Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Some of us became aware of primatologist Frans de Waal back in 2008 through his concept of inequity aversion:

[W]e did a study in which capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task.

If both monkeys got the same reward, there never was a problem. Grapes are by far preferred (as real primates, like us, they go for sugar content), but even if both received cucumber, they’d perform the task many times in a row.

However, if they received different rewards, the one who got the short end of the stick would begin to waver in its responses, and very soon start a rebellion by either refusing to perform the task or refusing to eat the cucumber.

This is an “irrational” response in the sense that if profit-maximizing is what life (and economics) is about, one should always take what one can get. Monkeys will always accept and eat a piece of cucumber whenever we give it to them, but apparently not when their partner is getting a better deal. In humans, this reaction is known as “inequity aversion.”

That seems relevant to the great questions of political economy before us today.

Here’s a recent presentation from de Waal at Ted, that focuses on morality, altruism, and empathy, also relevant today — especially if you’re not a neo-liberal or some sort of sociopath.

(Here’s the link, in case their player doesn’t work for you.)

The video shows the “inequity aversion” experiment with capuchins mentioned above, as well as other experiments with primates and elephants (!). There’s an entire transcript at the TED site, but here is de Waal’s conclusion:

So let me summarize. I believe there’s an evolved morality. I think morality is much more than what I’ve been talking about, but it would be impossible without these ingredients that we find in other primates, which are empathy and consolation, pro-social tendencies and reciprocity and a sense of fairness. And so we work on these particular issues to see if we can create a morality from the bottom up, so to speak, without necessarily God and religion involved, and to see how we can get to an evolved morality.

Well, for what this worth, and I’m not a scholar or a philosopher… I think both morality and immorality have survival value, or else they never would have both arisen (“from the bottom up”) in nature. It does seem to me, however, that if human beings were “naturally good” (whatever that means) than historical events like The Battle of the Somme, say, would never have happened. “The problem of evil” has a WikiPedia entry, but “the problem of good” does not. Perhaps that’s a good name for the project that de Waal is working on.

NOTE Hat tip Aquifer for the video.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Middle Seaman

    Morality is a single dimension in a universe with several other orthogonal dimensions. The concept of God/religion is central to morality in the culture we live in. God and religion are also central to power, dominance and control that are orthogonal to morality. The Battle of Somme, not the best example, was instigated and driven by the need for dominance and control.

    1. Mansoor H. Khan

      Lambert Strether said:

      “Well, for what this worth, and I’m not a scholar or a philosopher… I think both morality and immorality have survival value, or else they never would have both arisen (“from the bottom up”) in nature.”

      Belief in God and religion also have a survival value. The following model of a life cycle of a civilization (which I have seen elsewhere in writing but cannot remember the source) I believe is true based on my read of history.

      1. Religion of various smaller groups (tribes) Consolidates within a chaotic civilization.

      2. Cooperation and Rationality rises causing the rate of material production to rise as production and management knowledge increase.

      3. Belief in religion wanes as reason and material wealth and power becomes the new religion.

      4. Corruption (cheating) and infighting over material wealth and power rises as goal of people becomes the material world rather than the god and heaven.

      5. Eventually the civilization collapses and rate of material production greatly drops. Many die due to starvation.

      6. Post collapse religion and spirituality return. It is too hard to survive without all the material comforts provided by high civilization. Religion becomes a survival advantage.

      7. And the cycle repeats.

      So where are we (in America and most of the industrialized world today)? I believe we are at step number 4.

      Even if the above model is true many will argue that religion and spirituality in the above model are more like a placebo then have anything to do with the existence of god (I don’t accept this view).

      Mansoor H. Khan

      1. Susan the other

        I think the difference is that humans for some reason do not think morality comes from within, that it must therefore come from another source. Odd, as animals don’t require a god or some other authority figure to direct them; they understand each other quite well. Religion is proto-politics in that sense; it serves to organize us and then we do moral things quite willingly. It is puzzling why we need the outside impetus. The answer must lie somewhere in the fact that we are the ubersocial animal.

        1. Mansoor H. Khan

          Susan the other,

          “I think the difference is that humans for some reason do not think morality comes from within, that it must therefore come from another source.”

          The “Within” idea you speak of does not explain evil. Animals don’t do evil (oppression, mental and physical torture, holocausts, etc.).

          mansoor h. khan

        2. rotter

          Because morality dosnt “come from within”, its learned from without. The idea that we are naturally good and would be so always if not for the interference of insttutions like government and the church, is the old “natural man” trope, Both reviled and cynically exploited by everyone, opportunistcally, as and when it supports whatever argument they are making. Whatever its rhetorical utility, it has been proven false. I suppose the monkey morality link was supposed to prove its true after all, well people will “believe” whatever they want to anyway so i wont argue that. However, if I will sugges that even if the monkeys are actually “moral” it still hasnt been explained why

          1. Mansoor H. Khan

            Rotter said,

            “Because morality dosnt “come from within”, its learned from without.”

