Capuchin monkeys sharing
(image by Wikipedia)
The first part of a two part Interview conducted September 11, 2013
Link to audio podcast.
Transcript checked by Dick Overfield.
R.K.: Welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show WNJc1360 AM out of Washington Township New Jersey reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey. Sponsored by Opednews.com. My guest tonight is Frans de Waal, he's a Dutch-American biologist who has been named among Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People," He is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior in the Emory University psychology department in Atlanta, Georgia, he is the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and is the author of numerous books including Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape. His latest, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. His research centers on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequity aversion, and food-sharing. Welcome to the show.
F.W.: I'm happy to be there.
R.K.: You've been working for almost forty years with primates. What is the number one thing you have learned in working with them?
F.W.: Well, I have always focused on social behavior and I've always been impressed by how intensely social they are. Of course, when I started primates were usually depicted like all animals, as competitive and aggressive and only selfish, and so on. This whole view of nature as a competitive place, a dog-eat-dog world and the main thing that I've learned is, yes, there is plenty of competition, there's no denying that, but there's also plenty of cooperation and actually primates live in groups, in large groups sometimes, for cooperative reasons. Otherwise they would be living alone, of course.
R.K.: Okay. Now your new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, brings in a constant that you have been writing about in the New York Times, in the scientific journals, this idea of a bottom-up roots, or approach to morality. Can you talk a bit about that starting with definitions of top-down versus bottom-up per your ideas?
F.W.: Well, the top-down view of morality is of course the dominant view is that some people believe morality comes from God and that God told us how to behave and others, after God's word became less popular during The Enlightenment, the philosopher's told us, well, maybe it doesn't come from God, it comes from reasoning and logic. We reason ourselves to moral principles and then we apply them in society and so that's the top-down view which is extremely popular still in many people.
But of course the bottom-up view is exactly the opposite. It's that you have moral tendencies in you and that you're born with them and actually we have evidence that young children, even one year old children, you can show them a puppet show with good guys and bad guys and they have already preferences for one, or the other and so moral judgments actually don't necessarily require a God, or a philosopher for that matter. My studies are on primate behavior and many of the tendencies that you see in young children you can also see in other primates such as the tendency to help others, to be empathic to others, to be sensitive to fairness, to have a tendency to cooperate with others and to maintain good relationships.
All of these tendencies are part of our usual moral systems and so all of these things can be acquired by our species without God and without philosophers and that's the bottom-up view and that's now also supported by some psychology experiments, by some neuroscience experiments, and so the bottom-up view is basically that morality comes from within. That doesn't mean that religion has no role, or that doesn't mean the philosophers have no role in all of this, but it means that the tendencies are already there and we can modify them through religion and so on, but that's only marginal in a way.
R.K.: And you mention in 2010 in a New York Times oped that, Reverend Al Sharpton opined that "If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there's nothing in charge." And you have a very different approach to that. You actually said that you are wary of any one whose belief system is the only thing standing between them an repulsive behavior. Could you explain that?
F.W.: If someone says that he, or she is moral because of their beliefs and that's all there is, well, you say I follow the Ten Commandments, or whatever you're going to tell me; I am not very happy with that kind of people. They are only moral because they think that God needs to approve of their actions, or will disapprove of their actions and that's not really an inherently moral person. That's a person who is only worried about what God thinks about what he does and, well, that's an issue that goes back to Dostoevsky where he wrote about that. Some people they say, if there's no God there is no morality, but that's a very pessimistic view and in my view, our current religions are only two, or three thousand years old, for the biologist that's really nothing.
Our species is much older and you're not going to tell me that a hundred thousand years ago a human society would not have a sense of fairness, or would not have empathy for the sick and the old and would not have some sort of cooperative system, or punish those behave badly.
Of course those societies, they had some sort of moral system going already, long before our religions came a long and so to think that everything started with our current God, who was invented like two, or three thousand years ago, that's just silly.