Searching For The Roots of 'Right' And 'Wrong'

In The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, primatologist Frans de Waal explores traits like empathy and fairness in our closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, and argues that human morality is not the product of rational thought or religion, but evolved long ago.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

You know, one of the first ideas drilled to you as a sort of a foreign idea to you as a kid is that life is not fair. How come she got a pony for her birthday, I got a goldfish, something like that? Yeah, right, yeah. but where did we even get the sense of what's fair and what's not, of what's right, what's wrong, our sense of justice? Were they from theologians, spiritualists, philosophers, Talk show hosts?

Well, it turns out that the concept might go back even further than you think because our closest relatives, the bonobos and the chimps, have a sense of fairness and justice, too, as my next guest writes in his new book "The Bonobo and the Atheist." And fairness isn't the only human concept that turns out to be not uniquely human because our primate kin are also sharing our sense of empathy and altruism.

They comfort each other when they're sick. They stick up for each other. They break up fights when they're happening, even adopt their orphans, just like humans.

Frans de Waal is author of "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates." He's also a primatologist and biologist at Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University in Atlanta. He joins us from WABE in Atlanta. Welcome back to the program.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah. I'm glad to be there.

FLATOW: This is fascinating. What do bonobos have to do with atheists?

DE WAAL: Well, I want to discuss the origins of morality...

FLATOW: Yeah.

DE WAAL: ...and automatically you get into religion because for many people God is who gave us morality. And so I need to get religion a little bit out of the way in order to discuss it. But I also need to get the neo-atheists out of the way who have sort of spoiled the debate by calling everyone who's not an atheist irrational or an idiot. And so I need to make room for the debate about where morality comes from, and I pushed sort of both extremes to the side.

FLATOW: Well, that's good. Let's get into some of those ideas. There are two major themes in your book: the origins of empathy and altruism, and the origins of fairness and justice. Let's talk about empathy first. What evidence do we have in other primates, or non-primates, that they have a sense of empathy?

DE WAAL: Well, there's a lot of evidence now for all sorts of mammals, but it started actually when I attended a conference by child psychologists who said how they tested empathy in children, what they do is they ask a family member to cry and say that they're in pain and that they're sick. And then they look at what young children do.

Young children touch them and stroke them and look at them and comfort them. And then I said, well, if that's empathy, if that's an expression of empathy, I see lots of it among my chimpanzees because they do exactly the same. They embrace someone who is just distressed. And so it started with these studies on the apes, but now there are many mammalian studies on empathy.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it's a sense of justice and fairness. You have documented that also.

DE WAAL: Yeah. So that's an interesting one because we started out with Sarah Brosnan, my collaborator, we started out with capuchin monkeys that we put side by side and let them do a very simple task. And if you give them the same reward - let's say you give both of them grapes, or you give both of them cucumber - they're perfectly fine to do it 25 times in a row.

But if you reward one with grapes and the other one with cucumber - and grape is, I tell you, is far better than cucumber for a monkey - then the one who gets the cucumber gets very agitated and refuses to perform and throws the food away, food that they normally would always eat. So we saw that they got very angry at this particular situation, and so that's how we got into the study of fairness.

FLATOW: Yeah. In fact, we have one of those videos on our website at sciencefriday.com/fairness. And it is an amazing video of these monkey getting really upset with you, right, or whoever's giving them the - you gave that monkey a grape, and I get a cucumber? Throwing it almost in a rage, in the cage there.

DE WAAL: Well, the funny thing is, in that video you see that the first piece of cucumber she still eats.

FLATOW: Right.

DE WAAL: She's still perfectly happy with that cucumber. It's only after the other one got a grape that the cucumber became distasteful. And I show that video often because if I show the data, which are graphs and stuff like that, people are not really that convinced. But if you see the emotional reaction, the amount of emotion that goes in there, a bit like the Wall Street protest against the bonuses of the bankers or something, that's the reaction that you get.

FLATOW: Now, now, when you tried that same thing not on the monkeys, but on the chimps, you got a different reaction.

