Frans de Waal

Monkeys and decoding morality

Published in Nuda:Terra

Morality is often seen as a distinctly human trait. One that we can hold firmly in our hands, whispering like Gollum with the ring “our precious, our own.” But philosophers and scientists alike debate whether morality is innate or absorbed through osmosis in contact with our surroundings. 

The linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky argues that since human beings’ moral judgments, both in small secluded societies and in big cities, don’t seem to differ wildly from each other, there are only two possibilities “One, it’s a miracle, and the other, it’s rooted in our nature.” The cognitive psychologist and Harvard scholar Steven Pinker has called morality our sixth sense. In a New York Times article titled The Moral Instinct, he writes, “Though no one has identified genes for morality, there is circumstantial evidence they exist.” Jesse Prinz, a philosophy professor at CUNY, on the other hand, argues that moral rules merely “emerge as a byproduct of nonmoral emotions,” and is therefore not innate. 

While some are concerned with morality in humans and where it stems from, others are trying to figure out whether animals have the capacity for moral judgment, empathy, and fairness. In Charles Darwin’s book The Descent of Man from 1871, he writes, “I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.” Almost 150 years later, some scientists disagree.

One, it’s a miracle, and the other, it’s rooted in our nature.

The world-renowned primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal has studied primate social behavior for over 40 years. He has been listed as Time Magazine’s “100 most influential people” and Discover magazine’s “47 (all-time) great minds of science”. He is the Charles Howard Candler Professor in the Psychology Department at Emory University. 

In his book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, first published in 2006, he draws on Darwin, recent studies, and his own extensive research as he showcases a strong correlation between human and animal behavior. In this work, he claims that the roots of morality can be seen in monkeys and apes’ social behavior, partly because they seem to care about fairness and are empathetic. Some have called the way he’s interpreted his empirical studies controversial. Still, he’s been able to successfully face down many critics of his views in evolutionary biology and psychology. 

NUDA links up with De Waal via Zoom, intending to pick his brain about the difference between humans and other animals and the presence of morality in the animal kingdom. To begin with, he explains how much nature is embedded in us humans. 


“In my opinion, human culture is a modifier. It doesn’t create anything; it merely modifies our nature. As an example, there’s an ongoing debate about gender roles, and it seems to me like some people act as if we create these roles. But I don’t believe in that; I think that men and women are different biologically. With that said, culture can change it by subduing certain things or expanding and amplifying others. While being in no doubt a powerful modifier of our nature, culture cannot create anything from scratch. Our emotional life, social life, love life all stem from biology.”

He agrees that love has its origin in nature, but has gotten a framework and is amplified in our culture. 

“Yes, because love is connected to sex, and if there’s one thing that’s biological, it’s sex, because we have to have sex even to be here, if you know what I mean. Romantic love is unique, though, because it’s only found in those species that have pair bonding. Some birds have this, but it’s relatively uncommon in mammals. Primates like Chimpanzees and Bonobos, which I work with, are our closest relatives. Still, they don’t have pair bonding with a family unit of a male and a female. So one could say that romantic love is quite a rare thing. Love and attachment, in general, are found in all the mammals. The neurological system for a mother’s love of her child is the same in a cow or an elephant as it is for a human.”

human culture is a modifier. It doesn’t create anything

With that said, there are nuggets of proof to be found in our language on how we aim to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom. Primal or animalistic behavior is somehow seen as less. We often say that one should “tame your inner animal” as a way to fit in. De Waal is quick to point out the English term being or acting humane, used as a way to describe someone compassionate or kind, as opposed to the negative term “acting like an animal.”

“I disagree with this distinction. When we do good things that can be part of our animal nature, and when we do bad things that can be part of our human behavior. With that said, we can also be much worse than the animals because we can intentionally hurt others, which very few animals do. Chimpanzees are one of the only exceptions as they are capable of something similar.” 

De Waal was one of the very first researchers to discover that some animals have a sense of fairness or aversion to inequity. He conducted the studies on capuchin monkeys and published his findings in the British scientific journal Nature back in 2003. 

