One man studied apes for 50 years. He says nature isn't as cruel as you think.
- Primates practice altruism all the time and demonstrate a basic morality.
- These actions appear to be unmotivated by a hidden desire for self-interest.
- Indeed, altruism is necessary for the survival of social animals.
It is rather common to think of nature as an endless competition between animals for survival. Idioms like "survival of the fittest" or "it's a jungle out there" remind us that the state of nature is one of cutthroat competition where the altruistic are doomed and the heartless win.
But is it? What if nature isn't quite as cruel as we imagine it to be? In a recent interview with Big Think, primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal discusses animal morality, their capacity for altruism, and how our evolutionary history matters to us today.
Dr. Frans de Waal on animal altruism
Dr. Franciscus Bernardus Maria "Frans" de Waal is a Dutch primatologist who has spent his life studying the social behavior of primates. His work has shed light on our closest evolutionary cousins and their cognitive abilities.
It is through his work that the gentler side of our evolutionary relatives has become known. He has long maintained that empathy and altruism are common features of all apes, humans included, and that endless examples of animal altruism can be found by observation.
In an example he provides in a recent interview with BigThink, he describes the ability of primates to work together for the good of all group members:
"The primates are a very cooperative society in general. 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, with whom they live together, who help them find food, who warn them against predators. And they have long-term friendships in their society just like humans have. There's a lot of studies on how animals do favors for each other. And if you think about how this works it has to be based on gratitude. Like you do something for me, and I do something back to you. There must be some sort of emotional mechanism in there."
Dr. de Waal has argued that these behaviors are based on genuine empathy, altruism, and the placing of value on interpersonal relationships by these animals. While his proposals earned more than a few objections early in his career, many researchers have come around to his ways of thinking and largely agree with the idea that the great apes do have these capacities.
Animal morality or just delayed self-interest?
It is easy to suppose that these cases are just egoism in disguise. Perhaps these seeming cases of altruism are really just animals playing the long game. Perhaps they help each other now only in expectation of favors in the near future.
However, it is important to remember that the notion of psychological egoism — the idea that all actions are always self-interested even if they appear not to be — is a controversial notion often criticized for being unfalsifiable, contrary to most people's experience, and likely an ineffective tool for evolution.
Dr. de Waal also points out that it becomes increasingly difficult to apply the notions of egoism to primate behavior when you see more and more of it. One such example he gives is the increasing number of known cases of chimp adoption:
"...in Tai forest, in Ivory Coast, there is a documentation of 10 cases of adoption by males, adult males, who have adopted an orphaned chimpanzee. So the chimpanzee loses its mother, chimpanzees are dependent on their mother for at least eight years of their life. So if you lose your mother at three years of age, you may be able to survive on solid food, but you still need to be carried and protected. And someone needs to explain to you what to eat and what not to eat. And adult males are willing to do that. And so they spend an enormous amount of time and energy into individuals that they don't get much back from. And I find that very interesting cases, these cases of altruism that don't fit any evolutionary scenario but nevertheless occurred."
If the chimps are only doing this out of self-interest, exactly what that interest is goes beyond what a leading primatologist can imagine.
Does morality come from within us?
What, then, can be said of animal morality? Like many of our primate and mammalian relatives, we have evolved a sense of moral understanding, with the capacity for altruism and a focus on reciprocity being part of this complex phenomenon. Interestingly, though acts of altruism have been documented in other animals, it is notable that humans are far more altruistic than any other species.
Understanding our evolutionary history, therefore, may allow us to better grasp how we forge moral codes in our societies. As Dr. de Waal put it in a previous interview with Big Think:
"Our current religions are just 2,000 or 3,000 years old, which is very young. And our species is much older and I cannot imagine that, for example, a hundred thousand years or two hundred thousand years our ancestors did not have some type of morality. Of course they had rules about how you should behave, what is fair, what is unfair, caring for others — all of these tendencies were in place already so they had a moral system and then at some point we developed these present day religions which I think were sort of tacked on to the morality that we had. And maybe they served to codify them or to enforce them or to steer morality in a particular direction that we prefer.
So religion comes in for me secondarily. I'm struggling with whether we need religion. So personally I think we can be moral without religion because we probably had morality long before the current religions came along."
Dr. de Waal has suggested in several of his books that our morality comes from within us, driven by our primate tendencies rather than externally as with religion. Luckily, Dr. de Waal's research suggests that the morality of our evolutionary relatives include elements of "fairness, empathy, caring for others, helping others, following rules, [and] punishing individuals who don't follow the rules."
If he is right, then perhaps we all could use a little more animal morality in our lives.
A new study found that words are more accurately heard when accompanied by hand gestures.
- A team of researchers from the Netherlands found that hands gestures, when used strategically, influence how certain words are heard.
- Participants were 20% more likely to hear and interpret the words being spoken when accompanied by a matching hand gesture, and 40% as likely to hear the wrong word when the gestures did not match.
