Morals in Men - Morals in Chimps - Why? (CNN - Kelly Murray)

Being nice to others and cooperating with them aren't uniquely human traits. Frans de Waal, director of Emory University's Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Lawrenceville, Georgia, studies how our close primate relatives also demonstrate behaviors suggestive of a sense of morality.

De Waal recently published a book called "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates," which synthesizes evidence that there are biological roots in human fairness, and explores what that means for the role of religion in human societies. CNN's Kelly Murray recently spoke with De Waal about the book.

CNN's Kelly Murray: Tell us about the title of your book.

Frans de Waal: Well, the reason I chose that title is, when I bring up the origins of morality, it revolves around God, or comes from religion, and I want to address the issue that I think morality is actually older than religion. So I'm getting into the religion question, and how important is religion for morality. I think it plays a role, but it's a secondary role. Instead of being the source of morality, religion came later, maybe to fortify morality.

CNN: How would you say that ethics or morality is separate from religion?

De Waal: Well, I think that morality is older. In the sense that I find it very hard to believe that 100,000 or 200,000 years ago, our ancestors did not believe in right and wrong, and did not punish bad behavior, did not care about fairness. Very long ago our ancestors had moral systems. Our current institutions are only a couple of thousand years old, which is really not old in the eyes of a biologist. So I think religion came after morality. Religion may have become a codification of morality, and it may fortify it, but it's not the origin of it.

CNN: Why do people need religion?

De Waal: Well, that's a good question. I'm struggling with that. I'm personally a nonbeliever, so I'm struggling with if we really need religion. ... I'm from the Netherlands, where 60% of the people are nonbelievers. So in northern Europe, there are actually experiments going on now with societies that are more secular, to see if we can maintain a moral society that way, and for the moment I would say that experiment is going pretty well. ... Personally I think it is possible to build a society that is moral on a nonreligious basis, but the jury is still out on that.

CNN: So do you believe that people are generally good?

De Waal: Yeah, my view is that you have two (kinds of) people in the world. You have people who think that we are inherently bad and evil and selfish, but with a lot of hard work we can be good, and you have other people like myself who believe that we are inherently good. There's a lot of evidence on the primates that I can use to support that idea that we are inherently good, but on occasion when we get too competitive or frustrated, we turn bad.

Read the rest here.


De Waal may think that the "jury is still out" on the issue of people being good without god.  Personally, I think even the brief evidence he presents above is pretty damned persuasive, not that it's much of a surprise to us.  Morality is indeed older than religion, because moral behavior was NECESSARY for the survival of Homo sapiens as a species.  Religion will want to claim otherwise, and we shouldn't be surprised or deterred about that.

The word will get out soon enough.

Views: 138

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I will have to buy that book. I am interested in this topic. I try to read all I can. Theists always like to accuse Atheists as having no morals or ethics.

eveey action in response to a valenced life world is metaethically moral.if shark attacs this is a normative conflict. but idont deny sharky pursuit of value is morally dimensional , but dont like its sums.

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne ( has a pet peeve with scientists who intentionally 'pull their punches' when it comes to applying their research to religious beliefs. De Waal is one (Neil deGrasse Tyson is another). I do see his point.

Loren, thank you for the link and info.  I watched the video and read the article in its entirety.

I have some random thoughts -

This reminds me of articles I read about the mutual role of dogs and humans on each others' evolution.  The argument is made that human ancestors and dog ancestors have intermeshed social evolution, and the morals or socialization of wolf packs influenced the morals and socialization of early humans.  

A couple of quotes from linked article:

But, were our own ancestors back then, long before they built permanent houses for themselves, less “wild” than the wolves they associated with? While canids are known to dig their own dens, and some of such dens may have been used by many generations, even over hundreds of years (THOMAS 1993), humans are apparently the only primates to make use of caves, and their association with dogs predates the construction of permanent houses by thousands of years. Is it not absurd to talk about the “domestication” of dogs by humans who had not yet any permanent domiciles (“domus”)?


When we try looking back at the biological foundations of our moral behavior in a distant past, and, in the absence of any historical evidence turn to our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, we find ourselves in a strange conflict. The life of chimpanzees, especially their sociality, as revealed by the pioneering work of Jane GOODALL and others (GOODALL 1986; DE WAAL 1997) appears as a frightful caricature of human egoism. Even in their maternal behavior warmth and affection are apparently reduced to nursing and an occasional comforting hug; cooperation among group members is limited to occasional hunting episodes, or the persecution of a competitor, always aimed for one’s own advantage and executed with MACHIAVELLIAN shrewdness

[Reminds me of certain workplaces where I have suffered just that behavior]


The closest approximation to human morality we can find in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus .....   Wolves’ ability to cooperate in a variety of situations, not only in well coordinated drives in the context of attacking prey, carrying items too heavy for any one individual, provisioning not only their own young but also other pack members, baby sitting, etc., is rivaled only by that of human societies.

I'm not saying I buy entirely into the premise, but it is interesting to think about.

A second comment, nit picking on my part - rather than thinking about whether it's a grand experiment, building a society that can have morals without religion, and will society lose its more's without religious underpinning....  I would argue that religion co-opts morality, and western religion, at least, tends to set people against one another, is narcissistic, tribalistic, opportunistic, makes excuses and justifies selfishness and violence and subjugation of "other".   Religion is not our source of morality, but rather often excuses and promotes, and proliferates, immorality.

Again, thank you for posting.  This type of article can lead to thought about our sources of morality and the interaction of morality with religion and evolution.



Update Your Membership :




Nexus on Social Media:


© 2017   Atheist Nexus. All rights reserved. Admin: Richard Haynes.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service