DE WAAL: Yeah, the chimps go further. So I used to reassure philosophers - philosophers were very upset with this experiment because they had decided that fairness and justice were very complex human concepts. And so for monkeys to have that, that really didn't fit their thinking. And so I always reassure them. I said, well, the monkeys are very egocentric. So they only cared about getting less than somebody else, not getting more than somebody else.

But now with the chimpanzees, we have reached the point that's really different. The chimpanzees sometimes refuse the grape until the other guy also gets a grape. Now, that gets very close to the human sense of fairness, and recently we tested that out by playing the ultimatum game with chimpanzees.

And the ultimatum game is the ultimate test of fairness in humans. They play it all over the world with humans. It always comes out that in the ultimatum game humans look for fair solutions. And so we did a similar thing with chimpanzees, and we got basically the same results.

FLATOW: So you're saying that contrary to what we think about how we have to be taught altruism and fairness and whatever, your study with the chimps show that this is maybe wired into our being.

DE WAAL: Yeah. The interesting - well, it is also a cognitive thing for a chimpanzee. So the chimpanzee needs to anticipate trouble, so to speak, to have that kind of sense of fairness. So there is some reasoning involved.

But the philosophers always assume that our sense of justice and many of our moral principles are things that we logically derive. We think about these issues, and then we come to a logical conclusion, and we say this is how we ought to behave.

But what I show with the primate studies is that a lot of these things are actually based on emotions, basic emotions, a bit like David Hume, the philosopher, tended to speak about moral sentiments. So that's the view that's becoming dominant, also dominant, I would say, among neuroscientists now, and psychologists. And so the philosophers have to deal with this new kind of science that's coming out.

FLATOW: But you say at the same time that you would hardly say that a - I'll read a page from your book: I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a moral being.

DE WAAL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Why is that?

DE WAAL: You wonder why?

FLATOW: Yeah.

DE WAAL: Well, they have all the ingredients that we use in our moral system. So they have empathy, rules - they follow rules. They enforce rules. They cooperate very - they have reciprocity, very important part of human - so they have all these ingredients.

But whether they try to objectify the rules the way we do, because we have moral rules that not only apply to you and to me, but we feel they ought to apply to all humans that we know. That's what - universal rules are actually sort of characteristic of morality, and I'm not sure that chimpanzees are into this kind of reasoning about moral principles.

FLATOW: So they'll - so as long as they can see the other chimp or the other - as long as they can see somebody else is getting the cucumber and not me, then they know - they notice some sort of fair play there, but they're not expanding that to the whole population of chimps they might live with.

DE WAAL: No. It's all in face-to-face interaction, but that's, of course, already a big step, and it's a little bit a matter of taste. I'm usually not calling chimpanzees moral beings, but I was just at a meeting where people said, well, why not, why not expand the concept of moral being and so we can have that debate?

FLATOW: So this is very much open to discussion among you scientists about what this - what's hardwired and where this originates?

DE WAAL: Yeah. So there's a lot of debate about - I called it my bottom up view of morality. We are used to the top-down views, which is either God gives us morality and religion, or the philosophers would say reason and logic give us morality. And then recently Sam Harris, the atheist, said science is going to give us morality. And these are all top-down views which basically assumed that humans don't know what moral is and that someone needs to tell them. It's either the scientists or the philosophers or God who's going to tell them.

And I'm much more in a new wave of people who look at morality bottom up and say morality comes from within. It is built into humans, and we derive it actually from very old characteristics that are primate characteristics.

FLATOW: Yeah. We'll talk more with Frans de Waal after this break. Stay tuned. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Frans de Waal, author of "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates." And if you want to read an excerpt of the book, you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com/bonobo. Sciencefriday.com/bonobo gives you an excerpt from the book. Our number, 1-80-989-8255.

Doctor de Waal, what do you want to know that you don't know yet? I know it's a big question. It could be a lot of things.

DE WAAL: No, if knew that...

FLATOW: What's the overriding question you still want...

DE WAAL: See, if I knew what I wanted to know, I already almost knew it, of course. That's always the problem is that you discover things. So for example, the inequity aversion as we call it or the sense of fairness in monkeys, we discovered by accident. So we were doing experiments with monkeys where they sat side by side and they were exchanging items with us for food. And we noticed that if one of them got a better deal than the other one, they got upset. And so that's - we said, well, that's exciting. And so you discover these things by accident, and then you start testing them out systematically, of course, and then you see if it holds up.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me go to the phones. Give us a call here. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Shel(ph) in Hayward, California. Hi, Shel.

