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The Moral Heroism of Chimpanzees

Darwin may not have seen that a seemingly altruistic primate can also be quite disastrously aggressive. 

Big Think blogger Steven Mazie submitted this question to the Dutch/American biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal:

In the closing lines of “The Descent of Man,” Darwin seems to elevate the virtues of primates over those of “savage,” lower-order, human beings: “For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.” Does de Waal share Darwin’s sentiment?

Here is de Waal’s response:

Animals can be heroic and they can be genuinely altruistic. For example, we’ve done an experiment where a chimpanzee can choose between two options.  One option requires only himself.  The other option requires himself plus a partner who sits next to him.  And our chimpanzees preferred the latter option.  They prefer a task where they can reward their partner at the same time as themselves.  And so we look at prosocial tendencies and helping tendencies and helping behavior and animals can be truly altruistic. I’m convinced of that.

Animals can also, of course, be very mean to each other and chimpanzees, for example, are known in the field sometimes to kill their neighbors.  And so the whole spectrum of both very positive behavior and very negative behavior can be seen in other animals.  And if you ask how I look at Darwin’s comment that he would rather descend from a monkey that is heroically helpful, he may not have seen that that same monkey can also be quite disastrously aggressive toward someone else.  

And so I think animals have that whole spectrum in them, like humans.  When we are altruistic, we are more altruistic than any other primate that I know.  When we are mean and nasty, we are meaner than any primate that I know.  For example, we have genocide.  I don’t think that other primates have genocide. We’ve never heard of this.  They may kill on occasion but they don’t masterfully eliminate the whole group of people.  And so we have that entire spectrum in us which makes us a very puzzling species that is very hard to pinpoint. 

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

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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