            Islam teaches that all “good” comes from without (without = Allah). However, humans have free will and the ability to choose “bad” WITHIN them.

            mansoor h. khan

          2. evodevo

            Yes, it has. Humans have survived and flourished because of in-group cooperation, combined with hostility/competition with out-groups. You need to read up on it, however. Evolutionary biologists have been working on it for 30 years or so – Frans de Waal is one of the top names in the field, but there are a LOT of other studies. For background, I recommend The Cooperative Gene – Mark Ridley; The Evolutionary Origins of Morality – Leonard Katz editor; The Origins of Virtue – Matt Ridley; and Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, to name but a few. The basic behaviors are there in the mental repertoire of many higher social mammals, added to in higher primates, and a study of hunter-gatherer cultures around the globe can illuminate the role of such behaviors in the evolution of “morality” in humans. However, to seek the basics of theology in natural selection is probably a fool’s errand. Theology developed after the nation-state and “organized” religion several thousand years ago. For the basics you would have to go back before that. The “gods” didn’t give mankind morality; the gods were invented to serve as clubs to ensure conformity.

          3. Mansoor H. Khan

            rotter said,

            “However, to seek the basics of theology in natural selection is probably a fool’s errand.”

            If god exists and he wants you to live in a certain way then (assuming a merciful god) that way of living should lead to the best possible result compared to all other ways of living.

            If you understand my above statement then natural selection ideas would apply to theology.

            mansoor h. khan

        3. Maju

          We do not need such mythological impetus: religion is a historical development: in hunter-gatherer societies ethics come from within and from peer pressure, not any “god”.

          Religion is more political than ethical: it’s about manipulating people and controlling their souls (minds). It’s about grabbing power or being submitted by those who hold it and make abstruse theological claims. On the plus side, religious communities can also serve a socializing and mutual aid purpose but that they do instead of the natural society (in a disintegrated societal context, which sometimes they also help to disintegrate) and they serve that role as tool for the principal goal which is power-mongering by the religious elites and their protegees.

          1. Mansoor H. Khan

            Maju said:

            “We do not need such mythological impetus”

            Just because I posit something that scientific instruments cannot detect does not mean it is automatically “mythological”. Is the idea of justice mythological? Is oppression mythological?

            The conclusion I am coming to is that the scientific method itself needs to be expanded. Let us take the practice “usury” for example. In practice an economic system based on usury (by usury here I mean a debt based currency system) leads to too many problems. It is too unjust and leads to extreme economic imbalances and economic depressions.

            Therefore in the real laboratory of our world we can conclude we should try another way of issuing currency (one not based on creating debt). No scientific instrument is needed to come to this conclusion just observation of social consequences and real world personal experiences.

            Mansoor H. Khan

          2. Maju

            Mythological is what people believe (or believed in the past) that can’t be confirmed by normal scientific (i.e. normal reality-check) experimentation.

            Spit-firing dragons are mythological (have you ever seen one?) and God is mythological (have you ever seen one?)

            We’d all love to live forever in fantastic paradises and youthful beingness… but that’s an irrational idea that is supported by no evidence at all: it’s called wishful thinking.

            “Is the idea of justice mythological? Is oppression mythological?”

            These are social values and we recognize them as rather inaprehensible ideas. As shown in this article even capuchin monkeys (and probably dogs and what not) share them with us: they are convenient, useful instinctive notions for social life. Do you want to make a “god” out of an instinct? Feel free but it’s the matter of fantasy and legends, not of rational debate.

            We do agree that justice is important, a central tenet of a healthy society but, unlike you and like the capuchin monkeys, I do not need a “god” to tell me: I was born with that idea and began naturally fighting for it since I was maybe 4 or 5 (I recall a kindergarten rebellion I starred solo, which shaped much of my character – it was not about any “god” it was about fairness and justice – or I felt it that way).

            I’m almost exactly like that capuchin monkey who protested being treated unfairly: I behave like it, I empathize with it and neither of us need any imaginary “god” to meddle.

  2. Flying Kiwi

    I concur that the Battle of the Somme is not a good example. That, and many other examples such as Okinawa etc, occured because the vast majory of the fighting men on both sides were prepared to put themselves through hell and even die for the highly moral concepts of loyalty to flag, defence of country, solidarity wth their collegues in the trenches, a conscious striving for ideals such as courage and heroism and perhaps Sydney Carton’s vague but powerful, “It is a far, far better thing I do…”.

    To the combatants on the Somme as with the bomber pilots over Cologne, Dresden and Hiroshima and perhaps even the SS Guards at Auschwitz what was a clear local and personal immorality – and even personal sacrifice of conscience – was justified by what they regarded as a greater good to which they felt bound.

    Accordingly I suggest that the majority of us are “naturally good”. The problem is that our concept of what is “good” can never be objective.

  3. Maju

    Capuchin monkeys teach us here a lesson: inequality sucks and destroys society.

    It is true that parasitism/cheating has some survival value but it is a cheat, not the rule. And there is a well known rule for cheats to remain at tolerable levels (and keep people falling for them): don’t do them more than once each seven times.

    So systematic selfishness (“cheating” every time) doesn’t work. Only minimal cheating/parasitism/selfishness can work/be tolerated.

    1. sedeer

      Actually, there is a “rule” about when and how cheating can remain at tolerable levels. The Price equation has been used to study the evolution of altruism and cheating in groups; I think it can also provide insight into these sorts of economic/social questions:

      [Sorry for double-posting this as a separate comment…I was in a hurry and missed the “Reply” link.]

  4. Goin' South

    Lambert has focused us this morning on what is the central question of our time–perhaps of any time. Do we have an “essential” nature? If so, does it tend toward the cooperative and empathetic or toward the competitive and selfish?

