Primatologist Franks de Waal shares his knowledge of how moral behaviours have first started in primates.
The pillars of morality, for de Waal, are reciprocity, which is based on the principle and need for fairness, and empathy, based on our capacity and need for compassion. Primate studies have shown that empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity, the building blocks of caring about each other’s well-being, can be found in the animal kingdom.
Experiments have shown that chimps will cooperate in tasks where it’s their peers who are bound to benefit and they do so as there’s an underlying principle of reciprocity. Next time the cooperating party requires help himself he can draw on others. Even elephants exhibit cooperative behaviour!
Empathy is perhaps even more interesting. It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. The oldest roots of empathy are in synchronization, such as yawning contagion. Chimps exhibit consolation and also social sharing when they don’t directly stand to benefit. Capuchins have also been shown to exhibit fairness by rejecting ‘unequal pay’ in experiments. Dogs and birds have also done so.
Anthropologists, economists, sociologists and many others may be tempted to draw far-reaching conclusions (feel free to mention some of those in your comments below if you like!) but the most definite point here is that we aren’t the first species to have a sense of morality and show empaty and caring. It may be a more complex question going into ‘evolved morality’ or social morality, why some humans have lost this ability or have subordained it to other, ‘higher’, more selfish aims?