“At some point when I was working with monkeys, I noticed that when you test them side by side, they were very sensitive to what the other one got. You would think that only cared about what they got and not what others get, but they were, in fact, very interested in it. We decided to start giving them different rewards. When the monkeys got the same reward for doing a task right, they would do it time and time again, but when you started giving one of them a better reward, like a grape, and the other one a piece of cucumber, the one who got the cucumber got very upset. It didn’t want to do the task anymore. They had a really strong response to this unfairness, and that also goes for other animals, like dogs. Try it at home if you have two dogs. It also applies to human children, of course. If you give one child a nice present and the other one a not so nice present, you can expect a negative response.”

While being in no doubt a powerful modifier of our nature, culture cannot create anything from scratch

Going back to our initial point on morality and it being innate or not, de Waal explains that most neuroscientists and biologists agree with the famous philosopher David Hume. 

“He believed that morality is based on the sentiments, what we now call the emotions. We think that’s right. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, thought that reasoning and logic were the basis of morality. I disagree with that. They contribute, but don’t make our moral reactions. The Dalai Lama believes that morality is completely tied in with compassion, and it’s surely important. But it’s more complex than just empathy. It’s essential, but not sufficient. In my opinion, human morality has two major components; firstly, empathy and sympathy, and secondly, reciprocity, obligations, and cooperating. We’re able to find both of these capacities in other species as well. But humans have added more of a logical and language-based framework around it, which is uniquely human. But the basic framework of morality is not uniquely human».”

The intuitiveness of morality, the intense sensation that something is right or wrong to do, is familiar to most humans. Going against this will leave most people with a bad conscience, perhaps a slight feeling of having failed somehow. Morality as intuition, with an aftermath of moral justifications, have been studied.

“There’s a scientist in the US who has done experiments with people where he’s asked them different moral questions, and he claims that intuition is where it starts. His name is Jonathan Haidt. He would present people with these very complex problems; for example, he would say ‘A boy, and a girl go camping together. And they decide to have sex, but they are brother and sister. Is that right or wrong?’. And everyone says it’s wrong, and when he asks them to explain why they think it’s wrong, they’ll say ‘If they end up having children, that would be bad.’ But he explains to them that they’re using protection, both the condom and the pill, so the girl will not get pregnant. People still think it’s wrong, and he asks them why, and at some point, they’re unable to find any more reasons, but they still think it’s wrong. And why is that? Why do people still think it’s wrong to even when they have no justification for it? He decided that morality is based on intuition, and the justifications come often secondarily.”

When we do good things that can be part of our animal nature, and when we do bad things that can be part of our human behavior

Historically, some have argued that society should mimic the natural world. Social Darwinists have been at the forefront of this, with a “survival of the fittest” ethos and aiming to tie biological concepts of natural selection to justify inequality, extreme wealth, and immense power, amongst other things.

“The conservative view that society needs to mimic nature and that nature is all about competition, I think is completely wrong. Nature is not all competition. Many animals live in groups, are very social, and help each other. So the sort of every man for himself idea seems very strange to me. It was very popular in the 70s and 80s when being selfish was almost seen as a good thing. People like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagen seemed to agree with and be part of this. So it was popularized, but I don’t think it’s like that anymore. People instead emphasize cooperation over competition, and the political views have changed along with the scientific views.”

Why do people still think it’s wrong to even when they have no justification for it?

Human beings’ endless preoccupation with our exceptionalism seems to be one of our most unquestionable traits, albeit a narcissistic and not exactly charming one. De Waal agrees that this focus is a weakness.

“I think this is a significant flaw in western philosophy. Us biologists have always said that humans are animals, so we have a very different attitude. With climate change and COVID, we’ve seen that we’re not separate from nature. We are animals among other animals, so we can’t do whatever we want with them. Our arrogance has been detrimental. The attitude that we are separate from and superior over nature has come back to bite us.”

InterviewNora Arrhenius Hagdahl 
TextCaroline Krager