SHEL: Hi. I appreciate the conversation. I think I've noticed that maybe (unintelligible) the bottom up in herds of buffalo had been witnessed, and even birds, there tend to be some pretty severe disagreements. And it seems like there are actually resolving matters of the flock or whatever that the animal would designated as. And it seems like they do follow rules that have been established at one point or another. And I'm just thinking that that's probably along with the primates and stuff, where (unintelligible) experiments of how the kingdom is, the animal kingdom is.

FLATOW: All right. Tell us - going to get an answer. Thank you.

DE WAAL: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Following rules is, of course, the reason the dog is man's best friend is because the dog follows rules, and they actually do experiments on that, is that how well certain breeds of dogs follow rules, and how much they internalize them. And so many hierarchical animals, obviously they follow rules. The dominant dictates sometimes the rules. But sometimes even the subordinate dictates rules.

And so, for example, in the chimpanzee community you may have an alpha male who is sometimes overly aggressive, and then the whole group protests and goes after him and beats him up and then he learns a lesson. And for the next six months he's going to be quiet and he's going to assert his dominance a little bit less aggressively. So all the kind of rules and restrictions on behavior occur in other animals.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You have a whole section in your book called atheist dilemma in which you take to task some of the world's most vocal atheist like Richard Dawkins, and you say science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives.

DE WAAL: Yeah. That's not - the task of science is to illuminate how things came about and how things operate, and we're very good at that. And I think science is really a triumph of the human mind in doing that and in setting up alternative hypotheses and seeing what the evidence tells us. Science is really not in the business of telling me or you how to lead our lives and what a good life is, and why we are here, and why would I be a good person versus a not good person. Science is not in that business at all, and science is not inherently evil. Science is not inherently good. And so I don't know what to do with people who argue that science is going to be the solution to building a moral society.

FLATOW: On the other hand, you talk about why there was a need to invent religion.

DE WAAL: Yeah. That's a very interesting issue, I think far more interesting than saying does God exists or God not exist, you know, which I think is a totally uninteresting question, especially for a scientist I'm never going to resolve that issue. A far more interesting question is: why do all people in the world have religions? Why do all people in the world believe in supernatural powers? That's really a puzzle that we scientists - and that's a puzzle that we may be able to resolve at some point that we have no solution for at the moment.

They all keep an eye on each other and that's probably how we humans use to live, in small societies where everybody knew everybody, and I know if you behave well, you know if I behave well, and so on.

But when we get to societies with thousands of people or millions of people, that whole system collapses. We cannot keep an eye on everybody. And so maybe we installed religions who were going to do that for us and gods who were going to do that for us.

FLATOW: Yeah, the eye in the sky looking down.

DE WAAL: Yeah. So, in that view, of course, the - people often think that religion is the source of morality. But in that view, it's actually the opposite. Morality came first, and we packed religion onto it. We added religion to fortify the system, so to speak. And that means that if that's true, that religions play a role, a constructive role in upholding morality, and in that sense - of course, I disagree with people like Dawkins and other atheists who think we can just throw religion away. We don't need it at all. I'm not 100 percent convinced.

I myself am a non-believer, so, in that sense, I sympathize with them. And I provide actually arguments that morality could come about without religion, which is an important argument, of course, for the atheists. But on the other hand, I'm not 100 percent convinced that doing away with religion is a wonderful solution.

FLATOW: On the other hand, on page 31, you say science isn't the answer to everything, too. So you're down in the middle.

DE WAAL: That's right. Science has been involved in evil things, too. We know that. So, for example, Hitler's ideas about race, of course, came straight out of science. It didn't come out of religion. And so we should always keep in mind that both religion and science can be used for good and evil, and we know that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Denise, Denise in Lansing, Michigan. Hi, Denise.

DENISE: Hi. I had a question. I was wondering, the sense - the basic sense of fairness that you see in primates, is it equal between both sexes, or is the fairness only among the males or only among the females?

