Information Age Education
   Issue Number 113
May, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, two free books based on the newsletters are available: Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the fourth of a series of five on recent research developments on the culturally important issue of morality. Morality is a human issue because we are a social species. The articles explore the issue of whether morality is something that emerged as mammals discovered the values of cooperative behavior (this article and the previous one), or if it emerged only when humans evolved into a social species (the final article in the series).

Morality: Recent Research Developments.
Moral Behavior in Bonobos and Chimpanzees

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon


The previous IAE Newsletter summarized Patricia Churchland’s arguments that basic elements of human moral behavior are observable in primates and other mammals. This newsletter expands on that belief, focusing on the work of Frans de Waal, a world-renowned primatologist. In The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (2013) de Wall discusses the evidence of moral kinds of behavior in bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary ancestors with whom we share about 98.7% of our DNA. "On our good days, we're as nice as bonobos can be, and on our bad days we're as domineering and violent as chimpanzees can be."

De Waal's book focuses primarily on observations of bonobos. What we humans consider moral behavior is more evident within the socially cooperative life of bonobos than in that of chimpanzees. Further, bonobos have long legs, narrow shoulders, and compatible arm to leg ratios, and so are shaped more like humans than chimpanzees. For an extended discussion of bonobos, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo.

De Waal argues that the evidence is very strong that bonobos demonstrate such morally-related behaviors as understanding what other bonobos know and do not know, fairness, empathy, and the compassionate care of juveniles, the aged, and the infirm. Bonobos do not know who their fathers are, nor do adult males know which young ones are their progeny, yet adult males commonly assist with juvenile care.

Bonobos tend to follow the fundamental moral concept of help and do not hurt. When fighting occurs, bonobos react the way spiders instinctively do to a torn web. They go into a repair mode. Bonobo reconciliation is driven by the importance of social relationships, typically associated with closeness, grooming, and sexual behavior. Bonobo society thus addresses the well-being of others and puts the community before the individual. It does not deny self-interest, but rather curbs its pursuit to promote a more cooperative society. The survival of the group depends on this.

Our evolutionary orientation through primates is thus towards empathy and cooperation. Aggressive behavior typically comes through effortful and often stressful cognitive determination. Altruistic behavior (such as maternal child care) certainly carries a cost but we do not necessarily consider that as painful. We humans evolved as a social species to live together, to need and care for each other, and to judge each other in moral terms. De Waal thus argues that this basic morality is not a cognitive veneer imposed from a deity, nor is it philosophically developed, but rather that it is an integral part of our evolutionary biology (and that of many other social primates).

Our innate ability to function along the good/bad continuum is what permits us to morally tell right from wrong. Unfortunately, we sometime do not understand if our behavior was right or wrong until after the fact. Most of us thus apologize often as we go through life.

It is difficult to imagine that a basic perspective of sinful selfishness could lead to positive collaborative social interaction. Genes do not create the psychology of behavior but rather develop body maintenance and survival systems. That does not mean, however, that a survival system such as reproductive sexual behavior cannot also be used for enjoyment, as it does with both bonobos and humans. Nature associates pleasure with most of the survival/maintenance things we need, such as the pleasant smell of food and romance with sexual activity.

Humans have many of the same basic psychological wants and needs as our close primate relatives. We have developed complex tools that enhance our capabilities, but our basic makeup remains that of a cooperative social primate. The media continuously report on crimes, but crimes are the exception rather than the rule on a given day. Most homes are not burglarized, most people are not assaulted. We are more like bonobos, mostly good and helpful to each other. When we are not, it is reported as unusual during the evening news.

Religion and Government

De Waal realizes that it is almost impossible to define religion to everyone's satisfaction. Although not personally religious, he views religion and its symbols, rituals, and worship as the shared reverence for the supernatural, sacred, or spiritual. Within that context, he sees a value for religion as a widespread diverse phenomenon that will probably continue to have more adherents than does atheism. He is, however, wary of those who believe that externally imposed belief systems are the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior.

A sense of faith in success against perhaps insurmountable odds seems evident in the behavior of humans, primates, and some other mammals. For example, a human invests a dollar in the lottery or prays for healing from a seemingly incurable disease. Apes participate in ritualistic behavior. Although the underlying neurobiology of such behavior is yet to be discovered, the expectation that things will go well drives behavior that (at least in humans) expects success.

Like children, juvenile bonobos play with the equivalent of dolls (such as small logs). They seem to mimic the nursing behavior of older females. They (and we) trust and mimic the supposedly superior knowledge of authoritative elders. The concept of deities might have grown from this kind of trusting behavior. We do tend to think of deities as being older and very successful.

The development of human frontal lobes allowed us to weld imagination and reason together to forge science and technology, but our evolutionary roots of imaginative wonderment are still reflected strongly in our art, culture, and religions. A de Waal puts it, "To enrich reality is one of the delightful capacities we have, from play in childhood to visions of an afterlife when we grow older."

Bonobos live in small tight groups of a few dozen. Basically, they have a matriarchal society and the individuals are almost continuously in contact with each other. The basic help but at least do not hurt social system is constantly monitored by all in the group, and those who do not follow it are loudly criticized and shunned by the others. Appropriate behavior is thus the norm, and bonobo infants (like human infants) are taught how to behave. De Waal argues that this behavioral social predisposition also exists in humans.

The shift (some 10,000 years ago) from human hunter-gatherer groups to larger agricultural societies led to the loss of continual face-to-face interactions, and to a more complex society in which cheating could be hidden. De Waal argues that it became helpful to have invisible observant deities and consequent fear of punishment by the deity to insure appropriate moral behavior. Human religion could thus have emerged from the prior need for societies to function morally. Social primates and humans have deeply ingrained moral expectations, and morally powerful human religions could have emerged from that. A religion thus is not about whether the religion is true or false, but rather about how it helps to shape our lives, and various religions do this differently. It is, however, common for religious adherents to meet periodically to affirm their acceptance of their religion's moral code, and to meet as a socially affirming group.

The development of cities and nations made human moral life even more complex. Governments emerged to assume control of its secular side, imposed philosophically based laws, and instituted various punishments to insure compliance with the laws.

Democratic nations emerged within the past 200+ years, and have grown exponentially within the last 100 years. When a group of bonobos gets upset about something, they gather together and scream at each other until they get things worked out. Not a whole lot different than what happens in legislative bodies.


References and Resources

de Wall, F. (2013) The Bonobo and the Atheist: In search of Humanism among the primates. New York: Norton.


Robert Sylwester

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child's Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin); and co-authored with David Moursund: Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education (2012, IAE) and Common Core State Standards for K-12 Education in America (2013, IAE). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run.


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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.