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It's Not a Dog-Eat-Dog World, After All

June 8, 2013, 8:00 AM

Many primates survive by cooperation.  The reason they live in groups is that on their own they cannot survive, so they have to have companions from whom they get support.  Some live together to help each other find food, or warn each other about predators. So the primates are a very cooperative society in general.  They have long-term friendships in that society just like humans have.  And, yes, there is competition going on, but when people sometimes describe nature as a dog-eat-dog world, what they mean is that all they see is competition.  That’s totally wrong and have I fought against it all my life, against that sort of characterization of animal society because just like human society it is built on a lot of friendship and cooperation at the same time.

I've called this simplification of nature as a dog-eat-dog world veneer theory, because if you think in terms of human morality, it says humans are inherently bad or inherently selfish and competitive.  And only with the greatest possible effort can we be moral.  Huxley defended that position – Thomas Henry Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin and a defender of Darwin. He defended that position saying that basically we are like a gardener who keeps the garden under control.  The garden wants to get out of control – that is our human nature.  So we work very hard to be moral.  And he could not see morality as a product of evolution.  

More recently, some of the biologists such as Robert Wright in The Moral Animal or Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene depicted again nature as a battlefield basically where selfish tendencies tend to prevail.  And so in the evolution of morality there’s very little room.

I have a very different view.  I agree more with Darwin on this.  Darwin saw morality as a product of evolution and saw morality as continuous with what we find in other animals.  And Darwin literally said that many of the social instincts, as he called it, of the animals are represented in our human morality.  So I’m more of a Darwinian than some of these biologists who have pushed morality out of the evolutionary domain. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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