DE WAAL: Yeah. We have not been able to detect a difference. So - especially with the monkey study, since we had so many subjects, we had males and females, and we thought we were going to find maybe a difference. We didn't find a difference between the two sexes. And so it applies to both. We think the origin, actually, of the sense of fairness is in cooperative relationships. It has now also been tested.

Our experiment has been replicated on the crows, on dogs and on monkeys and apes now. And so we think it relates to cooperation, is that if I go hunting with somebody and this person - and so that's a cooperative act. And if the other always takes all the meat and I get just a few scraps, that's not a good partnership for me.

So I need to pay attention to what I get, versus what the other gets. And so in cooperative relationships, it matters how the things are divided, and that's where we think the origin of the sense of fairness comes from.

FLATOW: All right, Denise. Thanks for calling.

DENISE: Thank you.

FLATOW: Talking with Frans de Waal, author of "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates." For people who are not familiar with bonobos, because they're sort of - they were sort of discovered relatively recently compared to, let's say, chimps. What's the difference between a chimp and a bonobo?

DE WAAL: Well, the bonobo is interesting, because they're exactly equally close to us as the chimpanzee. They are often neglected in the anthropologists' scenarios of human evolution because those scenarios are built around aggression and warfare, basically saying that we humans, we advanced to the point where we are by killing everybody else, including the Neanderthals, and so on.

The bonobos are peaceful. They have female dominance. When groups meet, there's some hostility. But then very soon, they have sex with each other, and then they mix. And then they groom, and the kids play with each other. And so it looks more like a picnic than warfare. And so that's totally different from the chimpanzees, where the males tend to kill males in other territories. And so the bonobo is sort of the hippie version of the primates, and it's not very welcome in the evolutionary scenarios of anthropologists.

But it's a very interesting species. And the recent genome that was published on the bonobo shows that they're exactly equally close to us genetically as are the chimpanzees. And so they're exactly equally relevant, if you want to explain human behavior.

FLATOW: Are they as studied as much as the chimps are now?

DE WAAL: Yeah, the reason that we know less about bonobos is that they were discovered fairly late, and that the fieldwork came about fairly late, because it's in pretty inaccessible forests in Central Africa. And so...

FLATOW: Something like 1929, or something like that?

DE WAAL: Yeah. They were discovered only in a Belgian museum in 1929. And at the time, I still remember that when I wanted to study bonobos - because I had studied chimpanzees for a long time. I thought, well, I need to know more about bonobos. People would say, well, why are you going to study the pygmy chimpanzees - because that's what they were called - if you can study the real chimpanzees?

(LAUGHTER)

DE WAAL: So they had this sort of - since they're slightly smaller, they felt they're less important. I don't know why that is.

FLATOW: And you mentioned - I think it's in your book - that they were mistaken for chimpanzees, even in famous photographs with primatologists?

DE WAAL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Robert Yerkes, the founder of the Yerkes Primate Center where I work, he has a famous photo of him with what he considered two chimpanzees on his lap. And he wrote about one of those two - Prince Chim was his name - a whole book. The book is entitled "Almost Human." It's about Prince Chim. And later, in postmortem, we have discovered that it was a bonobo. And he was very impressed by that bonobo.

FLATOW: Yet there are some popular science books and articles that say we should be more like bonobos, peace-loving and all that, but you're not quite in agreement with that.

DE WAAL: No, there's a lot of wishful thinking that goes into that, is that I wish we were more like bonobos. But, you know, we have set up a completely different society. I love bonobos, and they're very empathic creatures. That's why I take them as an example in the book.

But they don't have any family structure like we do. So in the human species, males are involved in childcare, either in a mating bond, male, female children, but sometimes in different arrangements. But men are involved in child care, and that's very different from bonobos and chimps, where the males basically - no, they're not involved at all. They don't do anything, basically. Sometimes they adopt orphans. That's really interesting. But otherwise, they are not really much involved.

FLATOW: Well, if bonobos are more peaceful and chimps are more war-like and they live near each other, why didn't the chimps just attack the bonobos and wipe them out?

DE WAAL: Ah-ha. You're thinking like those anthropologists I talk about - like, how can you wipe out a population? There's two issues.

