that the book isn't an easy read for people completely unfamiliar with philosophy. (By contrast, advanced philosophy students will probably find it too simple!) Frans de Waal has won international fame as a popular science writer on chimpanzees and bonobos, but "Primates and philosophers" is one of his more technical books.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2008
If you have never read anything by Frans de Waal, this is probably not the best book to start with. I would try Good Natured or Chimpanzee Politics, or even Our Inner Ape. This short book is really an overview of de Waal's views on primate morality, without the rich description of primate life offered in his earlier books, followed by commentaries by four well-known philosophers. The philosopher's comments are mildly interesting but forgettable, except for Peter Singer's defense of Kantian ethics, which is interesting and revealing of Singer's own take on morality.

De Waal is the star of this show, and he delves more deeply than ever before on the relationship between the quasi-moral behavior of non-human primates and the moral behavior of humans. De Waal has some very interesting things to say about human morality, and generally comes off as being wise and self-confident in his treatment of the sociobiology of morality.

"The moral domain of action," says de Waal, "is Helping or (not) Hurting others...Anything unrelated to the two H's fall outside of morality. Those who invoke morality in reference to, say, same sex marriage or the visibility of a naked [...] on prime time television are merely trying to couch social conventions in moral language." (p. 162) This statement is wildly incorrect, but incorrect in an interesting way. We know that social conventions take on moral weight with great regularity in all societies. How you pray, how you copulate, what you eat and wear, all become grist for the moralist's mill. Why is that? De Waal does not say. At any rate, this aspect of human morality appears to have little echo in the lives of non-human primates.

Because de Waal believes that Helping and (not) Hurting is the true subject of morality, he locates the pre-human roots of morality in empathy and sympathy, thus siding with David Hume and Adam Smith, and against Kant, who finds the roots of morality in Reason. There is little doubt but that apes have some significant endowment of capacity for sympathy, and that sympathy is an ineluctable part of human morality. This fact alone is strong support for de Waal's argument.

I venture, however, that there are other roots of human morality in the animal world. One of these is the respect for private property, which is exhibited in many animals as territoriality and in the great apes as respect for a "personal sphere of control" over valuable resources. The interested reader can refer to Herbert Gintis, "The Evolution of Private Property", Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 64,1 [sep] (2007):1-16, where the biological basis for such respect takes the form of loss aversion. Needless to say, by "private property" I do not mean private property in the legal sense, but rather the personal sense that individuals have a private sphere in which their will is law, and this sphere is intimately related to having "personal possessions" that are respected by others as a matter of course.

De Waal does not say what forms of human morality are not legacies of, or continuations of, the characteristics of the great apes. I suggest the following, which are therefore virtually exclusively human.

First is the notion of a "character virtue," such as honesty, bravery, piety, considerateness, trustworthiness, cleanliness, and the like. These are supremely moral virtues and although they generally promote prosocial ends, they are not Helping or Hurting, and do not depend on empathy or sympathy. I am honest because it is the right way to be, not because I care about other people.

Second is the notion that there are social norms, and it is right and good that individuals follow these norms, and it is right and good that we punish people who violate these norms, even when it is costly to do so. The notion that we "obey the rules" of society even when it is costly to do so, and even if we can profit by violating these norms, is a distinctly human form of morality. It also accounts for why humans treat social conventions (e.g., what forms of food and clothing are permissible, who is allowed to marry whom) as within the realm of the moral, although they may be arbitrary from the point of view of Helping and Hurting.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2011
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. Huxley, treats morality as a separate layer of human behavior and conscious experience that sits over and controls a lower animal layer. After de Waal's argument, several moral philosophers critique de Waal's claims, and de Waal responds in the book's final chapter.

Veneer theory resonates with some traditional theories of morality. Both social contract theory and Kantian morality can be read as suggesting a kind of veneer theory. Social contract theory, at least in its Hobbesian flavors, explicitly treats morality and political order as rational, intentional agreements to counter a state of dog-eat-dog nature. Kantian moral theory identifies morality with reason, distinguished from and at least at times opposing "inclination."

I think that, knowing what we know now of animal behavior (partly owing to de Waal), almost no one would deny that animals, especially higher primates, exhibit complex social behavior, or that that social behavior includes actions taken out of concern for others and actions taken to build and maintain group identity and order. Some may deny true altruism, arguing that apparently altruistic actions are either not fully intentional or that they are really disguised pursuits of self-interest (e.g., arrangements in which present assistance is traded for future reciprocation).

And nature isn't quite so dire as a stark veneer theory would have it. It's not "dog eat dog" -- in fact, so far as I know, dogs don't routinely eat other dogs. Animals do behave with regard for the lives of others, and de Waal gives lots of examples from his research with primates. De Waal is right, I think, in so far as he gives us reason to reject veneer theory as a theory that supposes all animal behavior to be base and morality to provide, exclusively for human beings, the ability to rise above and control those base behaviors.

But part of the attraction of veneer theory is that treating morality as separate from our animal natures provides for a struggle between morality and self-interest. Our conscious lives are full of that conflict -- should I tell a white lie to avoid an unpleasant situation or just say "to heck with it" and do whatever I want?

I think that struggle is important to our understanding of human morality. We do struggle to be moral, and part of being moral is succeeding in that struggle. We struggle both to determine what is the right thing to do, and then to do it. In trying to do the right thing, our "better natures" fight to overcome our "baser natures", just as the veneer theorists would have it.

But where they are wrong is in supposing that only one is truly our "nature" while the other isn't. De Waal successfully shows that at least some of the foundations of our better nature are shared with other animals, especially higher primates.

Oddly, it may be that this struggle between morality and self-interest isn't shared with those primates. Nothing, so far as I can see, in the research that de Waal presents here, provides evidence that the same kind of struggle -- struggle either in determining the right thing to do or in overcoming inclinations not to do it -- occurs in the conscious life of apes. Hard to know, certainly, but I'd be interested in knowing what de Waal thinks about that question.

In any case, our closest animal relatives are not mere creatures of self-interest, and our own evolutionary ancestors are accordingly not. There is no absolutely discontinuous evolutionary gap or separation between human morality and the lives of our ancestors. That is the mistaken view that de Waal seems to rightly reject.

None of this, I think, decides the issue of how we should treat apes, something that Peter Singer raises prominently in his critique of de Waal. Singer, a long time advocate for extending our moral "circle" beyond our fellow human beings, is concerned of course about use of chimpanzees and other apes and monkeys in medical experiments and other research. He rightly points out that it matters more simply that apes suffer in such experiments than that they are in some sense on a par with us as moral creatures. I do think however that the more that we perceive them as "like us" the less we are likely to countenance their suffering.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2008
This book was lent to me by a friend, and after reading I felt it necessary to purchase my own copy. I would have never made this choice, this text is completely outside my normal reading genres, but I'm very glad I did. Frans de Waal provides and extremely well written thesis on his views of morality in humans, his views are then analyzed by others, and closes with his response. I haven't read his other text Good Natured, but intend to do so.
It is important to note that I am in no way highly educated in the fields of primatology, anthropology, or philosophy; my background is in math and computer science; so I came to this book with a certain ignorance.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
     
 
Customers who viewed this also viewed

The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society
The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans De Waal (Paperback - September 7, 2010)
$14.22

 
     

Send us feedback

How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you?
Let us know here.