Animals living in groups, such as the very social homo sapiens and certain other primates such as chimpanzees, must find ways to get along. We all know that this “getting along” is a relatively flawed and halting proposition. But still,there must be some basic sense of cooperation within the group for such primates to have evolved and prospered at all.
Some intriguing research on primate behavior indicates that some of the roots of compassion for others are present in those animals. The New York Times reports on the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, whose controversial assertion is that animals share with humans some rudimentary ethical behaviors that may be hardwired.
Reading the article, it’s not clear to me that the behaviors described by de Waal are actually genetic; we know that primates have traditions and ways that are passed down through example and teaching. Nor does he assert that chimps actually have ethics itself. What he does say is that “human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.”
De Waal’s descriptions of chimp behavior are touching. He noticed years ago that, after fights, other chimps would console the loser in the battle. This behavior wasn’t present in monkeys; it seemed to be an ape thing. But the emotion that could be described as compassion is even exhibited by some monkeys, it seems:
Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.
The latter observation made me think of the famous Milgram “obedience to authority” experiments, in which human subjects were surprisingly willing to be talked into giving what they thought were very painful electric shocks to a total stranger (turns out the stranger was actually an actor and confederate of the researcher, but the subjects didn’t know that). The Milgram experiments demonstrated that whatever natural compassion exists in people can all too often be overridden by an appeal from an authority figure who says it’s all okay.
Other primates, being nonverbal, are unlikely to be as amenable to such appeals. It is one of the triumphs of human civilization and one of its drawbacks that human beings can be reasoned into doing something against their natural instincts, both for better and for worse. A doctor cuts into a patient’s flesh in order to heal the sufferer. A soldier fires a weapon in order to defend against those who would destroy a society or cause greater harm to innocent people.
And a murderer kills for any number of reasons: power, money, rage. A terrorist believes he’s doing the work of God when he blows a bunch of women and children into a thousand pieces.
Research indicates that all primate societies have evolved the following characteristics in order to survive: empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking. These elements are present at least within the small groups in which primates live, but in these groups all is not lightness and love. Far from it; there’s tough love as well:
Young rhesus monkeys learn quickly how to behave, and occasionally get a finger or toe bitten off as punishment.
In human society that would be considered child abuse; to rhesus monkeys it’s apparently a “spare the finger and spoil the child” philosophy.
And that is by no means the worst of it. The work of Jane Goodall, who lived among chimpanzees and studied them for decades, shows that they exhibit a surprising and extraordinary amount of violence both within and without the group.
It used to be thought that humans were the only species that warred on itself. This is untrue. Chimp violence certainly hasn’t reached the levels of human violence, but that’s apparently only through lack of technological advances. The phenomenon of inter-chimp violence is relatively newly discovered and poorly understood, but chimps seem to defend territory aggressively:
It was hard for the researchers to reconcile these episodes [of violence] with the opposite but equally accurate observations of adult males sharing friendship and generosity and fun: lolling against each other on sleepy afternoons, laughing together in childish play, romping around a tree trunk while batting at each other’s feet, offering a handful of prized meat, making up after a squabble, grooming for long hours, staying with a sick friend. The new contrary episodes of violence bespoke huge emotions normally hidden, social attitudes that could switch with extraordinary and repulsive ease. We all found ourselves surprised, fascinated, and angry as the number of cases mounted. How could they kill their former friends like that?
Human morality is not simple, and the same appears to be true of the roots of that morality in primates. But human behavior is mediated by the ability to verbalize and to reason at a far higher level than that available to any other primate. This results in (among other things) the development of tools to extend both the healing power of compassion and the lethal power of war—although in most cases, of course, the tools are not the same.
These issues about human and animal behavior and morality cut across several disciplines: philosophy, psychology, biology, sociology. And you can bet that there’s a lot of disagreement among them over how it all works:
The impartial element of morality comes from a capacity to reason, writes Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton, in “Primates and Philosophers.” He says, “Reason is like an escalator — once we step on it, we cannot get off until we have gone where it takes us.”
That was the view of Immanuel Kant, Dr. Singer noted, who believed morality must be based on reason, whereas the Scottish philosopher David Hume, followed by Dr. de Waal, argued that moral judgments proceed from the emotions.
But biologists like Dr. de Waal believe reason is generally brought to bear only after a moral decision has been reached. They argue that morality evolved at a time when people lived in small foraging societies and often had to make instant life-or-death decisions, with no time for conscious evaluation of moral choices.
I’m not sure what good such “which came first, the chicken or the egg” discussions do, other than provide a living for academics. But I believe it makes sense that societies must have evolved some sort of altruism, if only in the group, in order to function successfully and to continue to exist. It also makes sense that this fact does not preclude violence, both in order to defend that group and for other less functional reasons as well.
Those who think that compassion can be extended to all peoples and all circumstances, and that violence can be eradicated from the human heart and mind, are seriously deluded. And they can become dangerous if they make decisions about the world based on those assumptions.
I once heard a story about the Jewish attitude toward what we are describing here, the element of human and animal nature known in Hebrew as the yetzer ra, or the “evil impulse.” It’s the source of violence and selfish drives, and in the legend the evil impulse is held captive by the people for three days. At the outset, the yetzer ra utters a foreboding warning:
Realize that if you kill me, the world is finished.
The world is finished? Whatever could this mean? The people found out soon enough. With the evil inclination out of commission, the hens stopped laying. It was discovered that the impulse was what gave the drive to life itself: desire, striving, commerce, sex, all sorts of things that are necessary for life to have any vitality at all.
It can’t be eradicated, nor should one wish to do so. It can only be tamed and harnessed at times in a more positive direction.
Here’s another parable about the paradox of good and evil in the world of living things, this one based on the story of Genesis:
And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good…vehinei tov zeh yetzer hatov, vehinei tov me’od zeh yetzer hara—”good” refers to the Good Inclination but “very good” refers to the Evil Inclination. Why? Because were it not for the Yetzer ha-Ra no one would build a house, take a wife, give birth, or engage in commerce.
I can think of no better way to close than with the poet Yeats’s “Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop, which comes at the same idea from another direction:”
I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’
‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’