On primate behavior and tracing back the origins of morality

Personally, I have my own beef with sociobiology a.k.a. evolutionary psychology. I have yet to see it venture from a story telling, subjective science. But my issues don’t prevent me from acknowledging and respecting progressive work done in this subfield of behavioral studies and primatology.

Primate MoralityI don’t know where Nick Wade truly stands about sociobiology, but I can tell he generally shares my sentiments on appreciating this issue, because he has eloquently summarized the work of Frans de Waal in his new article in the New York Times. I trust that you can tell what the topic and the scope of article is by reading the title, “Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior.”

At its core, this article is useful because it outlines the four basic behaviors for sociality, empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking. If you think about it, our social structure is founded on it, and based off of years of Frans’ observations of chimps, macaques, and rhesus monkeys these traits exist to some degree in non-human primates.

Dr. de Waal makes the tangent that human morality has spawned off of primate sociality,

“but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals. “

The article goes on with a discussion on how Frans has stood up to criticism, competing and contrasting theories on the origins of human morality. I also noticed Nick opens talk about the origins and concept of religion, something I talked about here. But aside from the intricate subtopics, at the very minimum this article also provides us with some insight on why some of us study primate behavior…. even if it is story telling.


I’m curious to open this thread up to a discussion of how and where we think we developed our sense of morality? Is morality a behavioral trait inherited from our evolutionary relatives? Or is our morality a bi-product of our human only cultures? What do you think? Is there a grey area between these two? Can we ever truly find out where morality originated?

10 thoughts on “On primate behavior and tracing back the origins of morality

  1. My personal off-the-cuff opinion is that each person’s sense of morality and ethics is partly hard-wired genetically and partly a matter of socialization. I have no way of saying how the ratios work out. Previously, I believed that socialization was the bigger factor, but I’ve been convinced enough by some of Steven Pinker’s arguments to begin to seriously think that the genetic basis might have a bigger role.

    What I’m absolutely not convinced by is the C.S. Lewis-style arguments that claim each person’s moral compass has been placed there supernaturally by God.
    Very interesting topic!

  2. Perhaps evolutional morality is a type of Darwinian cultural filter of genes.

    The body of work which E.O. Wilson (and likely others) has pointed to as meriting increasing focus — the connection between the science of genetics and sociobiology or human behavior — may discover that genes are less causative than behavior … the genes merely being the scorekeepers for behaviors.

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