    The defenders of the status quo answer “yes” to the first question, and characterize humans as irredeemably and exclusively egoistic. They even have the nerve to claim these traits as “good,” at least insofar as they work themselves out through the magic of the Great Invisible Hand.

    de Waal is in the tradition of Kropotkin, whose observations of the animal world in Siberia led him to answer “yes” to the first question, but to see our dominant traits, by virtue of natural selection, as supportive of mutual aid:

    “And when we study closely the evolution of the animal world, we discover that the aforesaid principle, translated by the one word Solidarity, has played an infinitely larger part in the development of the animal kingdom than all the adaptations that have resulted from a struggle between individuals to acquire personal advantages.

    It is evident that in human societies a still greater degree of solidarity is to be met with. Even the societies of monkeys highest in the animal scale offer a striking example of practical solidarity, and man has taken a step further in the same direction. This and this alone has enabled him to preserve his puny race amid the obstacles cast by nature in his way, and to develop his intelligence.

    A careful observation of those primitive societies still remaining at the level of the Stone Age shows to what a great extent the members of the same community practice solidarity among themselves.”

    (See “Anarchist Morality” and other Kropotkin writings at:

    Even if a more limited assertion is true, i.e. that humans beings are fully capable of what Kropotkin calls Solidarity, then the prevailing excuse for the anti-human system of Capitalism, that we are incapable of anything better, is demolished and the opportunity for a better world is born.

  5. craazyman

    There’s Always a Catch

    so wait a minute.

    if animals are so altruistic, why didn’t the monkey who got the grape split it in half and share it with his buddy? or both of them put the grape and cucumber into a common pot? or even better, grape-dude starts crying at the injustice perpetrated on his brother cucumber-ape, and they both go on strike.

    it must be because grape-dude believes it’s his natural right to possess the grape, probably because of some special talent he possesses bestowed upon him by Monkey God, and who is he, a simple monkey, to question the wisdom of the lord?

    1. JTFaraday

      Exactly what I was thinking. What does the grape eating monkey do? Keeps right on eating the grapes.

      When I’m the cucumber eating monkey, I may think I’m justified in being peeved based on some conception of social justice, but I don’t name the fact that I’m peeved, in and of itself, any kind of “morality.”

      I think it means I’m self interested. Since I don’t believe in selflessness, that doesn’t bother me too much. I don’t think self interest and co-operation are mutually exclusive in any way, but you may have “socialize” people to do it.

      I also think a lot of social science studies make huge interpretive leaps in their final analyses.

      1. nonclassical

        Toaism=”One who knows what is enough will always have enought”…

        “solidarity” is much more common in other western democracies, who are not so highly militarized…seems to me
        one “feeds” the “other”..

    2. Kirk

      The experiment was about fairness/reciprocity, not altruism per se. But multiple dimensions of human morality (altruism, in-group thinking, fairness, harm aversion) are shared by our primate cousins.

    3. jimmy james

      And another question that might have some bearing on current social questions:

      Assume there are no partitions between the monkeys and the researcher. Monkey #1 gets grapes and remains happy. Monkey #2 gets cucumbers for the same work and is outraged.

      Does Monkey #2 try to beat the shit out of the cruel and unfair researcher who gives out these arbitrary rewards, or does he focus his rage on the other monkey?

      1. Maju

        It’s clearly described above: the monkey protests against the researchers: it stops cooperating and begins a nonviolent protest (either no work or rejects the reward: in any case very clear).

    4. craazyman

      Jesus. I was spacing out half asleep staring at the wall and watching in my mind a dude in a white lab coat teach the monkey how to cut the grape in half and share it.

      Then I thought, Whoa! what if the shock of that understanding caused an acceleration and evolution in monkey consciousness, and they realized they could cooperate with each other and gain power over humans. And then they taught other animals too.

      So now the entire natural world of mammals becomes a conspiracy against the intrusion of man.

      Oh my God! Glad I don’t have a fur coat or eat much meat. Because when their police come ’round and look in closets and refrigerators, there won’t be much in the way of mercy.

      1. nonclassical

        …the opposite is illustrative also=”If we put 200 rats in a 100 rat maze, they begin to display some un-rat like characteristics…”

    5. Moneta

      The eating monkey probably felt it deserved the grape. Every time it ate one more, it make it feel a little more superior to the other one. And it did not even realize it thought and felt this way because life was easy, and when life is easy not much thinking needs to occur.

      The other monkey had to do more thinking than the indulgent one and find a way to make the eating monkey understand it was not deserving of the food. By refusing to eat the food, it was a way of reducing the pleasure the other one felt by feeling superior every time it got food for nothing.

      The altruism would only result AFTER this little dance. Everything on this planet works according to action and reaction. That’s why I don’t believe in good and evil. What is good for one is usually bad for someone else somewhere on this planet.

      Morals are a set of rules that help people work together to increase their well-being. They work until they don’t.

      For example, let’s say there were 50 people on Easter Island and they developed a set of moral values that made them very prosperous. Life was so good that the population grew to 10,000 and suddenly there weren’r enough resources to support everyone according to the pre-established set of moral values in this society. By not adapting and changing their value system, they did not adapt to their new reality and this led to this population’s demise.

      I think the Western world, especially the US, is heading into the same direction. Values are important but what should they be at this present time under our current situation?

