Last Thursday night, students in JBD were watching funny videos of animals on Youtube. This wasn’t procrastination, though. Instead, they were attending a lecture by primatologist Frans de Waal on the content of his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. The lecture dealt with the evolutionary basis for morality and referenced on various animal behaviors, especially those of apes like bonobos and chimpanzees.
Professor de Waal was brought to campus as part of the Jardezky Lecture Series on Science, Culture and Ethics. The committee is chaired by philosophy professor Martin Gunderson and includes members of the Chemistry, Biology and English departments as well.
JBD was filled to capacity, with many faculty members in attendance along with students. The central focus of the talk was the origins of morality. In contrast to views that claim morality comes from a higher power or from human society and culture, the research showcased by de Waal demonstrated evidence of human moral traits such as empathy and a sense of fairness being exhibited in animals.
Much of the talk focused on empathy. de Waal divides empathy into two distinct types: bodily empathy, which involves basic mimicry and coordination between individuals, and cognitive empathy, which allows individuals to distinguish themselves from others and take the place of others in their minds.
Cognitive empathy is more complex, and depends on an organism’s ability to form an image of themselves as a distinct individual. This is often investigated by a mirror test, where an animal is marked with paint, then presented with a mirror and tested to see if they notice the change. Humans are able to pass this test starting when they are about two years old, which corresponds with an increase in ability to know other people’s emotions.
Other animals, such as apes and dolphins, have shown they can pass this test as well. In one video de Waal showed during his lecture, an elephant is shown making unusual movements in front of a mirror and touching the mark with its trunk, indicating that it knows itself as an individual. It also uses the mirror to look inside its mouth—a part of its body it would not be able to see otherwise.
Another video showed capuchin monkeys performing a task that potentially demonstrated a developed sense of fairness. When one monkey was given grapes as a reward for a task in view of another monkey, the second monkey would only accept grapes as a reward as well. When the second monkey was given cucumber or another less-sweet piece of food, it would become visibly angry and reject the reward until it was given a grape like the first monkey.
de Waal noted that some people to whom he had shown that particular video thought that ascribing a sense of fairness to the monkeys was an unnecessary stretch.
“I once got an email from someone who very angrily told me that the sense of fairness was invented during the French Revolution,” he said to laughs from the crowd.
These videos and others were a big hit with the audience. Julia Manor, a psychology professor who was part of a group who had dinner with de Waal, praised his ability to make the information he presented accessible.
“I think that he does a lot of great work with really clever experiments,” Manor wrote in an email. “I think the biggest value of his work is that he is asking questions about animals that most people are unwilling to ask. He also seems to be finding some positive answers to those questions.”
Manor cautioned, however, against basing too substantial of a conclusion on a brief overview like de Waal’s lecture, valuable though it may be.
“We don’t get a sense of how many animals failed to do a task or what other people have found as evidence against empathy and morality in animals,” she wrote. “Videos are very memorable, but can sometimes be the exceptional case. The fact that these cases exist at all is important and interesting, though.”
After the lecture, de Waal took questions in quick succession and gave concise but thorough answers. During his answers, he indicated that his view of animal behavior differs from some of his colleagues.
“For many animal researchers,” he explained, “the protocol is to make the simplest assumption about the cause of a behavior and avoid using human words in describing it.” He acknowledged that this approach is sometimes prudent, but added that in his opinion it is reasonable to think that if the mechanism for a behavior, such as reacting to unfair treatment, appears to be the same between animals and humans, then the underlying psychology is also likely to be similar.
Gunderson sees the possible similarities explored by de Waal as potentially important to moral philosophy. Various perspectives on morality support different views of morality in animals, he explained in an email.
“Philosophers in the Kantian tradition, for example, who say that reason is the foundation of morality, need to find a way to come to grips with the powerful empirical evidence amassed by Frans de Waal and his team,” Gunderson wrote. “His work seems to support those in the tradition of David Hume who say that morality is based on sentiments.”
“His work also has importance for those who deal with the concept of human dignity that seems to lie behind so much of our ethical thinking, including our thinking on human rights,” he wrote. “de Waal’s work is also of interest for evolutionary theory and hence for philosophy of science and even philosophy of religion.”