The Morality of the Bonobo and the Human

Former presidential candidate Ben Carson once claimed that “ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes, and you determine your own conscience based on your own desires” (Daily Kos). The belief that non-religious people lack morality stems from the idea that humans are innately selfish and greedy; morality requires the watchful eye of a higher power, providing guidelines for good behavior, and punishing our infractions. Empathy is downplayed as an inferior force — something that nature fails to provide — something that must be cultivated if we are to even make use of it. Without the guiding hand of God and His teachings, the theory goes, what prevents people from acting in their best interest and stealing the goods they covet? What could motivate altruism?

We are confronted by human cruelty so frequently that our need for an explanation is understandable. Scenes of bombings light up our television screens during the nightly news, stories of the evils carried out by dictators fill the pages of our history books, and headlines about mass shootings sell our newspapers. The frequency with which we are confronted with human cruelty suggests that empathy is a skill that needs teaching. Whether through religious ideology or through the gentle coaxing of parents, society often views empathy as a cognitive skill rather than an innate ability.

Many influential philosophers and psychologists have popularized the idea of humans’ innate cruelty. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that “for the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like” (Leviathan). Another influential thinker, Sigmund Freud, proposed that children are born solely under the influence of the id, the pleasure-seeking part of Freud’s characterization of the human personality. Young children, Freud believed, do not have the regulating force of the ego and superego, suggesting that they lack empathy (Henslin).

Unlike Carson, thinkers in the times of Freud and Hobbes did not have the benefit of modern scientific research on human and animal brains. Modern research gives us more accurate information about the development of empathy, a skill intimately related to morality. Research on bonobo, chimp, and human brains indicates that humans received our empathetic abilities from our ape ancestors. Such research can help build a case for a natural human morality. But given that we instinctively feel the pain of others, how are humans able to cause each other so much suffering?

Our survival instinct is always ready to take the controls. To survive threats from others who might do us harm, we constantly, subconsciously categorize people into ingroups and outgroups. As a tool of survival, we reserve empathy for members of our ingroups. We justify cruelty toward members of our outgroups.

People gain satisfaction from enumerating the ways we are different from and superior to the rest of the animal kingdom. It is in part because of this desire for separation, and in part because of a plethora of poorly conducted research, that animals have long been labeled emotionless, survival machines. In his book The Bonobo and the Atheist, Frans De Waal argues that humans received morality from our ancient ape ancestors; kindness, a sense of equity, and concern for the well being of others are not unique to the human species, but rather a part of many animal societies. Out of the surviving primate species, bonobos and chimpanzees share the closest genetic connection with humans (De Waal). Evidence for these primate’s empathetic natures is not in short supply. De Waal explains that bonobos are known to reconcile after arguments, engaging in genital rubbing or grooming as a sign of goodwill. Reconciliation between two reluctant males after a tense conflict is often encouraged by a third party, usually the alpha female or male, indicating that bonobos feel concern about group harmony, and are willing to intervene in conflicts that they are not directly involved in. De Waal also emphasizes that bonobos will comfort one another after a conflict or injury; “As soon as one bonobo has even the smallest injury, he or she will be surrounded by others who come to inspect, lick, or groom”.

The empathy clearly illustrated in bonobo behavior and group dynamics has also been confirmed through scientific experimentation. In one experiment, designed by De Waal and his team of researchers, two Chimps were placed in adjacent cages where they had full visibility of their partner. One chimp was given the choice between a red or a green straw. The chimps quickly learned that one straw rewarded only the chooser, while the other straw rewarded both chimps. While all the chimps tested chose the prosocial straw more frequently, most still made the selfish choice about one-third of the time. However, the most generous chimps made the prosocial choice nine times out of ten. This experiment shows that chimps clearly care about the wellbeing of others, and make rational decisions based off their emotions.

Research on the brains of bonobos and chimps confirmed what scientists familiar with these apes already knew through observation. Scientists have discovered a type of neuron called a spindle cell, which is involved in functions such as self-awareness, empathy, sense of humor, and self control, in the brains of bonobos (De Waal). Further research indicates that the amygdala and anterior insula, areas involved in the perception of other’s distress, are also enlarged in bonobo brains (De Waal). De Waal sums up the most important takeaway from brain research on bonobo empathy; “There is no sharp dividing line between human and animal emotions”. Apart from informing us on the history and development of our own empathetic and moralistic abilities, understanding that animal emotions and human emotions are far more similar than they are dissimilar should encourage fair animal treatment. Animal cruelty undeniably inflicts suffering.

Perhaps the most important discovery in the development of our understanding of human empathy, the discovery of mirror neurons, occurred accidentally through the observation of macaque monkeys (Winerman). The Italian researcher Giacomo Rizzolattio was observing the brain patterns of monkeys performing different motor actions when he noticed that watching another human or monkey perform a motor task activated the same parts of the brain as when the monkey performed the task herself (Winerman). This discovery led to a fundamental shift in the way scientists understand human empathy; Once viewed as a logical process, empathy is now understood as an emotional response. De Waal explains the empathetic connection that mirror neurons facilitate; “Empathy runs from body to body. You stick a needle in a woman’s arm, and the pain centers in her husband’s brain light up from watching the procedure. His brain reacts as if the needle went into his own arm”.