  6. Sufferin' Succotash

    The long-running debate over whether we are “essentially” good or “essentially” not-so-good may overlook the biological fact that human beings have been selected to be both and it’s up to culture rather than nature to determine which traits prevail.
    Adam Smith, for example, argued that people have a “natural” propensity to truck, barter and trade. That’s quite possibly true, but it’s also equally the case that they have a “natural” propensity to steal, rob and pillage.
    Which propensity wins out depends finally on what sort of society human beings want.

    1. nonclassical we “are” what we do, it also matters what sort of people we wish to “be” (BEhavior)..

    2. Christophe

      Perhaps the outcome depends not just on what kind of society humans want, but what kind of society wants humans. Were we able to create the kind of society we want, I seriously doubt we would have the one with which we are currently saddled. Could “the biological fact that human beings have been selected to be both” good and not-so-good predetermine the cyclical expansion and contraction of inequality and entitlement as rigidly as if we were only one sided?

      Since we are talking about whether or not our hard wiring makes us fundamentally equality oriented or inequality oriented, we have already taken the leap of considering that we may not have as much control over our choices as our favorite models assert. Perhaps we are less the subject and more the object, like the monkeys in the experiment.

  7. Max424

    I came home the other night in a bad mood. Normally, when I get home late, I go through this routine with my cats. My female, Giselle, I feed. Her brother, Max, I let out the door.

    Giselle and I then hang out and wait for Max to finish his wilding, which usually takes about an hour. When he returns, I feed him, and I feed Giselle again (Giselle thinks she’s getting double rations, but I’m only feeding her, half portions … twice. Too smart me).

    Then, for at least the next five hours, it’s no disturbing the Master time.

    On this particular night, the Bad Mood night, I said no to Max. I said, “No Max, you’re not going out. Master is tired, and Master wants to crash, and he’s not waiting up on your tomcat ass. Comprenez-vous? Now go eat your delicious canned food, and if don’t like it, then eat some of that bone hard, dusty dry food I provide for you.”

    Max whined, Max complained, but I would not relent. I told him, “I rule this roost, little man, not you.” Max attempted to sit in front of the television so I couldn’t watch, but as I lounged in my recliner with my clicker, randomly changing channels, I said coldly, “Nice try, cat, but you are far too insignificant to block my vision.”

    As I was about to doze off, I heard a scratching at my back door. I also heard Giselle’s distress signal, an elongated “peeeeeeeep.” I got up to investigate. Sure enough, Giselle was at the back door, desperate to get out. I had to laugh. She practically never goes out, and the only time she uses her distress call, is on those very rare occasions when she does go out.

    I said, “You little genius son-of-a-bitch. 15 years and you still got tricks up your sleeve I haven’t seen. Ok, brilliant one, you can go out. You deserve it.”

    But when I opened the door for her, Giselle yawned, did a pirouette, and sashayed back in the direction of her bowl. Meanwhile, Max slipped out the door.

    Giselle doesn’t like Max. Not really. She tolerates Max, on her good days, and is beastly towards her brother on all the others. So why did she perform this noble (sneaky) deed on his behalf?

    Was it about freedom? Freedom from the capricious moods of the Master? Or did Giselle just pull a fast one, to prove (yet again!) who is really is the boss around the house?

    I don’t know, but for sure, I witnessed cooperation –and tolerance– in the face of oppression. Most impressive.

    1. F. Beard

      Nice story!

      An interpretation I would give is that by refusing to let Max out you were disturbing the social order and causing Giselle discomfort.

      “(Giselle thinks she’s getting double rations, but I’m only feeding her, half portions … twice. Too smart me).”

      Maybe she is making you do twice as much work for her so that you will love her twice as much? That cognitive dissonance thingy? When I am at my mother’s I feed her cat. Missy always appreciates a little “fresh” dry food even though it not much fresher than the dry food already in her bowl. She just likes the service, I think. And when she wants to be brushed, she will sometimes wait for me to pick her up and place her where she gets brushed though she is quite athletic and needs no assistance to get up there.

      1. Max424

        “…you were disturbing the social order…”

        I was. I was tying a new “get tough” policy but I was outsmarted.

        Max punished me for my transgressions. That night he was gone for more than two hours. Normally, if he stays away too long, I venture out and lightly whistle for him, and no matter how distant he is, he’s at my feet within 30 seconds.

        But not this night. I whistled and whistled, but Max wouldn’t come. Only when I was practically sick with grief (“What have I done?”), did he finally appear –out of nowhere, as usual.

        He was probably watching me the whole time from the near bushes, the bastard.

  8. Shutterbuggery

    Don’t overthink the monkey thing and don’t underestimate their brain power either. They knew the game was rigged and didn’t appreciate it.

    1. Kirk

      Your aversion to thinking of yourself as just another primate reflects in-group/outgroup attachment to the “human”… which is ironically a trait shared with other primates.

      1. LeeAnne

        I rembember Clinton when he was President lecturing the rest of us on racial equality -that we shared the same genes. We also breath the same air. I don’t call that an argument. I call it a conversation stopper and abuse of power; the power of the bully pulpit.

        1. Kirk

          Saying “racism is bad” is a conversation stopper… If you’re a racist!
          Amongst more enlightened primates, it’s the beginning of a dialogue about how to share a common world.

          1. LeeAnne

            Changing the subject to justify an adhominum attack is about as low as it gets.

