The Next City
September 21, 1996
The rediscovery of human nature
Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals
by Frans de Waal
(Harvard University Press, 1996. 296 pages) $37
TRADITIONAL MORALITY HAS BEEN ERODING since the 1920s. But even as the grasp of right and wrong has weakened in the social sciences and humanities, evolutionary biology is laying the foundations of a new body of natural law. Good Natured is a cornerstone in this edifice.
No mere popularizer, Frans de Waal is one of the world’s leading primatologists, yet he also writes for the general public. Anyone who reads THE NEXT CITY with enjoyment will be able to follow de Waal’s train of thought and understand his fascinating examples, drawn from thousands of hours of personal observation of chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys and other primate species. Dozens of carefully chosen photographs drive home the book’s argument and justify the slightly higher than usual price.
Because of Herbert Spencer’s phrase, “survival of the fittest,” and the title of Richard Dawkins’s best-selling book, The Selfish Gene, many readers probably think of evolution in purely competitive terms; but de Waal has another story to tell about social mammals, such as wolves, dolphins, elephants and the primates, including humans. All social mammals, according to de Waal, share four characteristics that lie at the root of morality. These characteristics, while enormously amplified in human beings because of our intelligence and cumulative culture, are also recognizable in other species.
First is sympathy. Social mammals recognize each other as individuals, appreciating each other’s feelings. They show pleasure upon reuniting after a period of separation. They try to help a sick or injured member of their community. They recognize death and may linger by departed ones. The book’s most moving photograph shows an elephant who returns regularly to touch the skull of her deceased mother. This ability to recognize others and sympathize with their feelings is at the foundation of morality because it leads us to treat others with consideration.
Second, social mammals live in hierarchies and follow rules of conduct enforced by others in the community, especially, but not only, by the dominant members. Depending on the species, there may be an alpha male, an alpha female, or both, as well as a ranked system of matrilines (in baboons) or patrilines (in humans). Whatever the social order, it is enforced, with measures ranging from gentle taps through vigorous hitting and biting to lethal violence.
De Waal tells the story of two juvenile chimpanzees in a zoo community who delayed the group’s evening feeding by refusing to enter the feeding station at the right time. Because the group always ate together, the others wouldn’t go in without everyone present. Then, the next day, when they were away from their keepers, the whole troop set upon the delinquent pair and gave them a sound beating. One can hardly miss the parallels with law, politics, government and justice.
A third universal aspect of social existence is reciprocity. In pursuit of dominance, chimpanzee males form coalitions that depend on mutual support during confrontations with rivals. Repeated failure to support a partner will break up the coalition. Monkeys and apes remember who has hit or bitten them and can exact revenge hours or even days later. In species that share food, the sharing is not random but related to other favors performed between individuals. Is it far-fetched to see in these exchanges the basis of such moral notions as respect for rights, keeping agreements, fulfilment of obligations and justice in the sense of proportionality between contribution and reward?
Finally, social animals ceaselessly fight and make up, often with other members of their community getting into the act. Although conflicts over food, mating opportunities, offspring and dominance can be severe, reconciliation follows through grooming, embracing or kissing. Third parties not involved in the original conflict often bring the combatants together, and all members of the community celebrate when reconciliation finally takes place. Human parallels involving forgiveness and mediation readily come to mind. We can indeed play the killer ape, but we can also respond to the words of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
The notion of a moral law ordained by a Supreme Being has weakened in the modern world; and without belief in a divine maker or designer, natural law theories of morality lose their force. The other main approach to moral philosophy is utilitarianism, which holds that true happiness can only arise from right conduct; but in practice, by identifying happiness with the fulfilment of individual desire, modern utilitarianism has foundered in a swamp of anything-goes morality.
Evolutionary biology offers a way out of this impasse by showing how the moral order of a social species arises from the competitive struggle of the selfish genes to replicate themselves. It explains morality not as the conscious design of a divine maker or as the intentional quest for happiness by individuals, but as behavior that has become genetically entrenched through differential reproductive success.
For example, an evolutionary biologist would argue that male chimpanzees like to groom each other not just because they enjoy it (though they seem to) nor because God willed it (though maybe He did), but because of its survival value: It lowers tensions between males who would otherwise compete for dominance and helps them cooperate in hunting and in defending the community against other chimpanzee bands. Unlike antisocial chimps, social chimps who groom each other help build a successful community, which in turn means greater success for their genes and thus for them as individual members of a social species. Transferred to our own species, this objective approach to explaining the existence of morality would help us understand, respect and enforce our own moral nature.
For anyone concerned about the moral vacuum of contemporary society, Good Natured is a profoundly hopeful book. Today’s fashionable ideologies – post-modernism, deconstructionism, critical theory, gender feminism, multiculturalism – teach that right and wrong are merely verbal expressions of power, that morality depends on race, class and gender. Children in school, if they get any moral instruction, are usually taught that everything depends on the individual’s choice of values – “Do what is right for you.”
Of course, at a deeper level, no one really believes all this relativism. We are still outraged if someone steals our car, breaks into our house or assaults a child in our neighborhood. We have not stopped being moral, but we have largely lost the capacity to understand and explain what good and evil are and why we should do good and avoid evil.
