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Darwin, morals, altruism, violence and chimpanzees – An essay by Daniel Beaton

At the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth Daniel Beaton discusses ...

Keeping up Relations - By Daniel Beaton                                                            Comment on this essay by clicking here.

In the beginning
Between 5 and 8 million years ago, somewhere within the African continent lived an animal that was an ancestor to both modern humans and the chimpanzee, or rather chimpanzees - as we must not forget the bonobo.

This great ancestor had, like most of her kind, some offspring. But something significant happened to separate her progeny from one another. These siblings then parted ways, taking their first steps on two very different evolutionary paths (although to complicate this story further recent genetic profiling suggests their paths may have at some later point crossed again before finally separating for good). Some millions of years later, many of those on our side of the split, it seems, left Africa eventually becoming geographically sundered from their closest animal relatives.

Parting ways
Many years on and this roving bipedal ape with an exceptionally heavy head developed the ability to form complex ideas and share them through complex arrangements of sounds. With the mastery of language came not only remarkable achievements but also a breath taking arrogance. The ability of the human animal to deceive itself about its own place in nature meant our separation from our nearest primate relatives was, for those out of Africa at least, no longer just a geographical affair but an intellectual one.

Religion and civilisation erected a mighty pedestal for humans to rest upon, but no amount of myth and rhetoric could keep natures ‘dirty' secret hidden forever. As the adage goes: "you can fool some people some of the time, but not all people all of the time", and by the 19th century not everyone had the wool so tightly pulled over their eyes. Exposure to chimps and other great apes, whether through traveller's tales or visits to early menageries, must have encouraged some of the first serious kinds of questioning.

Even a child encountering a chimpanzee on a visit to London Zoo must surely have puzzled over its striking physical similarities to man. Persons older, wiser, and more scientifically inclined, must also have mused over these similarities. But ‘similarities', whether, mental or physical, without a wider body of evidence, and a theory to tie it all together, would remain just that.

Natural selection
It took Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and a spokesman brave enough to face the ridicule of the establishment in order that the case for common descent be made public. Thomas Huxley, Darwin's spokesmen, thought much of the physical likeness of the great apes, but in making his case for common ancestry he also drew on a wide range of evidence. His 1860 debate with Samuel Wilberforce was Darwinism's debutante ball - a significant turning point not only for evolution but also human-ape relations.

Genetic confirmation
Evidence has continued to amass since those early days of evolutionary theory. Recent discoveries in the field of genetics make Darwin's initial evidence seem in comparison rather paltry. Darwin may have said that: ‘Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin". But the stamp wasn't just in his bodily frame, it was in his hair, it was in his nails, in his blood, and it was written more elegantly and precisely than Darwin could ever imagine.

When the science of mitochondria DNA sequencing arrived on the scene in the 1970s it would confirm the predictions of Darwin in an astonishing ways. Whilst genetic analysis cannot confirm natural selection as the mechanism that underpins biological change it does vindicate Darwin's picture of the branching tree of life: showing how even the most complex forms are related to ancient and more basic forms. We even came to know on publication of the genome of the common chimpanzee the exact point where our ancestral chromosomes fused to produce the human chromosome, explaining why humans have two fewer chromosomes than the other great apes.

Scepticism over common ancestory
Much of man's origin remains mysterious. The story I provided at the beginning is only a crude and vague caricature of what may have occurred. Progress is being made, but where science cannot presently reach - superstition overflows. There is a refusal on many quarters to acknowledge the chimpanzees as any kind of relative to man, no matter how distant. Consider the common creationist tack of trying to belittle evolutionist by suggesting they believe their grandparents to be monkeys, or apes. Mike Huckabee's statement in a 2007 Republican Presidential Debate being exemplary:

You know, if anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it.'

We all know that Huckabee should have, and probably meant to say a non-human primate, but in saying ‘they are welcome to it' he is of course being ironic, he thinks the idea of common descent to be absurd. But what does this type of statement say about their view of these animals? It carries an insinuation of shame, an insinuation that those who labour in the protection of these animals should be mindful of. Would the insult have the same derogatory force if it were claimed we descended from eagles or lions, or any other animals that humans deem majestic and noble? I don't think so. It implies that the great apes and primates in general are foul, stupid, and brutish animals.

