The evolutionary origins of morality

The evolutionary origins of morality

Primatologist Franks de Waal shares his knowledge of how moral behaviours have first started in primates.

The original TED talk

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?

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One thought on “The evolutionary origins of morality

  1. For my mind, this loss of empathy seems to be connected to the hemispheric structure of the brain here, where the left hemisphere of the brain overrides the right (which contains the most empathic ability). I find it fascinating that one side of the brain can override the other depending on what sort of function is needed (either left side absolutist with a contained self-correct world view versus the much more open right brain).

    Of course, this is much more of a scientific-based analysis of it, the causes for *why* the left brain might be becoming more prominent is probably a more interesting thing to look into as we know the genetic components give us the ability to empathise, but the social conditions of this modern life seem to be pushing us against that in various aspects, especially the monolithic nature of life.

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