Apes know right from wrong

February 15, 2009
Article from:  Times Online

MONKEYS and apes have a sense of morality and the 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.

Such findings are likely to antagonise fundamentalist religious groups. Some 
believe the ability to form moral judgments is a God-given quality that sets 
humans apart.

The scientists say, however, that the evidence is clear. "I am not arguing that 
non-human primates are moral beings but there is enough evidence for the 
following of social rules to agree that some of the stepping stones towards 
human morality can be found in other animals," said Frans de Waal, professor of 
psychology at Emory University in Georgia in the United States.

In papers at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement 
of Science (AAAS) this weekend de Waal described experiments on monkeys and 
apes to see if they understood the idea of fairness.

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 

"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."
Related research found primates can remember individuals who have done them a 
favour and will make an effort to repay them, even after not seeing them for 
some time.

De Waal, who has written a book called Primates and Philosophers, said morality 
appeared to have evolved in the same way as organs such as the eye and the 
heart, through natural selection.

The debate over whether animals can tell right from wrong and make moral 
choices dates back to Charles Darwin, originator of the theory of evolution.

He suggested that when sexual reproduction first evolved it forced animals to 
develop codes of behaviour that became built into their genes. In humans these 
instincts eventually developed into a sense of right and wrong. This fitted 
with his view that humans were indeed derived from animals - a view fiercely 
opposed by the church at the time.

The big question now is why, alone among the primates, humans have developed 
morality to such a high level. It implies that humans were once subjected to 
some kind of powerful evolutionary pressure to develop a conscience.

Some researchers believe we could owe our consciences to climate change and, in 
particular, to a period of intense global warming between 50,000 and 800,000 
years ago. The proto-humans living in the forests had to adapt to living on 
hostile open plains, where they would have been easy prey for formidable 
predators such as big cats.

This would have forced them to co-operate and devise rules for hunting in 
groups and sharing food.

Christopher Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center, part of the 
University of Southern California's anthropology department, believes such 
humans devised codes to stop bigger, stronger males hogging all the food.

"To ensure fair meat distribution, hunting bands had to gang up physically 
against alpha males," he said.

In research released at the AAAS he argued that under such a system those who 
broke the rules would have been killed and their "amoral" genes lost to 
posterity. By contrast, those who abided by the rules would have flourished and 
had many more children.

Other studies have confirmed that the strength of a person's conscience depends 
partly on their genes. Several researchers have shown, for example, that the 
children of habitual criminals will often become criminals too - even when they 
have had no contact with their biological parents.

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