A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Humans Are, by Nature, Quite Nice

Primatologist disputes that we’re nasty and brutish

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOne other talk at the AAAS Meeting in Vancouver that’s important to animal protection organizations was the address by noted primatologist Frans de Waal.

De Waal is professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University, and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and author of numerous books including Chimpanzee Politics and, most recently, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.

At his talk, he said that biological research increasingly debunks the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish.

“Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies,” he said.

Until just 12 years ago, the common view among scientists was that humans were “nasty” at the core but had developed a thin veneer of morality. But human children — and most higher animals — are “moral” in a scientific sense, because they need to cooperate with each other to reproduce and pass on their genes, he said.

Research has disproved the view, dominant since the 19th century, typical of biologist Thomas Henry Huxley’s argument that morality is absent in nature and only created by humans.

And common assumptions about “Darwinian survival of the fittest” are also wrong.

“Darwin was much smarter than most of his followers,” said de Waal. Darwin believed that “well-marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience.”

De Waal showed videos from laboratories revealing the dramatic emotional distress of a monkey denied a treat that another monkey received; and of a rat giving up chocolate in order to help another rat escape from a trap.

Such research shows that animals naturally have pro-social tendencies for “reciprocity, fairness, empathy and consolation … Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

To which one can only add that if this is what de Waal and other have learned from the chimpanzees they keep in cages at facilities like Yerkes, it’s time for them to show their own moral, pro-social side and bring an end, once and for all, to research on captive nonhuman animals.