Studies Reveal that Bonobos Are Moral (More Moral than Humans?)

After hearing Frans de Waal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist, waxing scientific about animals and morality on NPR’s Science Friday a little bit ago, I was struck by a couple things, and one huge thing in particular. That huge thing was that a scientist who was making this compelling case for non-humans displaying empathy, fairness, and the respect of boundaries, i.e. morality, was, at the same time, touting information learned by subjecting primates, in this case bonobos and chimps (but also birds, he said) to a kind of quietly pernicious, long-term sociological experiment.

Here’s a beautiful argument about how morality comes from within (a nice summation of Nietzsche, actually), and about how religion doesn’t give us morality but rather just the opposite: religion is the mechanism by which humans enforce and expand their existing morality, which is honed by experience in the material world, to larger and larger populations. And yet, the person making that case has also presumably been keeping other animals in captivity or at least tracking and observing them with intrusion, forcing them into situations (literally making them jump through hoops?), and surveilling them constantly—all for the sake of data gathering, which I’m beginning to think always has, is, and always will be a mechanism of control, albeit often a subtle one. I admit that this control could be helpful to humans, mind you, but control is still the objective. Here are my earlier thoughts on this.

Anyway, study after study comes out and tells us what should’ve been obvious: other animals have empathy, live in meaningful communities, and have a range of complex emotions. That these animals needed to be detained, simply to enter their record into the vast, growing encyclopedia—a kind of domesday book of science—tells me that not only do they exhibit signs that they understand morality, but that they do so with much more success than the humans studying them. And honestly, at this point, can’t we file headlines like “humans aren’t the only moral animals” under “N” for “No shit”?

Here’s NPR’s review, and you can look for the interview on Science Friday once it’s up.

Some of the minor things I mentioned earlier were that Frans de Waal doesn’t think science can answer the important questions, but surely he must feel like his research is supposed to offer us some kind of life lesson, or else change the way we treat other animals. Otherwise, his research is even more sadistic than I just described it. Also, he holds the very unhelpful view that “science is neither evil nor good on its own,” which seems to conflate the scientific method with a broad category we can call technology, and of course he trots out Hitler as the posterboy for science gone wrong.

“Hitler’s view of race was based entirely on science,” he says. I guess we should gloss over the deep, solid foundation of racism and anti-semitism that was built, ideological brick by ideological brick, by the Church in Germany, starting essentially with Charlemagne? Or should we overlook the cult of Germanic myth that proved such a fertile ground for fervor and frenzy? Or Rome itself, of which Hitler considered the Reich to be the lone inheritor? Surely the Nazis used science to develop harmful technology, but were not the Americans doing the same? If science caused the second World War, then should we add that it also ended it? The Nazis were many things, but the last word I would use to describe them would be “rational.” That’s all I’ll say about Nazis for fear of treading over into reductio ad Hitlerum territory.


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