In a recent New York Times article, it was argued that advanced primates are moral beings with identifiable values sets.

We have wondered here on the same topics and about the inspiration of DNA and evolution in articles like From Ape to Man to God. Primates care about each other even if it risks their own well-being.

They make informed choices that bear on “doing the right thing” for the community and not only the self.

Is it scientifically provable that morality is not a possibility but a genetic mandate for survival?

It is humanly probable that our primate ancestors provided us clues in our shared, genetic, code not to harm each other and to instead negotiate and socialize and to get along without killing?

Is it our ape-like morality that allowed us to become upright and upstanding and evolved, cogent, beings with empathy as well as morality?

The Times article argued:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.

In his recent book, Primates and Philosophers, Dr. Frans de Waal creates a fascinating argument that it was primate emotion that evolved into human morality and it was that process of caring for each other that allowed us to become human beings and not just beings that tested “survival of the fittest.”

Dr. de Waal goes on to provide research analysis of what I call “values-centric morality in action” in primates.

  • Living together requires empathy and the reconciliation of fights. If two male chimpanzees fight, but do not make up, the females will intervene and press each male together to “make up” and cut the tension in the group.
  • If the females in the group sense tension brewing, they will seek out the troublemaker males and reprimand them and even go as far as removing weapons like sticks and rocks from their hands.
  • Rhesus monkeys “know their place” in society and if they misbehave, they understand the social punishment is the biting off of a finger or toe.
  • The idea of “doing unto others” is evident in chimpanzee groups and they remember who was kind to them and who was not and will share food with those who groomed them in the past.
  • Capuchin monkeys will get upset if they sense unfairness in the community if, after performing the same task, one monkey is provided a lesser reward than another.

Are these examples the building blocks of humanity or are these just chance happenings that can be excused by animalistic behavior and interaction for survival in the community? Dr. de Waal writes primates regularly demonstrate the four core values of any civilized society:

Reciprocity, Peacemaking, Empathy and Setting Rules With Punishments.

Two things that primates lack — but that humans have developed beyond that core four rules of interaction — are sophisticated ideas of justice and reason. Religion, Dr. de Waal claims, erupted out of morality — not the other way around
— and that religion is a human invention to provide context and perspective with storytelling and homilies: Religion has no evolutionary seed in the moral, values-centric, lives of primates.

Do all animals have morality and a system of genetic values or is that interaction limited to advanced primates?


  1. I could see a form of morality in my parents’ cats. My parents had two cats — an older and younger cat. The older cat would always let the younger cat eat some of his food if the younger cat stuck his head over into the older cat’s bowl. The older cat would also let the younger cat “wrestle” with him and even roll over onto his stomach to give up, even though the older cat could knock the younger cat over with a flick of his paw.
    You can see a new form of non-religious morality developing that parallels that of organized religion in the environmental movement, including some of the “don’t do as I do, do as I say” edicts that come from the Green Popes and Cardinals and systems of indulgences as a form of penance for environmental sins.
    There’s a fundamental need for some system of morality that is observable in higher animals and humans. Even if religion is removed from the equation — i.e. the Soviet Union or in the animal world — most people and animals will revert to some sort of system designed to keep social order and provide for the best living situation for all.

  2. Chris —
    I think you’re right about morality being evident beyond the advanced primates.
    It’s an interesting concept to separate morality from religion because so many of us are taught at a young age that it is religion that creates the morality and not the other way around.
    The fact that morality may is coded in us necessarily takes us to the next logical step about those who commit immoral acts.
    Are they willful or disabled?
    If morality is the base genetic norm, how do we deal with those who are deviant from that norm if we are morally rich?

  3. Thanks for that heads up, Chris! You were caught by Akismet. Please login to the Admin interface for your blog and send in Feedback. Don’t do it from here because the matter needs to be tracked down via your username and blog and not this one.

  4. I do not know enough to comment – but it is a fascinating subject.
    From what I understand about lions and wolves they would fit Dr. de Waal’s four core principles. However breaking the group code is punished by expulsion rather a system of punishment.
    Look forward to seeing how this discussion develops.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Nicola.
    Well, expulsion is a form of punishment for breaking the rules.
    In the UPDATE: link above the monkeys refused to accept back the monkey that was taken from them — even though they fought off his attacker as a group. It’s as if once he left the group, he was no longer welcome because the moral code of belonging was shattered — even if the reason for his leaving was not his choice.

  6. Hi David,
    I’m back at home. The earlier comment was sent from a public Wi-Fi hotspot, so that might have been the problem. The IP was probably on a “bad list.”
    We are coded to be moral, but we are also not perfect, so we are all prone to fail. Some failures are willful, but some are just because we are imperfect and don’t always achieve perfection. I’d say some failures are the result of our humanity (and for animals, their nature). But, a willful act is something different and can’t be considered to be a disability.

  7. Hi Chris!
    Oh, rats on those public hotspots that get blacklisted! 😀 I’m so glad you were able to post a comment because you gave me a lot to consider today and your latest comment enlightens that wondering even more.
    If morality is in our genetic code — and are formed to be moral and cohesive and societal — if someone deviates from that morality, are they not, by description of genetic morality, disabled?
    Isn’t it discriminatory to hold someone who behaves immorally accountable for those things they cannot control?
    If we purchase the idea of genetic morality, I don’t think one can willfully disobey that morality any more than they can willfully disobey the beating of their heart or the electrical signals bouncing along their nerves.

  8. We can over come our genetic tendencies, as some people who have addiction or other problems that run through their families.
    If we develop an idea of “genetic morality” and we decide that certain people aren’t responsible for their actions, once we develop a test to determine who these people are, there will be calls to round up these people and send them away before they can harm society.

  9. Yikes! That’s a scary thought, Chris!
    Will this test be a genetic test looking for DNA markers or will it be a “test of the living” where interaction with others is evaluated?

  10. Hi David,
    I can foresee it being a test at infancy — probably along with the other tests that they give kids right after they are born.

  11. That’s wild, Chris, and I think you’re right. I also think separating the known delinquents from the rest of society with an intact genetic moral code is a provocative notion!
    Now we wonder if gene therapy in the womb can somehow fix that genetic anomaly. Is morality a dominant or a recessive gene and show the parents be held responsible for the immorality of their offspring?

  12. I think it’d be wrong to consider only genetics as responsible for one’s actions; that’s only a step away from eugenics. Society and upbringing play a large role too. Culture is all important. Do isolated primate groups develop their own culture?

  13. Hi Ben!
    If genetics don’t provide a blueprint and a pathway for who we are and what we become, what then, do we look to predict behavior and ability? Environment? Financial status? Something else?

  14. Hi David,
    I’d say environment has a lot to do with morality. If everyone is doing something deviant, it no longer is deviant for that part of the world. However, many miles away, the same activity could be seen as being outrageous and immoral. In the US, there is a split in morality when viewed through the different lenses of urban, suburban, and rural. Things that might be seen as being acceptable in urban and large suburban areas might be horrifying to people in rural areas, and vice versa.
    While there are many different community standards, there still are universal moral constants that most people hold as true. The small percentage that don’t are the ones who cause the most social disruption in a society.

  15. Hi Chris —
    I’m not sure if it is environment that affects morality or regional interpretation that bends basic morality to the wishes of the concentric group.
    All communities agree on this basic morality: No one should kill an innocent person.
    Then, the morality circle becomes smaller as some communities believe murderers should be killed.
    Even fewer communities inside those rings of morality believe a parent can rightfully revenge the molestation of their child by killing the attacker.

Comments are closed.