This is a truly archaic image of intelligent sociable animals and belongs more in a circus then a serious discussion. But the need to see man as separate from chimpanzees, other primates, and ultimately nature in general goes much deeper than the occasional political gibe and as long as it endures has serious implications regarding how we treat these animals. If we become ‘separatist' and look on the great apes as just another part of creation - a part that falls under man's dominion - then their prospects do not seem bright. Expanding the circle of our moral concern to encompass non-human sentient life begins with our nearest kin and if this hurdle cannot be cleared things seem pretty hopeless thereon out.

Maintaining the gulf
Genetics alone provides a pretty compelling case in linking us to these animals. Whatever the exact level of genetic similarity with regard to the common chimpanzee, its astoundingly high degree (90% being the most conservative estimate) seems a constant reminder of what we share with these animals. How then is the gulf between humans maintained in the minds of those who find ‘a relative in the chimp' such a deep source of embarrassment? Well it begins with a reasonable point: and that is that no matter what genetic similarities have been discovered, it remains the case that the smallest level of genetic variation can, and clearly does, mean all the difference in terms of the finished product.

Even 1.5 % difference in genetic coding has given the human animal the distinctive brain, larynx, and vocal chord necessary to cultivate language, not to mention the two legged stance that was a very probable precondition of our forays into the world of complex tools and technology. These sorts of differences have allowed us to conquer the globe and even venture into space. But those who truly reject the idea of a shared primate ancestor claim that what distinguishes humans is our spiritual essence, our freewill, our sense of right and wrong. One creationist website even cites an advocate of evolution - Professor Steve Jones of University College London to make their point, claiming that he observes,

"DNA is beside the point. ... Chimps may resemble Homo sapiens in a tedious and literal sense, but in everything that makes us what we are H. sapiens is unique 'Rights - and responsibilities - are exclusively human attributes."

The contention then is that regardless of genetic similarity, there is enough behavioural dissimilarity to view man as special, as discontinuous, as above and beyond nature. Pointing to man's distinct behaviour and attitudes, doesn't, in itself rule out common descent (unique things spring up all the time as a result of evolution) but it is for many people the starting point of their doubts. Man's behavioural uniqueness (especially moral) is for them the invitation to super-naturalism, an invitation to think man could not have a similar origin to those animals around him that display such different, such amoral, behaviour.

Bridging the gap
Thanks however to years of study in the sciences of animal behaviour (particularly primatology) we now have strong reason to doubt whether such a sharp distinction between man and nature in this area can be reasonably maintained. We have been back in contact with chimpanzee for quite some time. Jane Goodall's study of the common chimpanzee in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania began in the 60s and the research she spearheaded continues to this day. Goodall may have controversially given the chimps she was studying names, but it is much harder to accuse her of contriving their personalities.

The rudiments of moral behaviour in chimps
Along with uncovering individual, distinctive, human-like personalities, Goodall also documented the use and modification of basic tools. But most importantly continued study of apes, particularly the two species of chimpanzees, has also shown them to display the rudiments of what we would call moral behaviour. The work of Dutch Primatologist Frans de Waal has documented in chimpanzees the presence of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, and reconciliation. These are foundational aspects of morality, remove them from a person and you are left with some form of sociopathy.

Humans are obviously not alone in displaying altruistic behaviour, but humans are often said to be unique in displaying altruism that doesn't tend toward kin selection. Yet many animals - who live in complex social groups - have been observed to engage in considerable acts of self-sacrifice even when the beneficiary isn't related. These sorts of findings are becoming more common in studies of great apes, especially chimps. For instance Felix Warneken and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have carried out studies suggesting a significant degree of non-kin-specific and non-reward based altruism in chimps.

But controlled scientific research is only half the picture; anecdotal evidence based on observation of common chimps and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) in dynamic situations often leads to the most unusual examples of other-regarding behaviour. A female bonobo at Twycross Zoo even seemed to show some understanding of what was in another animal's interest when it attempted to help a bird that had fallen injured in to its enclosure. The chimp was observed to take the bird to the top of the tree, spread its wings, and then throw it into the air.

