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See Inside August 2010

Moral Animal

A sense of right and wrong starts with innate brain circuitry

THE ROOTS OF MODERN MORALITY have long been a point of contention among psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists. Do our ethical foundations arise from our relatively recent ability to reason or from our ancient emotions? Studies have recently lent support to the notion that we owe much of our sense of right and wrong to our animal ancestors.

Evidence that morality comes before reason is supported by primate studies. A chimpanzee, for instance, will sometimes drown to save its peers and refuse food if doing so prevents others from injury. That's not to say they are morally sophisticated beings, but “it's not as if morality and our moral rules are just a pure invention of the religious or philosophical mind,” explains Frans de Waal, a primatologist and psychologist at Emory University. De Waal's work suggests that our morality is an outgrowth of our ancestors’ social tendencies, an indication that it is at least in part an evolved trait (an idea Charles Darwin shared). Dogs, too, seem to have a keen sense of “wild justice,” says Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has observed a sense of morality among dogs at play. “Animals know right from wrong,” he notes.

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