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Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton Science Library) Paperback – February 1, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Celebrated primatologist de Waal expands on his earlier work in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals to argue that human traits of fairness, reciprocity and altruism develop through natural selection. Based on his 2004 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, this book argues that our morality grows out of the social instincts we share with bonobos, chimpanzees and apes. De Waal criticizes what he calls the "veneer theory," which holds that human ethics is simply an overlay masking our "selfish and brutish nature." De Waal draws on his own work with primates to illustrate the evolution of morality. For example, chimpanzees are more favorably disposed to others who have performed a service for them (such as grooming) and more likely to share their food with these individuals. In three appendixes, de Waal ranges briefly over anthropomorphism, apes and a theory of mind, and animal rights. The volume also includes responses to de Waal by Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher and Peter Singer. Although E.O. Wilson and Robert Wright have long contended that altruism is a product of evolution, de Waal demonstrates through his empirical work with primates the evolutionary basis for ethics. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

It was not until a year and a half after his voyage on board the Beagle that Charles Darwin first came face to face with an ape. He was standing by the giraffe house at the London Zoo on a warm day in late March of 1838. The zoo had just acquired an orangutan named Jenny. One of the keepers was teasing her—showing her an apple, refusing to hand it over. Poor Jenny "threw herself on her back, kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child," Darwin wrote in a letter to his sister. In the secret notebooks that he kept after the voyage, Darwin was speculating about evolution from every angle, including the emotional, and he was fascinated by Jenny’s tantrum. What is it like to be an ape? Does an orangutan’s frustration feel a lot like ours? Might she cherish some sense of right and wrong? Will an ape despair because her keeper is breaking the rules—because he is just not playing fair? Our own species has been talking, volubly and passionately, for at least 50,000 years, and it’s a fair guess that arguments about right and wrong were prominent in our conversation pretty much from the beginning. We started writing things down 5,000 years ago, and some of our first texts were codes of ethics. Our innumerable volumes of scripture and law, our Departments of Justice, High Courts, Low Courts, and Courts of Common Pleas are unique in the living world. But did we human beings invent our feeling for justice, or is it part of the package of primal emotions that we inherited from our ancestors? In other words: Did morality evolve? Dutch-born psychologist, ethologist and primatologist Frans de Waal has spent his career watching the behavior of apes and monkeys, mostly captive troupes in zoos. As a young student, he sat on a wooden stool day after day for six years, observing a colony of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo. Today he watches chimpanzees from an observation post at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta and at other zoos and primate centers. His work, along with primatologist Jane Goodall’s, has helped lift Darwin’s conjectures about the evolution of morality to a new level. He has documented tens of thousands of instances of chimpanzee behavior that among ourselves we would call Machiavellian and about as many moments that we would call altruistic, even noble. In his scientific papers and popular books (including Chimpanzee Politics, Our Inner Ape and Good Natured), he argues that Darwin was correct from that first glimpse of Jenny at the zoo. Sympathy, empathy, right and wrong are feelings that we share with other animals; even the best part of human nature, the part that cares about ethics and justice, is also part of nature. De Waal’s latest book, Primates and Philosophers, is based on the Tanner Lectures that he delivered at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values in 2004. In this book he tries—as he has many times before—to refute a popular caricature of Darwinism. Many people assume that to be good, be nice, behave, play well with others, we have to rise above our animal nature. It’s a dog-eat dog world out there—or, as the Romans put it, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man (a curious proverb for a people whose founding myth was the suckling by a wolf of the infant twins Romulus and Remus). Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s self-appointed bulldog, promoted this dark, cold view of life in a famous lecture, Evolution and Ethics. "The ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it," he declared. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan puts it another way: if there is no God, then we are lost in a moral chaos. "Everything is permitted." De Waal calls this "Veneer Theory." In this view, human morality is a thin crust on a churning urn of boiling funk. In reality, de Waal reminds us, dogs are social, wolves are social, chimps and macaques are social, and we ourselves are "social to the core." Goodness, generosity and genuine kindness come just as naturally to us as meaner feelings. We didn’t have to invent compassion. When our ancestors began writing down the first codes of conduct, precepts, laws and commandments, they were elaborating on feelings that evolved thousands or even millions of years before they were born. "Instead of empathy being an endpoint," de Waal writes, "it may have been the starting point." Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when animal psychologists talked about "sympathy" and "empathy," they always put those words between quotation marks, de Waal notes. Now he wants to take away the quotation marks. He describes one of his best-known demonstrations that animals care about fairness. In the experiment, he had pairs of capuchin monkeys perform simple tasks in their cages. For successfully completing each task they would get a reward, sometimes a slice of cucumber, sometimes a grape. All the monkeys would work for and eat the cucumber slices, but they preferred grapes. If one monkey kept getting paid in cucumber and it could see that its partner in the next cage was getting grapes, it would get mad, like Darwin’s Jenny. After a while the monkey would refuse to eat or throw the cucumber right out of the cage. Is de Waal right about all this? In the second half of Primates and Philosophers, his arguments are critiqued by a series of commentators, all of whom have written important studies of evolutionary ethics. They cite Freud, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche and Adam Smith. They circle and circle around those pairs of capuchin monkeys: "A capuchin rejects a cucumber when her partner is offered a grape—is she protesting the unfairness, or is she just holding out for a grape?" writes Christine M. Korsgaard, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. "Of course, if the lucky capuchin were to throw down the grape until his comrade had a similar reward, that would be very interesting!" writes Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. They disagree, they discuss, they bicker a little, like all primates and philosophers. They illuminate not only ageless questions of ethics but also current concerns such as the Geneva convention and "why universal empathy is such a fragile proposal," as de Waal writes in his response to his critics. By the end of the book it seems clear that we can no longer look at morality as a sort of civilized veneer on a cold and selfish animal, even though that view goes back long before Darwin went to the zoo. Its origin lies in the Western concept of original sin—when Adam and Eve ate their first apple.

Jonathan Weiner won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Beak of the Finch. He teaches science writing in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Series: Princeton Science Library
  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 5th Print edition (February 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691141290
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691141299
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #210,430 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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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.
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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.
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