Frans de Waal: Do Animals Have Morals? Empathy, cooperation and fairness seem like distinctly human traits. But Frans de Waal explains why other animals might share those same qualities.
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Do Animals Have Morals?

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Do Animals Have Morals?

Do Animals Have Morals?

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So why do you study primates?

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, so I'm sort of holding up a mirror to humans. We have a tendency always when we do things to think that it's something that we invented or that it's a cultural product. Since these animals are so close to us, it's very easy to make comparisons with human behavior.

My name is Frans de Waal and I'm a biologist by origin and I teach psychology nowadays.

RAZ: And through primates, Frans has been trying to figure out the origins of certain human behaviors and values, like morality. Yeah, so where does morality come from?

DE WAAL: Yeah, that's maybe the biggest question.

RAZ: Because over the course of human history, we've come to accept that morality probably comes from religion or civilization or tradition, right? But Frans wondered, what if it doesn't? What if it's biological? And so that's the question he decided to take on back in the '70s.

DE WAAL: At that time, all the studies on primate behavior - animal behavior in general - were on aggression and violence. All the studies on animals and all the studies on human evolution, they were basically on - why are we so violent? So I studied aggressive behavior in chimpanzees.

RAZ: Which did indeed supports the theory that human aggression is a primal instinct.

DE WAAL: Yeah, so even though I was trained that we had an aggressive instinct and that I would study chimpanzees in order to elaborate on that, what I discovered is that they reconcile after fights.

RAZ: And he only noticed this because one day...

DE WAAL: Two chimpanzees had an enormous fight in the group and I was watching that. And a couple of hours later, I saw a big commotion in the group and I saw two chimps kiss and embrace each other.

RAZ: Wow.

DE WAAL: And I was very surprised by that and why were they so excited by this. And riding my bike back home and thinking about that event, I thought, well, these two chimps were actually the same two chimps who had the fight in the morning.

RAZ: That's amazing.

DE WAAL: And that's where it clicked with me and I thought, well, we could call that a reconciliation. And so the first time I saw that, it was extremely surprising to me. And no one had ever mentioned anything like that to me. And the literature had nothing on it. And once you have seen it one time, you see it basically every day - it happens 10 times a day or something like that.

RAZ: Frans de Waal picks up the rest of the story from the TED stage.


DE WAAL: And this is very interesting because at the time, everything was about competition and aggression and so it wouldn't make any sense. The only thing that matters is that you win or that you lose. But why would you reconcile after a fight? That doesn't make any sense. This is the way bonobos do it. Bonobos do everything with sex. So they also reconcile with sex. But the principle is exactly the same. The principle is that you have a valuable relationship that is damaged by conflict so you need to do something about it. So my whole picture of the animal kingdom - and including humans also - started to change at that time.

RAZ: So what happened? I mean, where did you go from there?

DE WAAL: Yeah, after the studies on reconciliation, I decided that this whole focus on the negative side of social life, so to speak, was very one-sided. I thought, I'm going to set up a research program that is not focused on the aggressive side, but I'm going to focus on the socially-positive side - conflict resolution, empathy, cooperation and so on.


DE WAAL: Do primates have empathy in the sense that they are sensitive to the emotional states of others? Do they have a sense of fairness? How do they cooperate and when do they cooperate? The question of where morality comes from is bigger than that, but I'm looking at the components. Let's say I'm looking at the parts that you need in order to build a moral system.

RAZ: So for example the concept of reciprocity. You know, I scratch your back, you scratch my back.

DE WAAL: Well, reciprocity's very well developed. And we've done experiments on reciprocity, where, for example, we look in the morning which chimps groom each other. And then we wait a couple of hours. And then we introduce food and we see who shares food with each other.

And we have found in those studies that if you have groomed me in the morning, your chance of getting food from me is increased in the afternoon, meaning that I keep that in mind. I have a memory of favors that have been done to me just as we humans do.


RAZ: And the chimps that we're hearing right now, these are from your lab. They're actually doing this. They're sharing stuff.

DE WAAL: Mmhmm.

RAZ: But they don't have to do this to survive. I mean, their species doesn't require this.

DE WAAL: No, I think it's absolutely essential for their life. Why would you live in a group? Because group life is better for you than solitary life. And if you live in a group and you do things together - like chimpanzees. They hunt together. They defend their territory together. And they warn each other against predators. So if you live in a group, you have to do each other favors. Otherwise there's no point in living in a group.


RAZ: And if an animal intuitively understands reciprocity, then maybe, just maybe, that animal understands and feels what others are feeling - empathy. And Frans decided to test this out by looking at something called synchronization.


DE WAAL: Synchronization, which is part of that whole empathy mechanism, is a very old one in the animal kingdom. And in humans of course, we can study that with yawn contagion. Humans yawn when others yawn. And it's related to empathy. It activates the same areas in the brain. Also, we know that people who have a lot of yawn contagion are highly empathic. People who have problems with empathy, such as autistic children, they don't have yawn contagion. So it is connected. And we studied that in our chimpanzees by presenting them with an animated head that yawns. And there's an actual real chimpanzee watching a computer screen on which we play these animations. So yawn contagion - that you're probably all familiar with and maybe you're going to start yawning soon now - is something that we share with other animals. And that's related to that whole synchronization that underlies empathy.