            My comment is about Clinton’s style; a statement intended to limit debate -like yours.

        2. Christophe

          Sorry LeeAnne. We are primates.

          Lambert is not a monkey and is, therefore, unlikely to let you falsely frame the debate.

          In saying “We are not monkeys,” you seem to be speaking for all of humanity – that is, all of us who share the same genes. Then you recount being deeply offended by a president making a similar argument. Does your lack of a bully pulpit render your argument somehow less abusive? Or were you in fact only speaking for an elite, superior subset of humanity, leaving the servile races to defend themselves against accusations of monkeyhood?

          1. LeeAnne

            “Lambert is not a monkey and is, therefore, unlikely to let you falsely frame the debate.”

            y\You’re so articulate. Now go to bed little one and get some sleep.

          2. Christophe

            Or you could be a monkey who was extremely inequity averse, and stockpiled enough reciprocal favors to get a human to type it for you.

            Or you could be that monkey-controlled human. Conspiracy theorists, take note.

      1. LeeAnne

        Lambert, the study of primates, other animals and insects is very interesting, even fascinating and their behavior and organization, observerable; esemblances to humans are indisputable. They may be primates, but they’re not monkeys.

        Studies like this say more about the self-importance of academics.

        1. Maju

          “Monkey” is a non-scientific term. Primates is the scientific-classification equivalent of “monkey”. You could well say “we are monkeys” and you’d be scientifically right, as long as you equate the common term “monkey” with the scientific term “primate”.

          So, yes: we are monkeys (primates).

    2. Maju

      We are not only monkeys (“primates” if you wish, which is the scientific term) but we claim to be more moral or ethical than any animal.

      In any case there have been similar studies with children and the results are strikingly similar: children hate inequality and injustice (and that’s surely why we as adults tend to prefer them and to fight for them to some extent at least). or

      Among adults also most people try to avoid comitting injustices – but a minority systematically only cares about their selfish benefit (can’t find the relevant link right now sorry). How what works for a minority which should be considered psychotic and put under medical care (or prison or whatever) has been proclaimed as “the rule” against all scientific evidence beats me. Probably a reason is that this minority of selfish manipulative cheaters tends to gather most power (notably the media) and therefore can dictate the terms to some extent (but, well, surely the problem is multifaceted).

  9. sedeer

    As a biologist with a strong background in evolution, I’m always uncomfortable with how quickly and easily people go from results like the ones discussed here to grand theories about behaviour, morality, religion, society, etc. These leaps are usually scientifically unjustified and tend to say more about the ideology of the speaker than about human nature.

    I haven’t actually looked at these experiments. Based on the description given here (ie, they demonstrate a specific behaviour in capuchin monkeys), I can imagine that this behaviour could have clear effects on their social dynamics. It might even be interesting to run agent-based simulations with the different behaviours and see what kind of groups are stable, how well they do, etc.

    Understanding this sort of thing certainly has relevance to economics. The assumption that humans are “rational” is one of the basic flaws with modern economics. I’m not sure whether it would be better to say that humans are irrational or that economists define rationality incorrectly (which is what my colleagues often think when I try to discuss economics with them), but it comes to the same thing. I’m not an economist, but I think a viable theory of economics will need to be based on a better understanding of the heuristics humans use to make decisions and guide interactions, many of which will have been subject to selection during our evolution. There is research into those questions and what de Waal is talking about would be a welcome addition, but it’s important to try to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions, which often just leads to people projecting their ideology onto the science.

    1. nonclassical


      humans, before BEing considered “rational”, must first BEhave rationally..that we can abstract a mental construct
      and name it “rational” has no MEANING without BEhavior..

      how much of human BEhavior is self-destructive, at all levels?

    2. evodevo

      As to the existence of the “rational” consumer, the biologists have known the truth of the matter for a long time – they don’t exist – the economists still haven’t figured it out, and are resisting mightily. Hence, the continual failure of their various “models”.

    1. Maju

      I just recall having read in a book by Murray Gell-Mann more than a decade ago: the “cheat once each 7 times” rule was found to work best in WWII air warfare and also works in nature among wathcer birds, who optimize their reward/safety balance giving false alarms (and gaining some food that way) with that 1/7 ratio. Probably the Prize equation converges towards that figure in most situations – can’t say (hate maths!)

      Whatever the case: cheating works only if relatively rare. Systematic cheating is self-destructive and may also harm society by eroding mutual trust. I think we do understand that intuitively and are willing to forgive and tolerate as long as it is within such rather petty limits.

  10. Heron

    IN a way, war and battles are one result of the natural tendency for “moral” behavior. If one individual in your group is attacked or under threat, the moral, pro-social thing to do is to defend them. If the group as a whole is attacked or under threat, the moral, pro-social thing to do is to defend the group, even those you dislike or who are known “cheaters”. The objective behind the Nationalist program which eventually gave us the Somme was to create this sense of shared community and identity, this group feeling, within citizens for The State, and given the level of voluntary service within the Great War, I would say battles like the Somme were proof-positive of the Nationalist program’s success, and of the lengths humans will go to fulfill what they consider their “moral obligations”.

    1. rotter

      No, in your examples “moral” is an equivocation. The Queen and Kaiser, and Monsieur Presidente all knew what “moral” behavior was and chose to ignore it.. simplified but true. They were “positively” immoral.

