Our morality is rooted in evolution


MONKEYS and apes have a sense of morality and the rudimentary ability to tell right from wrong, according to new research.

In a series of studies scientists have found that monkeys and apes can make judgments about fairness, offer altruistic help and empathise when a fellow animal is ill or in difficulties. They even appear to have consciences and the ability to remember obligations.

The research implies that morality is not a uniquely human quality and suggests it arose through evolution. That could mean the strength of our consciences is partly determined by our genes.

This isn’t exactly news, though I suppose the studies are recent. As expected, they go to confirm that “evolution could not have evolved” is a patently stupid statement made without basis. It’s a favorite of creationists and is just a variation on the God of the Gaps argument – “It’s soooo complicated! I can’t explain it and I’ve insolated myself from all forms of science because it is SATAN so I don’t know about any evidence, so it couldn’t have evolved! It just couldn’t have! LA LA LA LA!”

Anyway, off the creationists and on the science:

The animals were asked to perform a set of simple tasks and then rewarded with food or affection. The rewards were varied, seemingly at random. De Waal found the animals had an acute sense of fairness and objected strongly when others were rewarded more than themselves for the same task, often sulking and refusing to take part any further.

Another study looked at altruism in chimps – and found they were often willing to help others even when there was no obvious reward. “Chimpanzees spontaneously help both humans and each other in carefully controlled tests,” said de Waal.

Other researchers, said de Waal, have found the same qualities in capuchin monkeys, which also show “spontaneous prosocial tendencies”, meaning they are keen to share food and other gifts with other monkeys, for the pleasure of giving.

“Everything else being equal, they prefer to reward a companion together with themselves rather than just themselves,” he said. “The research suggests that giving is self-rewarding for monkeys.”