The ability to be moral depends on comprehending human nature and on an objective moral order. Our culture used to embody this understanding in religion, philosophy, history and literature; but those forms of expression have been seriously damaged, if not destroyed, by the malignant family of post-modern ideologies. Science, though under a similar attack, still survives as an objective inquiry into nature.
Under present circumstances, science may be the only intellectual force capable of rediscovering human nature and the moral order. Good Natured shows us that our intuitions of right and wrong are not just individual whims, but a natural aspect of being human, and that they exist in all societies, albeit with a unique cultural expression in each one.
Aristotle was the first philosopher to systematically articulate the moral tradition of the Western world. But he was also a great biologist. As the Greek philosophers understood, human nature is part of a larger cosmos or natural order. It is, therefore, quite in keeping that the modern recovery of moral understanding should arise from the discoveries of modern evolutionary biology.
The Good Society: The Humane Agenda
by John Kenneth Galbraith
(Houghton Mifflin, 1996. 152 pages) $29.95
AFTER READING THIS BOOK, I leafed through the front pages in search of copyright information. To my surprise I discovered it was written in 1996 by a John Kenneth Galbraith. I would have placed the book in 1949 and ventured Mao Tse-tung as the author. Every few pages have some reference to what the “good society” wants for its people and what it will not tolerate. Low on the list of items to tolerate is the present exploitation by the “favored, the affluent, and the corporate bureaucracy” of the “socially and economically deprived.”
Who belongs to this good society, and how its members manage to think on one wavelength, is a mystery Galbraith does not care to uncover. He prefers to drag the reader through 152 pages of economic myth on the road to his revelation that the good society can only work if the poor start voting to grab more wealth from the rich. I, like many professional economists, do not believe the free market is perfect, but a book such as this one does not advance my understanding of how to fix what may be wrong. Instead, I was treated to comments about the economy that suggested Galbraith is highly selective in the economics journals he reads. He believes the corporate takeover wave of the 1980s destroyed wealth, ignoring studies by Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer and Chicago economist Robert Vishny that show just the opposite. Galbraith believes in a clear trade-off between unemployment and inflation – has he not heard the term “stagflation”? He claims that stock markets are myopically obsessed with short-term profits – perhaps he has never heard of the 3M corporation, or of the biotechnology industry, or of the ongoing explosion of research and development spending on high-risk, long-term ventures.
Still, Galbraith should not be dismissed. His economic proclamations may be off the mark, but he has his finger on the pulses of the many people who are bewildered by the changes in today’s world and who would invite a benevolent dictator to press on the brakes of progress.
The Politics of Power: Ontario Hydro and Its Government, 1906-1995
by Neil B. Freeman
(University of Toronto Press, 1996. 252 pages) $18.95
FOR THOSE WHO NEED TO FOLLOW the comings and goings of cabinet ministers responsible for Ontario Hydro, or the appointments of the commissioners and board members in charge of the utility giant over the decades, The Politics of Power is the book for you. If, however, you are interested in the fundamental forces at play in the history of this giant monopoly – how various special interest groups sold the public on the power-at-cost concept, the utility’s underlying economics, or the decision to complete the Darlington nuclear station in 1986, which was Hydro’s ultimate undoing – you will have to look elsewhere. The book but dimly illuminates why political decision makers remained so ignorant for so many decades, and contributes little to the debate over how to solve the ongoing Hydro crisis.
Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age
by Kirkpatrick Sale
(Addison-Wesley, 1996. 320 pages) $18
WITH ALL THE RECENT ANGST over industrial restructuring, Kirkpatrick Sale’s study of insurgency and despair in England’s 19th-century textile industry promised timely insights. But Sale’s book about Ned Ludd’s rebellion slides off its mark into a much broader critique of industrialization, from the enclosure of common lands in the 15th century to the advent of computers in the 20th. Sale likens modern technology to Frankenstein’s monster: destructive, and beyond its inventor’s influence. Yet Sale tells only half the technology tale, scarcely mentioning the spinning jenny’s boon to weavers long before mechanized weaving incited the Luddite rebellion. Rebels Against the Future disavows the modern “technosphere”; but without analyzing its workings, Sale offers only moral support to those who do try to influence the shape of industrial society today through informed consumption, industrial and urban design, or political action.
The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage
by Paul Johnson
(HarperCollins 1996. 216 pages) $29.95
PAUL JOHNSON INTRIGUINGLY TURNS THE TABLES on God’s detractors, showing how it is they, not the bible thumpers, who suffer from superstitious beliefs. But this noted historian’s argument that the atheists and other skeptics of religion are on the wrong side of history soon becomes lost in a sweeping, even ignorant, condemnation of all he sees as the 20th century’s organized alternatives to God, among them environmentalism, socialism, racial and sexual politics, and advocacy of animal rights. Johnson expects the 21st century, like the 19th, to be one for missionaries, whom he exhorts to evangelize and subdue Islamic territory in North Africa and the Middle East. Asia, with its Hindus, Shintoists, Confucians, Muslims and animalists, also needs converting. As for Jews, whom the Roman Catholic Johnson greatly admires, God may help them and Christians heal their schism prior to the Last Judgment. Johnson calls his book a meditation, denying The Quest for God proselytizes. In so denying, Johnson sins.