      1. Kirk

        We should distinguish between “moral” as biologically-rooted moral psychology on the one hand, versus morality as the result of enlightened reflection on the other.
        In group/outgroup thinking (e.g., war, racism, genocide) is a byproduct of our peculiar moral psychology… which is not to say that they are “moral.”

        1. Heron

          I was using “moral” in the sense which de Waal is using it in the video and exerpted summary, as meaning the sort of pro-social thinking and behavior which forms the primitive foundation of the more complex contemplative or intellectual morality you mention.

          1. rotter

            yes, moral pricinples can be exploited, the complicated they are made, the easier they are to explouit. I thinks this is always done for the sake of utility…Pope Gregory calling on the warring princes of Europe to kill Muslims instead because that would be “less” evil than a good historical example..but the excuse is not the reason, it is the excuse.

      2. Heron

        I’m not talking about the moral considerations of world leaders, I’m talking about the motivations for the men who joined up to fight the war. Kings and Emperors don’t fight wars; they just declare them and you’re certainly right that more often than not this is done for selfish or frivolous reasons. But why do the people who do fight, the soldiers, choose to do so? Why do they risk dying and abandon their families?

        Surely some sign up for “ammoral” reasons, like a desire to kill things, or naive ones like a desire for adventure, but most people who signed up for WWI, and most people who sign up for military service these days, did or do so because they believe they are protecting The Group; something which is unquestionably “moral” and pro-social. The evidence of how common this reason for military service during WWI was can be found in the art and philosophy of the post war “Lost Generation”. It was at that time that the work of moral critics like Nietzsche and the Existentialists became popular because the meaningless destruction of WWI, and the cynical manipulation of conventional moral thought which motivated the masses to participate in it, entirely discredited pro-social, “moral” behavior for many Europeans.

        1. rotter

          “But why do the people who do fight, the soldiers, choose to do so? Why do they risk dying and abandon their families? ‘

          Ive heard many first hand explanations for that and its becasue they are afraid not to.. The Infidel is only imaginary until you are shooting at each other..and then its a struggle for survival with only one way home…the draft board and the police, the scorn of parents and freinds are real threats. Those draft resistors who went to Canada were much Braver than Vietnam Vet and Author Tim Ob’brien, he says, because they had the balls NOT to go, where he didnt.

          1. JurisV

            Rotter — I agree with you whole heartedly. I’m a Vietnam vet and I did not choose to go because I thought the war was a good idea. While I was against the war, I also didn’t have the courage (that O’Brien mentions)to refuse to go — or cross the border to Canada. My decision to go along with the Draft was affected by: 1) It would probably have killed my mother (I had already caused her enough grief as a teenager); 2) vague thoughts of “social contract”; 3) feelings of guilt were I to not go and cause some other person to get drafted. Those were all sort of rational reasons that I put together; however I had another reason that was not rational — 4)a weird, amorphous curiosity (gut feeling?) of “what was it like?” and “did I really understand the war?” In combination, reason No 4 and reason No 1, in effect, gave me the Godfather “choice” — one I could not refuse.

            Reading about modern Neuroscience has given me a lot more perspective on my “choice.” Rationalizing the decision is a lot less substantive than the “gut feelings” that come from the non-conscious brain (some call it the “old brain,” the “primitive brain,” or the “lizard brain” , etc)

  11. Rasken

    Is the response irrational though? Leaving aside a sense of moral entitlement and fairness and focusing on the base idea of maximizing profits, is it rational to continually accept a lesser payout when seeing a greater payout is possible for the exact same task? I’m uncomfortable calling that an irrational response; it suggests the rational response for the peasants is to shut up and take their scraps while the aristocrats extract the bulk of the fruits of the peasants’ labor.

    You could argue that for a single meal it may be more rational to take something rather than nothing, but I would argue the monkeys, when they have identified a pattern that will hurt them in the long run, are making the rational choice by doing what they can to change the system. If they do not, the undeserving elite monkey will continue to be more successful despite having received that status only from random chance. To let the system continue, means continued success of the elite monkey and his or her genes while the “underpaid” monkey will find it more difficult to be successful and bear numerous healthy children.

    Perhaps fairness and morality are a shorthand emotional response for this evolutionary arithmetic that never expresses itself so straightforward in any individual monkey’s mind or maybe the monkeys just think about profit and loss on a longer time frame than we do ;)

    1. Kirk

      Although not an expert, I believe the prevailing theory is that fairness/reciprocity evolved because primates are social animals. It’s not that the monkeys have some secret insight into political economy; rather, a visceral aversion to unfairness helps us survive in groups. For example, we could not cooperate without an “irrational” expectation that my altruism will produce a reciprocal reaction.

    2. Moneta

      It’s not irrational. It actua»lly goes to show that monkeys think about “longer term” and “shorter term” consequences.

      Short term, the desperate short-changed monkey could eat everything it got but it realized that this would not work longer term.

      By not eating, it was showing a form of control. It probably stops the eating monkey from feeling so much more superior. If the loser does not care about the prize, it becomes less meaningful to the satiated winner.

      I remember having disagreements in college… and when I did not get my way and felt screwed, I’d walk away and not go to the party. Yes, I was penalizing myself for not going but I also knew it was pissing off my friend more because she loved parties more than I did and she would not be getting her perfect little scenario.

