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Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (The University Center for Human Values Series) Paperback – February 1, 2009
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Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes. . . . [H]e argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional buildings blocks that are clearly at work in chimps and monkey societies. . . . Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society's moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals.---Nicholas Wade, The New York Times
De Waal is one of the world's foremost authorities on nonhuman primates, and his thoughtful contribution to Primates and Philosophers is enriched by decades of close observation of their behavior. . . . He argues that humans are like their closest evolutionary kin in being moral by nature. . . . [A]n impressively well-focused collection of essays.---John Gray, New York Review of Books
Celebrated primatologist Frans de Waal . . . demonstrates through his empirical work with primates the evolutionary basis for ethics. (Publishers Weekly)
Frans de Waal . . . argues that . . . morality is actually a gift from animal ancestors and that people are good not by choice but by nature. . . . He argues that . . . critics fail to recognize that while animals are not human, humans are animals. (Science News)
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. . . . His work . . . has helped lift Darwin's conjectures about the evolution of morality to a new level. . . . [De Waal argues that] 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.---Jonathan Weiner, Scientific American
Frans de Waal . . . show[s] how elements of morality such as empathy, sympathy, community concern and a sense of fairness also exist in our closest primate relatives.---David Sloan Wilson, American Scientist
Exceptionally rich but always lucid. . . . Intellectual soul food for biology-minded ethicists.---Ray Olsen, Booklist
In his new book, Primates and Philosophers, Frans de Waal argues that the origins of human goodness can be seen in apes and monkeys. He claims that we have evolved from a long line of social animals for whom close co-operation is 'not an option but a survival strategy'. Not only are we nice by nature, but our ancestors were too, ever since they came down from the proverbial trees.---Stephen Cave, Financial Times
Frans de Waal, an acclaimed primatologist, has much to say about what he considers the biological origins of morality. Unlike many recent antireligion writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, who use the latest socio-biological research to campaign against religion, de Waal has no antireligious agenda. This both keeps his writing more focused and helps him avoid many of the argumentative errors of Dawkins and company...De Waal is a keen social observer, but he focuses mostly on what we can learn from what he knows best–the study of primates, including the human variety.---Joe Pettit, Commonweal
[A] remarkably interesting and rich set of reflections about the nature of morality, the social experiences of nonhuman primates, and the continuities and differences between the social experiences of human and nonhuman primates. The book can be read both as discussion on the nature of evolution and as a primer on ethical theory. . . . All in all this is an extremely interesting book on a central human preoccupation–the question of our relationship with Nature–and is a demonstration that the collaboration of sympathetic points of view can produce a wider and wiser whole.---Eric Dayton, The Structurist
From the Back Cover
"Frans de Waal has achieved that state of grace for a scientist--doing research that is both rigorous and wildly creative, and in the process has redefined how we think about the most interesting realms of behavior among nonhuman primates--cooperation, reconciliation, a sense of fairness, and even the rudiments of morality. In these Tanner lectures and the subsequent dialogue with leading philosophers and evolutionary psychologists, de Waal takes this knowledge to redefine how we think of morality in another primate, namely ourselves. This is superb and greatly challenging thinking."--Robert M. Sapolsky, author ofWhy Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and A Primate's Memoir
"On the basis of a fascinating and provocative account of the remarkable continuities between the social emotions of humans and of nonhuman primates, de Waal develops a compelling case--which moral philosophers would do well to take seriously--for the evolutionary roots of human morality. In addition, he and his commentators conduct an illuminating discussion of some fundamental methodological and ethical issues--such as whether it is necessarily illicit to characterize animal behavior 'anthropomorphically,' and whether it is reasonable to attribute 'rights' to animals. Anyone who is interested in these issues, and especially those interested in the sources of human morality, will find this book exceptionally challenging and worthwhile."--Harry Frankfurt, author ofOn Bullshit
"Frans de Waal is the perfect guide to the emerging data on moral-like behavior in animals. Strengthened by deep sensitivity to the complexity of social relations and by a strong defense of anthropomorphism, this book shows how evolutionary biology can contribute to moral philosophy not merely through general principles, but by specific phylogenetic comparisons. It is a major advance in the socialization of ethology."--Richard Wrangham, Harvard University, coauthor ofDemonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence
"Here, Frans de Waal, the world's leading researcher on primate behavior, a highly reflective thinker, and a skilled writer, presents the fruits of thirty years of empirical research. Addressing some of the most fundamental issues of social science and moral theory, he and the commentators produce a book that will be of deep and enduring interest to philosophers, social and political theorists, and anyone who wishes to assess their views about human nature and the nature of morality."--John Gray, London School of Economics, author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
"This important book centers on Frans de Waal's powerful statement about the psychological nature of moral behavior, which involves strong continuities between humans and apes."--Christopher Boehm, University of Southern California, author ofHierarchy in the Forest
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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.
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.
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.
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