This article is from the In-Depth Report Creationism Vs. Evolution

Darwin at the Zoo

Did humans invent right and wrong, or are these feelings part of the inheritance from our primate ancestors?

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
by Frans de Waal. Edited by Stephen Macedo and Josiah Ober
Princeton University Press, 2006

It was not until a year and a half after his voyage on board the Beagle that Charles Darwin first came face to face with an ape. He was standing by the giraffe house at the London Zoo on a warm day in late March of 1838. The zoo had just acquired an orangutan named Jenny. One of the keepers was teasing her--showing her an apple, refusing to hand it over. Poor Jenny "threw herself on her back, kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child," Darwin wrote in a letter to his sister.

In the secret notebooks that he kept after the voyage, Darwin was speculating about evolution from every angle, including the emotional, and he was fascinated by Jenny's tantrum. What is it like to be an ape? Does an orangutan's frustration feel a lot like ours? Might she cherish some sense of right and wrong? Will an ape despair because her keeper is breaking the rules--because he is just not playing fair?

Our own species has been talking, volubly and passionately, for at least 50,000 years, and it's a fair guess that arguments about right and wrong were prominent in our conversation pretty much from the beginning. We started writing things down 5,000 years ago, and some of our first texts were codes of ethics. Our innumerable volumes of scripture and law, our Departments of Justice, High Courts, Low Courts, and Courts of Common Pleas are unique in the living world. But did we human beings invent our feeling for justice, or is it part of the package of primal emotions that we inherited from our ancestors? In other words: Did morality evolve?

Dutch-born psychologist, ethologist and primatologist Frans de Waal has spent his career watching the behavior of apes and monkeys, mostly captive troupes in zoos. As a young student, he sat on a wooden stool day after day for six years, observing a colony of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo. Today he watches chimpanzees from an observation post at Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta and at other zoos and primate centers. His work, along with primatologist Jane Goodall's, has helped lift Darwin's conjectures about the evolution of morality to a new level. He has documented tens of thousands of instances of chimpanzee behavior that among ourselves we would call Machiavellian and about as many moments that we would call altruistic, even noble. In his scientific papers and popular books (including Chimpanzee Politics, Our Inner Ape and Good Natured), he argues that Darwin was correct from that first glimpse of Jenny at the zoo. Sympathy, empathy, right and wrong are feelings that we share with other animals; even the best part of human nature, the part that cares about ethics and justice, is also part of nature.

De Waal's latest book, Primates and Philosophers, is based on the Tanner Lectures that he delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 2004. In this book he tries--as he has many times before--to refute a popular caricature of Darwinism. Many people assume that to be good, be nice, behave, play well with others, we have to rise above our animal nature. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there--or, as the Romans put it, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man (a curious proverb for a people whose founding myth was the suckling by a wolf of the infant twins Romulus and Remus).

Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's self-appointed bulldog, promoted this dark, cold view of life in a famous lecture, Evolution and Ethics. "The ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it," he declared. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan puts it another way: if there is no God, then we are lost in a moral chaos. "Everything is permitted." De Waal calls this "Veneer Theory." In this view, human morality is a thin crust on a churning urn of boiling funk.

Rights & Permissions
or subscribe to access other articles from the December 2006 publication.
Digital Issue $7.99
Digital Issue + All Access Subscription $99.99 Subscribe
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article