      1. Maju

        That irrational (intuitive, instinctive) mechanisms work does not make them “rational” (meditated, conscious). They work because in the multi-millennial trial-and-error process of evolution only what worked well could survive: the rest eventually died off.

        But that’s not reason: conscious informed decissions, it is nothing but instinct, instinct that makes sense in spite of being irrational. We also have those instincts: our emotions are instincts and our intuitive knowledge, which is not different from that of the monkeys, is an instinct: we are born with it (links about how babies have the same innate sense of justice in another comment in this page).

        1. Moneta

          When you look up the definition of rational, it does not necessarily say that the decision has to come from the conscious mind.

          Rational is sensible, reasonable… so if the right decision is made from the subconscious mind, or instincltive, it is still rational.

          In my mind, rational means the brain making the decision that it deems the most seinsibel in some sort of way.

          I guess one day we will have to define what rational really means.

          1. Maju

            There are several aceptions for rational in the dictionary but I’ll take #1: “capable of reasoning”. What you mean is aception #2 which is “by extension” of #1: “not absurd” (more concisely: “logically sound, not contradictory or otherwise absurd”).

            Of course, animal, plant and even mineral behavior is “not absurd” for our reason. And if it’d be, we’d change our reasoning so it’d be not anymore: after all it’s reasonable that we accept nature for what it is.

            Has any economist of the “rational expectations” school defined which aception applies. Because maybe they have been all the time meaning the latter: whatever happens we’ll have to accept as rational because it does happen in fact, instead of the former: well informed and pondered decisions.

            I am pretty sure that they mean the latter, i.e. rational as capable of reasoning or actual reasoned, conscious thought.

      2. JTFaraday

        “By not eating, it was showing a form of control. It probably stops the eating monkey from feeling so much more superior.”

        Maybe. But it might also make the grape eating monkey feel superior– and specifically “morally” superior– just because it is not throwing its (tasty) food about.

  12. Schofield

    In the following excellent internet article Christopher Boehm neatly sums up how as a group species needing to benefit from social harmony we developed morality as an inversion of selfishness. He shows how this innate social harmony instinct is achieved through the alpha male/female solution in other ape species but evolved into a different and more sophisticated solution in the human ape with the development of language:-

    By implication it is easy to speculate how the invention of property rights and money and the lack of social control over both has led to the current high level of deviancy away from social harmony within our societies.

  13. rotter

    “Well, for what this worth, and I’m not a scholar or a philosopher… I think both morality and immorality have survival value, or else they never would have both arisen ”

    well x must be y because of x

  14. kris

    That man is the noblest creature may also be inferred from the fact that no other creature has yet contested this claim.
    Georg C. Lichtenberg

  15. Nikolaj Lykke Nielsen

    Chimpanzees are more than a step closer to humans than the capuchin monkeys – and they also take it a step further than the capuchins. Chimps often even refuse to accept the grape if their pal only gets a carrot:
    (the experiment is explained in the last 1/3 of the article).

    And remember, chimpanzees are our NON-cooperative cousins – the other cousins being the bonobos.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Did those who got only carrots try to borrow from their grape-pals?

      Judging from this, it seems chimps’ order of preference is:

      1) to have nothing instead of tolerating inequality (sharing of a negative event, but they did not try to share grapes, which would be sharing of a positive event)

      2) borrowing

      It would seem, sharing (some aspect of it) came before borrowing.

      1. Nikolaj Lykke Nielsen

        The original article in Animal Behaviour is paywalled, and as you can see, the one I linked to doesn’t mention borrowing or sharing, so that would be speculation (though I imagine that sharing 1 grape is beyond a chimps dexterity).

          1. Anonymous

            That would be cat-like behavior.

            Or maybe not.

            Perhaps monkeys are like cats?

            We need another experiment!

            Where can I apply for this job?

  16. diptherio

    Reminds me of an article I read in Harpers a few years back about a troop of baboons. The most aggressive males in the troop all died, due to eating tainted food they had “stolen” from a garbage dump that “belonged” to another troop. With all of the aggressive males suddenly dead, the dynamics of the baboon troop changed markedly. Suddenly resource sharing and communal grooming became the norm. Rather than ostracizing new young males who joined the troop, as is the baboon norm, the females of this troop would immediately swarm the newbie and groom the bejeezus out of him. This one troop of baboons was able to pass on these new social norms inter-generationaly, but their more pro-social ways did not spread to other troops.

    I think it was titled, “A Natural History of Peace.”

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      It would be based on work by Sapolsky who also wrote ‘Why Zebra Don’t Get Ulcers.’

    2. Anonymous

      That is interesting. So the normal social structure is a small oligarchy of a dominant alpha male and his henchmonkeys. They then command a harem and servants.

      Explains a lot.

  17. Elliot

    Anyone who has really paid attention to animals (and not just as sycophants, fuzzy furniture or lunch on the hoof) will know that they have a sense of things like right and wrong, fairness, longing, mourning, love, trust, distrust, etc. It’s only humans trying to claw their way to the top of an imagined pyramid that need to put a bright line between human morality and the ability to cognate or communicate, and the abilities of “animals” or “lesser animals”. I’ve seen a dog trade a toy for a preferred one another was playing with, a mare convince herself she was pregnant (including bagging up for nursing), a mare who’d lost a foal try to steal another mare’s foal, skunks come to the door to get us to rescue their kit from drowning, a dog be convinced to eat a dill pickle which he disliked so the new dog he was jealous of couldn’t have it, etc etc.