RAZ: This is so cool. Because this video that you just showed in your talk - I mean, you can see these chimpanzees actually yawning.

DE WAAL: Yeah.

RAZ: But, I mean, could you - could you take it a step further? Like, could you see primates acting selfless, you know, doing something that doesn't necessarily benefit them?

DE WAAL: Yeah. So at the field station, for example, have a very old female -her name is Penny - who can barely walk, who has arthritis. And we've seen young females as soon as she, for example, she heads to the water spigot, which is quite a distance, they run ahead of her. And they take a drink for her. And they return to her and spit in her mouth so that she doesn't need to walk that whole distance.

Or if she needs to go into a climbing frame where other chimps are sitting and grooming and socializing, they push her up because she cannot really climb into those things anymore. And so yeah, we see the kind of altruistic act where they help each other. And we don't think they get these favors in any way returned because she's a very old female that can barely do anything for them anymore, which is basically empathy-based altruisms in the chimpanzee.

RAZ: It's just amazing to me. I mean, it's amazing to me that there's something within us - within primates. Like, we're wired to basically - to basically be good.

DE WAAL: By studying these processes in primate, I elevate them a little bit in the sense that I say well, they're actually more complex than you would think. But also I lower humans a little bit in the sense that I say well, actually what humans do is maybe not as complex as we think it is.

RAZ: Huh.

DE WAAL: And so it brings them closer together. I would not say that we are necessarily wired to be good. We're wired to have that whole spectrum from atrocious behavior to very nice and gentle behavior. And what our moral systems do, of course, is emphasize a certain side of that spectrum - the more positive side.

RAZ: So how far does that spectrum extend?

DE WAAL: Normally, you would think that if you reward a primate or any animal for a task, that all they pay attention to is how big is the reward that I get?


DE WAAL: But we were noticing in our capuchin monkeys that they pay attention to what the other guys are getting.


DE WAAL: And so that's why we started doing an experiment where we would give one monkey very good rewards, like grapes, and the other one very lousy rewards like pieces of cucumber.

RAZ: And just to clarify, monkeys always prefer grapes.

DE WAAL: Yeah, basically their preferences correspond exactly with the prices in the supermarket. So the more expensive the food, the more they like it.

RAZ: So they love like passion fruit and mangoes.

DE WAAL: Oh, yeah, they love all those expensive fruits that have a high sugar content. So the funny thing is that if you do these experiments with both monkeys getting cucumber, they are perfectly fine. They will do the task 25 times in a row. They will be happily eating their pieces of cucumber.


DE WAAL: But if you give the other one grapes, then all of a sudden the cucumber is not good enough anymore. And that's why the monkey starts protesting against it.


DE WAAL: They start shaking their cage. They start throwing food away, which is of course an irrational response.


DE WAAL: The economists who do these kinds of tests on inequity, they call that an irrational reaction because one piece of cucumber is better than no piece of cucumber. So you should never throw anything away. But that's actually what the monkeys do.

RAZ: I mean, you can understand why he's pissed off. The other monkey's getting a grape.

DE WAAL: (Laughing). So now the interesting thing is that in chimpanzees -we have found that in chimpanzees sometimes the one who gets the grape tries to equalize the things by refusing the grape until the partner also gets one.

RAZ: Wow.

DE WAAL: And we have now reached with chimpanzees the point that their sense of fairness is much more evolved than in these monkeys and is very similar to the human one.

RAZ: That's amazing. They basically are saying no, you know, if my other chimp doesn't get the grape, then I'm not going to eat my grape.

DE WAAL: Yeah. The point is, of course, that a lot of our moral tendencies are not things that we arrive at by reasoning and logic - 'cause that's often the philosophers. They think that way. They think we reason ourselves through moral principles. But underneath there are very strong emotions. And that's what you see on display with these monkeys. And it's these emotions that drive the process of us formulating moral principles.

RAZ: It's incredible because we think of like our primal instincts as things that need to be tamed. And then centuries of civilization and religion have tamed those instincts to result in morality. But actually, the morality comes from our primal instincts.

DE WAAL: Well, the traditional view is, of course, that morality comes either from God or it comes from philosophers. Our basic instincts are all bad. And then civilization manages to make it good. We have a good side, which is cultural and religious, and a bad side, which is biological.

But if you look at other species like the primates or elephants or dolphins and so on, you see all these socially positive tendencies. You see that entire spectrum that we like in our moral systems of behavior. So it's not something that we came up with or something that we developed only culturally. It's something that is biologically already there.

RAZ: That's biologist Frans de Waal. You can check out his entire talk at


WALTER MARTIN: (Singing) We like the zoo 'cause we're animals too. We like the zoo 'cause we're animals too. We like the zoo 'cause we're animals too. We want to do like the monkeys do. We like the zoo 'cause we're animals too. We like the zoo 'cause we're animals too.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week - "Animals And Us." If you missed any of it or you want to find out more about who was on it, check out You can also find many, many more TED Talks at I'm Guy Raz and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


MARTIN: (Singing) Billy goat, porcupine, crocodile, octopus, platypus, jaguar, grizzly bear...

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