Morality is usually seen as the exclusive province of humans with highly developed brains. But world-famous primatologist Frans de Waal believes primates like chimpanzees and bonobos are moral creatures too. Ethics, he feels, is an inborn biological trait.
That is not the prevailing scientific view. De Waal describes that perspective in his book Our Inner Ape (Riverhead Books, 2005) as follows: “If people commit mass murder, we call them ‘animals.’ But if they give money to the poor, we praise them for their ‘humanity.’ He goes on to argue that animal impulses aren’t only “lower” feelings like fear, rage and territorial instincts, but “higher” emotions like justice and sympathy.
By declaring ethics a biological phenomenon, De Waal calls the prominent theory of “the selfish gene” into question. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins came up with the term to express the idea that organisms are essentially nothing but vehicles for genetic survival. Human existence, according to Dawkins, is driven by genes’ reproductive instincts. He argues that people behave morally only to impress others, which gives them a greater chance of survival.
De Waal considers this a cynical position, not supported by his many years of research into the moral characteristics of primates, specifically the bonobos, who are believed to be humans’ closest living relatives. Bonobos are remarkably friendly, sociable creatures; not for nothing are they called “the hippie apes.” But even their more churlish brethren, the chimpanzees, demonstrate moral behaviour: They share food, show a strong sense of right and wrong and exhibit feelings of shame, guilt, sympathy and concern.
This idea was demonstrated in 1996 when a 3-year-old boy fell 18 feet into the primate enclosure at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. A gorilla named Binti Jua picked up the child and carried him to safety. She sat down on a log and rocked the boy on her lap, patting him a few times on his back, before taking him to waiting zoo staff. Her show of sympathy, captured on video and shown around the world, touched many hearts.
Yet images like this do not convince some scientists of animals’ capacity for moral behaviour. In his book If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind (North Point Press, 2005), Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csányi argues that canines are driven mainly by emotions. For instance, he argues it’s a misconception to think that a dog who’s done something naughty is hiding under the table out of shame; what the dog really feels is fear of its owner’s harsh reprimand. “Shame is an emotion of a very high order,” writes Csányi, “and among humans, it is the expression of very complex social relations, which, I believe, dogs did not need during the course of domestication.”
In spite of his skepticism about morality outside the human community, Csányi’s book is peppered with moving examples of exceptional behaviour by animals. Take the story of the elephant who thundered menacingly into a compound of wildlife scientists in Kenya. The staff fled in panic, except one employee who recognized the elephant as a female he had looked after for six years. The elephant had since been successfully integrated into a wild herd in a national park and had obviously come by to give her caretaker a hug. She touched him gently with her trunk, embracing him occasionally. After half an hour, she left again, trumpeting loudly. What else can you call that but love?
Whether love and morality go hand in hand, however, is a subject for another day.