This doesn't mean that these animals live moral lives or could even hope to. Reason is the crucial ingredient they surely lack. Most moral philosophers suggest that impartiality and the ability to universalise judgement is (at the very least) partly constitutive of morality. Our ability to make judgement regarding how things should be, how we ought to act, is parasitic on our abstract thinking abilities. Non-human animals, even chimps, despite showing some leanings toward a sense of fairness, are simply lacking in this respect (but so, must we remember, are some humans who higher cognitive faculties have been impaired). Acknowledgement of all this needn't point to an entire discontinuity, as Darwin pre-emptively suggests:

'Any animal whatever, endowed with well marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual power had become as well developed, or nearby as well developed, as in man' Darwin, 1871. The descent of man and selection in relation to sex.

Reason may be what is missing in non-human animals, but we shouldn't ourselves be too quick to over-emphasise the role of reason in the moral decisions we actually make. A considerable amount of psychological investigation is showing that most of our moral decision making occurs at the level of emotions. So though we may diagnose ourselves as agents of reason, in reality we are more often than not being guided by the same forces that shape the fates of animals - our feelings.

The rudiments of bad behaviour
Which brings us to a final point of discontinuity relating to man's ‘moral essence' that I would like to discuss - man's purported freewill. I do not want to suggest that the common chimp or any non human primate has freewill but I think much of what has been observed in chimpanzees casts some very dark shadows on how we should view our own freedoms. Goodall's work in Gombe stream was initially seen to expose the sociable and kindly side of chimpanzees. Sure, there were a few domineering characters amongst the Kikale community, but on the whole chimpanzee life, by first estimations, seemed a far cry from the conflict and war riddled human condition.

Common ancestor or foul, stupid, and brutish animal?

Common ancestor or foul, stupid, and brutish animal?

Goodall's work, like Dian Fossey's with Mountain Gorillas, did a great deal to bring the image of the peaceful ape to the public's mind. This image curiously however in some way distanced them from humans. This is because the image simultaneously presented a picture of man alone in his misbehaviour. Looking at man as the sole ape who attacks and bloodies his neighbours may not seem very flattering, but it does in some way vindicate the idea of us as special within creation. This is because violence can be seen as the product of something that is actually valuable - and that is free choice. Freewill, it is said, requires the possibility to do wrong - sometimes great wrong. The image of the innocent ape stood to ratify the image of the free but fallen man.

But soon it became apparent that not even man was special in this respect. Goodall's research group first witnessed something comparable to gang violence when a chimp named Godi was viciously attacked in 1974, he belonged to a subgroup whose territory overlapped the main study group. The attack was vicious, costing Godi his life. The attack was also unprovoked and his assailants had it seems purposively ventured into a territory not their own, in search of a fight. The incident might well have been written-off as an anomaly, caused perhaps by the researcher's offering bananas to the chimps, but with time it has become clear that this was no freak event. Serious aggression in the common chimp has been documented in varying research conditions, in varying locations, and by the end of the 1970s the subgroup that Godi belonged to had been absorbed, its males vanquished, its females appropriated, its territories annexed. With time, instances of sexual violence also emerged, including rape.

These findings seem to show that no matter how situational, how varied, and how culturally influenced violence in the common chimpanzee is, it is nonetheless every much as part of their life as it is our own. This then outlines just one more continuity with humans. When we also bare in mind the comparative research on violence in humans and chimps shows some rather uncanny parallels (with regard to levels of aggression leading to mortality) we might also question just how much of human bad behaviour really is the result of free moral agency? We are more than willing to allow that a chimpanzee is driven by his nature to do base deeds, why not in our own?

To say all this, is not to deny humans their unique qualities it is just to say that there is nothing in man's behaviour so sharply discontinuous from the rest of nature as to warrant belief in a separate act of creation. Many animals share in what we believe to define us morally and this is most apparent in those closets to us such as the chimpanzee and bonobo. We should find no shame in this relation, and hopefully by seeing much of them in us, and much of us in them, we can begin to display a little of that empathy and sympathy that was once thought so distinctly human.

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