Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ethics predates us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, primatology, morality, atheism, theism

An experimenter enters an enclosure containing an ape, and sets down two small boxes. If the ape puts one on top of the other, it is rewarded with a carrot. It soon learns to stack boxes, happily eating the carrots. Then the experimenter leaves and goes into an enclosure nearby containing another ape, which has been able to see this whole procedure. The ape soon sets one box upon another, and happily receives a carrot to eat. After a few repetitions, the experimenter returns to the first enclosure, presenting the same two boxes. This time, when the ape stacks them, it receives a grape. Several repetitions yield several grapes. Now the experimenter returns to the second ape. This one immediately stacks the boxes, so the experimenter presents a carrot. Angrily, the ape rejects the carrot. Clearly, it wants a grape.

The sense of "fair play" is not unique to humans.

Observations of apes and other primates "in the wild" confirm not only the sense of fair versus unfair treatment, but also social morals. In one instance, two families of baboons came upon a small fruiting bush. There was not enough fruit for both families. Rather than fight or even confront each other, both families ran off in opposite directions. This is but one of many, many indications that the Hobbesian notion of "nature red in tooth and claw" is quite wrong-headed.

Even further. You may have seen the Disney movie in which Akela, the alpha wolf, misses a kill, and the troop turns against him. This doesn't actually happen, among either wolves or apes. Even when a "beta" displaces an "alpha", the deposed leader is not exiled. In fact, when an animal has become ill or disabled, its fellows help it. For example, an ape dying of infection is comforted by other apes, who groom it more than usual and bring food. And the internet is full of pictures and videos of cross-species animal adoptions and "friendships", between dog and cat, sow and puppies, and the gorilla Koko with her pet kitten All Ball. The Tarzan stories, in which an ape adopts a human infant, would not resonate with anyone if adoption were not a common occurrence.
Most human adoptive parents do a good job raising the totally unrelated child. So do most cross-species adoptive "parents".
Social consciousness and altruism are not unique to humans.

Primatologist Frans de Waal has studied chimpanzees and bonobos, and the striking differences between them, for decades. While bonobos (formerly "pygmy chimpanzees") are more peaceable, both species of ape display ethical and moral behavior. Of course, moral lapses result is fierce chastisement, in both species, but, then so do moral lapses among humans. Think how you were raised. Maybe your parents spanked you, and maybe not, but "time out" and other forms of correction still train the conscience, and it is well known that parents who eschew all forms of "punishment" raise spoiled brats.

In his book The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, de Waal demonstrates that the conscience is not only a human attribute: all social mammals (and perhaps all mammals) show evidence of having a conscience to be trained. Don't we speak of a psychopath as someone lacking a conscience? In spite of parental training and other social sanctions, a psychopath behaves amorally. Whatever mental "organ" it is that makes most of us into rule-keepers (at least most of the time!), is absent in a psychopath. If we had no innate tendency to "goodness", however defined, no training method could make us capable of goodness.

The author's thesis is that morality predates religion. As an atheist, he distances himself from "neo-atheists", or "evangelical atheists" (who are actually anti-theists). He recognizes that nearly all of us have the "God-shaped hole" (a paraphrase of Pascal), such that, as Voltaire said, "If there were no God, we would have to invent him." Of course, many evangelical Christians claim that the God-shaped hole is universal, but to my careful observation over many years, I would have to say, not entirely. There are some quite contented nontheists (a word I prefer to "atheist").

The impetus to write the book arose from responses to a blog posting by the author, "Morals without God?" He realized he would have to explain himself further. Many folks did get his point, but some, particularly neo-atheists, missed it. He does not desire to drive God or religion out of society. Indeed, he spends half a chapter outlining the three Twentieth Century attempts to do so, by Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. Stalin's effort resulted in at least 15 million killed; Pol Pot's attempt killed 3 million; and Mao topped them all, killing more than 100 million Chinese. The anti-religious effort he doesn't mention is that of Hitler, who attempted to exterminate one particular religion. In doing so, not only 6 million Jews were killed, but so were nearly 6 million Christians, plus tens of thousands of homosexuals and other "undesirables" (in Hitler's view). Yeah, it is true that misapplication of religion has led to many killings, but the greatest evils arose from trying to eliminate religion. This exposes the mis-aiming of the anti-theists. They clearly hate religion, and any one of them could become another Pol Pot or Mao as a result.

de Waal posits that small pre-agricultural bands of humans didn't need religion, that religions arose along with the need to manage large populations. Since I sharply distinguish between faith and religion, I mostly agree: faith is all about how the individual relates to God or gods, while religion is all about organization of the faith-full. The larger the number, the more organization is needed, which is why I prefer smaller churches. The trouble is, religion also provides hierarchy, rites and rituals, all human-created structures in which the faith-less can fake it, to the point that many churches are simply social clubs with barely a nod toward a mostly absent deity.

The book is full of fascinating research findings, that illustrate how other animals, not just us humans, display compassion, fairness and altruism. Dogs know when they are treated fairly, or not; elephants try to help a fallen comrade, whether a relative or not; and one story tells of a camel that was beaten savagely, frequently and unfairly, that meekly bided its time, and when alone with the drover, bit the top off his head! Self-defense is a moral value also.

de Waal picked bonobos to compare with us, because physically they more closely resemble early human ancestors such as Ardipithecus. Bonobos are more slender than chimpanzees, have longer legs and can more nearly walk upright. Whether "Ardi" also had the peaceable nature of bonobos is unknown. We need to constantly recall that, not only do we have millions and billions of years of evolution leading up to us, but so do bonobos, and chimps, and parakeets and oak trees. The hominin family tree branched from other apes around 7 million years ago, while bonobos and chimps probably branched from one another 4-5 million years ago (the moist forests in which both live are notoriously bad for fossil preservation). Which ape diverged most from that extinct ape species of 7 million years ago that gave rise to all three of us? The human, the bonobo, or the chimpanzee? I think it is more like the 3-legged stool. We all diverged about equally, in different directions.

We can say that our behavior is some mixture of both bonobo and chimp behaviors, plus some additions (not many). But a chimp scholar might make the same claim, that chimp behavior is some mixture of human and bonobo, with some additions! And so forth. The singular added factor for humans is our ability to function in larger and larger groups. de Waal makes a good case that religion has facilitated that ability. He hopes that morality can gradually be disentangled from religion, because he has also shown that we are moral, or at least have moral ideals, whether or not we are religious. He does not propose a different organizing principle. His book gives us all much to ponder.

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