Bonobos and origin of morality

MORALITY is the glue which binds society together. Without each individual’s sense of fair play, empathy and abhorrence of unnecessary violence, we could never co-operate. But when and how did these propensities develop?

Two papers just published throw light on this intriguing subject. One concerns the behaviour of human babies, the other looks at the social interactions of chimpanzees.

The 17th century philosopher John Locke argued that the mind of the newborn is a ‘tabula rasa’, a blank slate.

All that we know, he thought, comes to us through the senses. Moral sentiments, like everything else, are acquired through learning and experience. Sigmund Freud went further; the new-born infant is a little psychopath driven by powerful selfish urges, which the parents teach it to control. In due course, conscience and a sense of obligation develop so that the child can function socially.

Yale professor Paul Bloom disagreed. In Just Babies, the Origins of Good and Evil, he argued morality is innate; we are born with a sense of right and wrong, hard- wired by natural selection into our genes. Shaoni Bhattacharya, writing in the New Scientist, discusses Bloom’s research. Three-month old babies, watching a puppet show, seem to distinguish between the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’; at any rate they spend more time looking at the hero than at the villain.

At six months, they will reach out to the victim and, when a year old, may even assault the ‘baddy’. This suggests babies possess an innate sense of justice.

The research, Bhattacharya points out, has its critics. An infant’s moral sense may be just a form of ‘parochialism’, a disposition towards ‘kindness to kin’. The sucking rates of three-day old babies, for example, are higher during a story read by the mother than when somebody else is the reader. A person from the child’s ethnic background is favoured over one from outside it; babies prefer the familiar. By age three, incidentally, there is no longer any ‘racist’ element in playmate choice.

Groups with a co-operative trait, goes the argument, would out-compete those lacking such a social disposition and genes promoting it would soon predominate in a population. Evolution, therefore, favoured the acquisition of moral traits. Blind unconscious natural selection, it seems, gave rise to our most noble propensities.

But, whatever their source, when did empathy and a primitive moral sense first appear? Did they develop within our own species or were they inherited from earlier hominid or pre-hominid ancestors? Did Lucy feel she should resist temptation three million years ago? Is decency even older? Rats, it’s claimed, show empathy.

People who control their emotions well tend to be more empathic and competent. Zanna Clay and Frans de Waal, writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, claim this is also true of bonobos.

The bonobo is one of the two species of chimpanzee. These ‘empathic apes’ are our closest relatives. They live in extended family groups with complex relationships between individuals. Studies of their social behaviour suggest they too have a ‘soft’ side. Clay and de Waal studied the behaviour of chimps at a forest sanctuary near Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The animals had varied backgrounds. Some had been raised by their mothers. Others were orphaned at an early age. The chimps seemed to support each other and manage their emotions much as children do.

Those from ‘normal’ family backgrounds formed friendships easily and showed most concern for others. Clearly, the mother-offspring bond is crucial in developing empathy and co-operative relationships among chimps, just as it is in humans.

Our line and that of modern chimps diverged around seven million years ago. A primitive form of ‘humanity’, it would seem, had evolved by then.

* Ah, What a Good Little Child. Shaoni Bhattacharya. New Scientist. Oct 26; Development of Socio-emotional Competence in Bonobos Zanna Clay and Frans de Waal. National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 2013


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