- Previous research has suggested that certain hand gestures can signal extraversion and dominance, and that speaking with gestures in general tends to lead to being evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic.
It's true that politicians, orators, business executives, and other types of leaders tend to be fond of speaking with their hands, but does the habit actually have influence over how others interpret those words? A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Radboud University, and TiCC Tilburg University—all located in the Netherlands—sought to find out.
In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the group detailed a series of experiments on volunteers who viewed videos of people speaking with and without hand motions. They found that hand gestures, when done right, do influence how certain words are heard.
After showing the participants the videos of people speaking under different conditions, the researchers asked them questions about what they had heard. Those conditions involved the speaker emphasizing different parts of words in a sentence (e.g. OBject versus obJECT). Other conditions involved the speaker making various types of hand gestures. For example, chopping, pointing, or sweeping motions made with the hands and arms. Sometimes those hand motions coincided with sections of words being stressed, but sometimes they were random.
The team recorded the volunteers as they viewed the video recordings, questioning the participants afterward about what they had seen and heard. They found that the participants were more impacted by syllables spoken in conjunction with hand gestures: In 20 percent of the cases the viewer was more likely to have heard and interpreted the word being spoken when accompanied by a hand gesture. Interestingly, however, participants were 40 percent more likely to hear the wrong sound when a mismatch between the word spoken and the hand gesture occurred.
Perception of character
In addition to making your words more clear, past research has found that speaking with your hands really can alter the perception of your character. Markus Koppensteiner at the University of Vienna has analyzed the way that people talk with their hands and how the speaker is perceived. His research has suggested that certain hand gestures can signal extraversion and dominance.
For example, extraversion appeared to be associated with more hand movements overall. Vertical movements, meanwhile, seemed to be linked to the perception of authority. For example, hands sweeping up from torso to shoulder height. People making these expansive gestures with their arms tend to be rated lower in agreeableness, but higher in domination. This was, according to Koppensteiner, a consistent result in his papers.
According to body language expert Carol Goman, Ph.D., "Studies have found that people who communicate through active gesturing tend to be evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic, while those who remain still (or whose gestures seem mechanical or "wooden") are seen as logical, cold, and analytic." In fact, a 2015 study that analyzed TED Talks found that the most popular, viral speakers used nearly twice as many as the least popular speakers used.
The Dutch research team of this recent study suggests that their findings imply that hand gestures are an important part of in-person communications that have a direct impact on what the listener actually hears. Furthermore, they suggest that our responses to hand gestures used by someone speaking to us may be something that we learn as we grow up. Or, as they also note, it's equally plausible that there is an evolutionary reason for our enhanced responses to hand-talking rather than a learned behavior.
Although these experiments were conducted with only Dutch speakers, the team believes that it's likely they would have found the same results with other languages.
As morally sturdy as we may feel, it turns out that humans are natural hypocrites when it comes to passing moral judgment.
- The problem with having a compass as the symbolic representation of morality is that due north is not a fixed point. Liane Young, Boston College associate professor and director of the Morality Lab, explains how context, bias, and tribal affiliation influence us enormously when we pass moral judgments.
- Moral instinct is tainted by cognitive bias. Humans evolved to be more lenient to their in-groups—for example excusing a beloved politician who lines their pockets while lambasting a colleague for the exact same transgression—and to care more about harm done close to them than harm done farther away, for example, to people in another country.
- The challenge for humans in a globalized and polarized world is to become aware of our moral biases and learn to apply morality more objectively. How can we be more rational and less hypocritical about our morals? "I think that clarifying the value that you are consulting for a particular problem is really critical," says Young.
Scientists ripped up kids' drawings. This is what they learned about relationships.
- Forgiveness as a cultural act linked to religion and philosophy dates back centuries, but studies focused on the science of apologies, morality, and relationships are fairly new. As Amrisha Vaish explains, causing harm, showing remorse, and feeling concern for others are things children pay attention to, even in their first year of life.
- In a series of experiments, adults ripped children's artworks and either showed remorse or showed neutrality. They found that remorse really mattered. "Here we see what [the kids] really care about is that the transgressor shows their commitment to them, to the relationship," Vaish says. "And they will seek that person out over even an in-group member."
- As a highly social species, cooperation is vital to humans. Learning what factors make or break those social bonds can help communities, teams, and partners work together to meet challenges and survive.
Monogamy is often considered a key component of traditional marriages, but it's only half the story.
- Depending on who you ask, monogamy is either essential to a successful marriage or it is unrealistic and sets couples up for failure.
- In this video, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, psychologist Chris Ryan, former Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman, and psychotherapist Esther Perel discuss the science and culture of monogamy, the role it plays in making or breaking relationships, and whether or not humans evolved to have one partner at a time.
- "The bottom line is, for millions of years, there were some reproductive payoffs not only to forming a pair bond but also to adultery," says Fisher, "leaving each one of us with a tremendous drive to fall in love and pair up, but also some susceptibility to cheating on the side."