    It’s vaguely hilarious for me to see scientists “discovering” these things now…. and quite hilarious to see people still thinking morals must come from church or being taught. The concept of fairness is innate; (recent studies have shown human babies have a pretty sharp idea about such things long before they have speech)— what we do with that is based on our choices. One way in which most animals are perhaps luckier than two-leggeds is that they haven’t got so much invested in convincing themselves they are more important, more entitled, than everyone else.

    1. Iolaus

      Animals may share traits and behaviors with humans, but they are not humans. For better or worse, we are the animals who are in charge of the other animals.

    2. Moneta

      Maybe that’s what happens when you have too many people growing up surrounded by cement.

    3. F. Beard

      skunks come to the door to get us to rescue their kit from drowning, Elliot

      Now that is a touching story. Thanks.

      And of course you did, didn’t you?

    4. JTFaraday

      Not a single one of your examples– foal stealing mares, petitioning skunks, perversely jealous pickle eating dogs, etc– is evidence of an “innate concept of fairness.”

      I’m not saying it’s impossible, but this ain’t it.

    5. MattC

      Perhaps but the problem humanity is having is that they find themselves teh top of the food chain as long as they can remember. They create things called pyramids and flt to a thing called the moon. The issue is not so much what we find common with animals as it is what makes us different such that we can and have done the above. The fact that humans even strive for “meaning” through such pursuits as Science as all the people on this forum attest by their very posting means there is something considerably different about humans. I wont accept that we are just another unspecial animal. Its demeaningin every sense fo humanities greatest achievements.

  18. knowbuddhau

    Great video, much obliged for posting it here. I’m not going to try to explain the behavior of the capuchins, just want to share some thoughts on the psychophysiology of empathy and altruism.

    The topics rasied in the video have been of interest to me all my life, especially the self-other divide. I’ve studied the psychophysiology of empathic altruism since the mid 80s. I first read de Waal decades ago. The work of eminent sociobiologist Richard Trivers, on reciprocal altruism, strongly influences my thinking to this day. So does all the work by Milgram, and later Zimbardo. More important has been the lesser known research on deindividuation by Festinger.

    I really enjoyed the videos-within-the-video. I presume de Waal had to control for something called phenotypic matching: an ability to distinguish varying degrees of kinship: an ability to distinguish degrees of kinship, even among organisms, including tadpoles, even when reared apart. (For the interested, see ch. 9 of The Evolution of Primate Behavior, 2nd ed., by Alison Jolly, published by Macmillan in 1985. What I know about reciprocal altruism is from Social Evolution, by Robert Trivers, published by Benjamin/Cummings in 1985. Damn, I’m getting old.)

    To this observer, so much nonsense in this area comes down to fundamental misconceptions of what being a human self really means.

    One of the most fundamental questions in this field almost always goes unanswered: ‘what do you mean by a self?’ If you really want to fluster an APA-style psychologist, ask them what they mean by “self” or “other,” it’s a sure-fire laugh riot. Much like asking an economist to define a rational actor. ;)

    Is a self a constant? Or a variable? And if it’s a variable, of what type: discreet, or continuous?

    The implications for economics should be obvious. For example, if my self is thought to be an eternal absolute in competition with others for scarce resources(a definition owing much to concepts of soul and heaven), then explaining cooperation in general becomes problematic. If I’m a continuous variable, an interdependent being sharing being with all other beings, then cooperation isn’t so odd after all.

    IMHO, much of the surprise surrounding acts of altruism comes from the presumption that there are two absolutely independent “things” involved. If you look closely at your skin, to take one easy example, you find that it joins your internal organs with what must be called your external organs. Thus, I and my environment are not two; neither are we one, which implies that I-and-my-environment are opposed by some other thing. I prefer the Sanskrit term, advaita: non-dual, which is a real brain-bender when viewed from an APA-style perspective.

    The key physiological feature that allows cells to function, and is highly relevant to our discussion, is the semi-permeable membrane. When we stand, facing each other, where is the boundary between one self and the other? Isn’t it obvious that a continuum exists? Thus, your fate and my fate are not two absolutely independent fates, they’re interdependent.

    Mirror neurons are also pertinent to empathy and altruism.

    We have within us reflections of the so-called Other. We’re not nearly as divided as some APA-style conceptions of the self-other divide would have us believe.

    Our definitions of our selves need likewise to be semi-permeable. They need to respect the reflection of the Other within us. They need to be interdependent with the environment.

    IOW, as The Beatles sing it, “I am he/ As you are he/ As you are me/ and we are all together.”

    Or Elvis Costello: “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” After all, they’re only natural.

    1. knowbuddhau

      A-ha! This is what I’m on about. In this 3 minute clip de Waal discusses the exact topic of my own research. Notice that he uses the phrase, “self-other distinction.” It’s not an absolute divide. This is absolutely crucial.

      If your self is not my self, if selves are Newtonian objects in empty space, wtf do you care what happens to me? Competition seems natural, in that case. OTOH, if we share being, if your fate is my fate is our fate, then cooperation is the more proper context for being human.

      The whole idea of an absolute divide, one self from every other, and all fighting for scarce resources, is just as atavistic and anachronistic as Hell. ; }

      Clip 5: The neuroscience of compassion (Templeton Foundation)

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