Chimps show roots of morality, justice Zoologist to present findings to scientists gathered in Baltimore

February 09, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

As humans, we like to think that our sense of morality and our systems of justice are part of what makes us different from the animals in the jungle, where success goes to the big and the mean.

But scientists like Frans de Waal have begun to shake up that presumption. Chimpanzees, says Dr. de Waal, have their own social rules for sharing food, resolving conflicts and exacting justice.

The Dutch-born zoologist, speaking yesterday in Baltimore at the 1996 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that with chimps, the fight for survival has evolved into a complex and successful system that expects cooperation and mutual assistance. And those behaviors -- both in-born and learned -- may reveal the foundations of human morality and justice.

"I'm not saying that animals have morality," he said. But chimps do exhibit sympathy, empathy, conflict resolution and reciprocity.

These are "more than parallels" to human behavior, he said. The human counterparts are "an evolution from this kind of primate behavior."

Dr. de Waal was scheduled to speak on the topic today at a AAAS session titled "The Sense of Justice: Evolutionary Origins of Moral and Legal Behavior."

Formerly with the Wisconsin Primate Center in Madison, Wis., he has been since 1991 a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, and a research scientist at Emory's Yerkes Regional Primate Center.

He is also the author of a new book on the subject, called "Good Natured," (Harvard University Press) which explores the biological foundations of morality.

"All human societies have some system for improving the quality of human life, to shape society in a way that makes it maybe more worthwhile to live in," Dr. de Waal said in an interview yesterday.

One component of these systems of morality is the idea of sharing and reciprocity. Hunting societies typically enforce the notion of sharing because the success of the hunt is unpredictable.

Without sharing, some members of the group would have no food in times of scarcity, and food would be wasted in times of plenty. With it, everyone has "a reasonable expectation of some food."

Those who refuse to share their catch can expect to get less, or none, from someone else's catch. That would be considered just.

Chimps -- regarded as man's closest genetic relative -- exhibit similar behavior. "If you approach a group of chimps with a bucket of food," Dr. de Waal said, "they will kiss and embrace and celebrate. There is a lot of physical contact. Then they share the food."

That's not true of all primates. Rhesus monkeys, he said, will compete for the food.

The Rhesus monkeys, if they could, might look at the chimps' behavior and see it as "incomprehensible."

But if a group of people behaved like the rhesus monkeys, "we would not call that a moral community We are biased. We would look at the chimpanzees and we would say their system seems fairer and more just than one based on rank order," Dr. de Waal said.

Chimps will also move to console a victim of aggression, suggesting a sense of empathy. They also try to resolve conflicts.

When males clash with other males over power, when females fight in defense of their offspring, or when other individuals fight over food, they often will try to patch up the relationship, often with kissing, embracing and grooming.

They don't reconcile because they want to be peaceful, however, Dr. de Waal said. "It's based on the value of the relationship." Two dominant males may want to patch things up, for example, in order to preserve a coalition that is useful in other matters.

These behaviors are, in part, learned, he said. A baby chimp's first instinct is to not share food. Groups won't share food with unfamiliar chimps until the strangers' own willingness to share has been demonstrated.

All these mechanisms are very complex, Dr. de Waal said. Their expression within a species, and across closely related species clearly suggests a genetic component that has evolved because it has been successful.

Some studies have suggested that "moralistic aggression" -- the anger and retaliatory thoughts toward those who don't return favors -- are regulated by the central nervous system.

Dr. Michael T. McGuire, a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles also scheduled to speak at today's session, has suggested that neurotransmitters like serotonin play a major role in regulating such behaviors.

The instincts for positive social behavior often conflict with competitive instincts. But "the fact that we can overcome these [competitive] impulses is very important," Dr. de Waal said.

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