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.
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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
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
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 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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