Human empathy begins at birth; research conducted on newborn babies indicates that they respond to the distress of others. Researcher Grace Martin tested infant empathy by playing calm babies a tape recording of another infant’s crying. She found that calm infants would cry in response to a recording of another child’s distress, but would remain calm when hearing a recording of their own distress (Martin). This disproves the popular theory that young children lack the ability to empathize.

Research on ape and human brains decisively concludes that humans are genetically programed to understand each other intuitively and emotionally. Our brains mirror the pain and happiness we see in others. We take on each other’s feelings as our own. However, clearly this empathy does not always result in kindness. Why are our empathetic responses so strong with our friends and family, but absent in our response to people we label the enemy?

An experiment conducted by researcher Matt Campbell on chimp empathy sheds some light on this question. Campbell designed an experiment to measure yawn contagion in chimpanzees. Yawn contagion, a phenomenon where an individual watching someone else yawn begins yawning herself, is a known measure of empathy; More empathetic people exhibit higher levels of yawn contagion, while people with empathy deficit disorders, such as autism, may not exhibit yawn contagion at all (De Waal). Campbell placed an iPod showing video footage of a yawning chimp at the bottom of a bucket with a hole in it, which chimps could peer through and view the recording. He observed that chimps yawned in response to footage of an ape they were familiar with, but did not yawn in response to unfamiliar apes. This difference in empathetic response between friends and strangers has also been found in humans, and goes a long way towards explaining our ability to inflict suffering on others. Watching a neighborhood kid fall off his bike may make our stomach clench, but does not induce the same panic and pain of watching our own child hit the concrete.

The premise that people feel less empathy towards strangers, coupled with human’s tendency to organize society through categorization, helps explain our ability to dehumanize one another. Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory suggests that people categorize society into ingroups and outgroups (Henslin). Ingroups are groups of people that we identify with and form our identity around, while outgroups are unfamiliar and suspect. Ingroups vary greatly in size and composition; our family unit, friend groups, coworkers, and sports teams are examples of smaller and more intimate ingroups, but categories such as our race, ethnicity, and homeland are broader ingroups that also influence our self-concept and values. Because we are familiar with our ingroups, we empathize more with them.

Consider the November terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Western nations erupted in an outpouring of sympathy following the bloodshed; national monuments around the world were illuminated with blue, white and red stripes, Facebook created an option to overlay one’s profile picture with the French flag, and many Presidential speeches addressed the tragedy. However, just one day prior to the terror in Paris, Beirut suffered a similar attack, also conducted by the Islamic State, that killed forty civilians. The lack of global outcry regarding the attacks in Beirut prompted a conversation online and in the media regarding this injustice. Why does the Western world seemingly value the lives of the French more than lives of the Lebanese? People justifying the public response argued that because violence in Lebanon is far more common, the shock and sorrow that the violence had reached Paris was understandable. While this may have been a factor, I think that the lack of sympathy for the Lebanese casualties was largely due to the fact that the victims in Paris were part of the Western ingroup, while the victims in Beirut were not.

Understanding the complexity and origins of human empathy sparks an interesting question about morality. Research has proved that humans are naturally empathetic, but considering that this empathy is largely reserved for our ingroups, what does this mean for human morality?

Our limited empathy allows for war and genocide. We are able to categorize into the “us” and “them” so effectively that we erase the humanity inherent in our political enemies. The word “morality” sets a higher standard than this. Morality requires understanding the humanity in all people, even if our brains are not genetically predisposed for doing so. Human empathy is innate. Behaving morally, however, requires conscious effort.

I believe that nurturing the empathetic tools nature has provided us, and fostering a sense of global humanity requires education. We must learn about other cultures in order to relate to them. Changes in our educational system could help foster a sense of global humanity rather than cultural supremacy. Teaching historical narratives that do not gloss over human rights violations in favor of nationalist rhetoric would improve children’s understanding of our cultural history. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that emphasizing nature based forms of learning in school can help foster empathy and creativity — perhaps taking a step back from the technological devices that supposedly unify us, and instead connecting ourselves to the natural environment around us could be a means for teaching morality.

While I may disagree with Ben Carson about people needing religion to motivate morality, religion can certainly act as a useful tool for widening the scope of our empathy. Many of us could use the help.

Works Cited

Derek, Jack. “Ben Carson: If You Accept Evolution,.” Daily Kos. N.p., 02 Oct. 2015.

Web. 29 May 2016.

Henslin, J. M. (1995). Sociology: A down-to-earth approach (12th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hobbes, Thomas, and Richard Tuck. “The Second Part: Of Commonwealth.” Leviathan. Cambridge UP, 1991. N. pag. Print.

Henslin, J. M. (1995). Sociology: A down-to-earth approach (12th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Louv, Richard. “Last Child in the Woods.” Richard Louv Blog Full Posts Atom 10. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008. Web. 29 May 2016.

Waal, F. B. M. De. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates.

London: W. W. Norton, 2013. Print.

Winerman, Lea. “The Mind’s Mirror.” American Psychological Association. N.p., Oct. 2005. Web.

Henslin, J. M. (1995). Sociology: A down-to-earth approach (12th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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