Humans naturally nasty? Research suggests not

Research shows that human “morality” is grounded in science. Whether our societies can transcend tribal affiliations is another matter.

By Deborah Jones 
February 2012

Vancouver, Canada (AFP) —  Biological research increasingly debunks the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish, says biologist and author Frans de Waal.

“Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies,” said de Waal in a plenary speech at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.

New research on higher animals, from primates and elephants to mice, reveals a biological cause of behaviour such as cooperation, targeted helping of others, and synchronization of actions such as yawning, said de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.

Until some 12 years ago, the common view among scientists and policy-makers was that humans are “nasty” at our core, but have developed a veneer of morality — albeit a thin and brittle one, deWaal told scientists and journalists from some 50 countries.

But human children — and most higher animals — are “moral” in a scientific sense, because they need to cooperate with each other to reproduce and pass on their genes, he said.

Research has disproved the view, dominant since the 19th-Century, exemplified by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley’s argument that morality is absent in nature and something created by humans, said de Waal.

And common assumptions that Huxley’s harsh view was also promoted by Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, are also wrong, he said.

“Darwin was much smarter than most of his followers,” said de Waal. Quoting from Descent of Man, de Waal cited Darwin’s argument that animals that developed to have “well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience.”

He showed videos from laboratory experiments revealing the dramatic emotional distress of a monkey denied a treat that another monkey had received; and of a rat giving up chocolate in order to help another rat escape from a trap.

Such research shows that animals naturally have pro-social tendencies for “reciprocity, fairness, empathy and consolation,” said de Waal, a Dutch biologist now at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Asked if wide public acceptance of empathy as natural would change the intense competition on which capitalist economic and political systems are based, de Waal quipped, “I’m just a monkey watcher.”

But he told reporters that research also shows animals bestow their empathy only on  animals in their “in-group” — and that particular trait is a challenge in a globalized human world.

“Morality” developed in humans in small communities, he said, and attempting to stretch the human capacity for empathy morality around the globe is a challenge.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible, I think it should be tried to the fullest extent, but it’s a challenge … it’s experimental for the human species to apply a system intended for (in-groups) to the whole world.”

Copyright © 2012 Deborah Jones

Originally published by Agence France-Presse, February 2012

References and further reading:

Frans de Waal’s page at Emory University


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