FLATOW: I talk to too many of them. That's the problem.

(LAUGHTER)

DE WAAL: There's two issues. One is that there's an enormous river that floats between them that is two miles wide, or something. So it's not - for chimps, it's not going to be easy to get into the territory of bonobos. But the second thing is, obviously, they will not just be killing each other. They will be having sex, also. And then you get the same phenomenon as what happened between the humans and the Neanderthals. We used to assume that we wiped them out, but actually, we may have bred them out of existence. And that's what probably would happen between chimps and bonobos. You were to get some sort of mixture between the two.

FLATOW: I'm talking with Frans de Waal, author of "The Bonobo and the Atheist" on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. It's fascinating. You know, first time I heard about bonobos and I - many years ago, I asked a primatologist, what's the difference? How do you tell if have a bonobo or a chimp? And he said, well, give them an empty box. The chimps will go into the box and fight over who owns the box, and the bonobos will go into the box and have sex inside the box. Would that be close to the truth?

DE WAAL: Well, if you give bonobos food, for example, that's the easiest way to get sex among them, because food induces competition, and competition is going to be resolved sexually. And the same - yeah. If you give them any play item like an empty box, you get the same sort of thing.

FLATOW: So the bonobos will use food as an attraction for sex, or offer of food in - for sex, or something like that?

DE WAAL: Yeah. That's a typical trick, yeah, of dominant males - actually, chimpanzees also. Chimpanzees in the field have been seen to raid trees with papayas, then get some papayas. These are, of course, trees that humans have planted. They steal those papayas, and then they take one for themselves and one for a female, and then they get sex from the female for it.

FLATOW: Speaking of which, you have a picture of chimps kissing in the book. Why do chimps kiss? Why do - how did we discover kissing, you know, chimps kissing?

DE WAAL: Well, kissing on the mouth, you mean, because chimpanzees also kiss on other parts of the body, a bit like, the way the bishops kiss the ring of the pope, you know. And chimpanzees, also, they bow for the dominant, and they kiss his hands or his feet. But kissing on the mouth, we think the origin is food transfer between mother and offspring. So it happens, of course, in apes that the mother chews something and that she transfers it to her offspring. And that's also where the tongue comes in to kissing, you know. And that's may be also human kissing comes from.

FLATOW: There's an interesting picture in your book about the death of a chimpanzee or an ape, and the other chimps, the other apes lining up around that as if it were a funeral. They've, you know...

DE WAAL: Yeah. I'm pretty intrigued by the responses to death, because since I explore religion a little bit in the book and the origins of religion, I talk about the sense of mortality. Because we often assume that that's part of human religion, is that we think of an afterlife and mortality. And so what do chimpanzees know about death, for example? We think that they know quite a bit about the death of others. So somebody else has become immobile and is laying on the ground, is not breathing. They're very upset. They get very upset by the death of others, and they don't eat for a while, and they try to animate the individual. But what they know about their own death is still a puzzle. So do they know that they themselves, one day, will end up like that? I'm not sure they know that.

FLATOW: And one of the more fascinating parts was how they help each other out, how they know when an elderly chimp, and the youngsters help the chimps get up in the trees. They push them from the bottom. There's some that will bring water, right, for (unintelligible)?

DE WAAL: Yeah. We have that sort of thing in our own simple colony, because we have two groups of chimpanzees living outdoors here in Georgia. And in one of the groups, we had an elderly female who had arthritis and could barely walk and climb anymore. And we regularly saw younger females push her up into the climbing structure so that she could join a group of grooming chimpanzees. And we've also seen younger females run ahead of her to get water and then spit, because she had so much trouble walking that she could not, you know, on hot Georgia summer day, she could not get enough water to drink, and younger females go into water spigot and suck up water and spit into her mouth.

FLATOW: All right. There's so many more of these great stories in Frans de Waal's book called "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates." Thank you, Dr. de Waal, for coming and being with us again. As always, fascinating to hear your stuff.

DE WAAL: You're welcome.

FLATOW: It's all there in "The Bonobo and the Atheist." Dr. Frans de Wall is also primatologist and biologist at Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University in Atlanta. That's all the have - time we have for today.

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