Biological Reasons For Being Cheerful

Raymond Tallis puts an instinctive smile on your face.

A few months ago I received a somewhat intimidating but irresistible invitation. I was asked to open the discussion of a public lecture at the Wellcome Institute in London by Frans de Waal. Professor de Waal’s name may be familiar to you not only for his superb studies of chimpanzees, but also for a series of very readable books, beginning with Chimp Politics, in which he argues that the social behaviour of our nearest kin is more complex, and perhaps more like ours, than we usually imagine. His talk at the Wellcome was based on his latest book, Prosocial Primates: Empathy in Animals and Humans.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to debate with one of the world’s most eminent primatologists. Given that the only primates of which I have had any firsthand experience are instances of H. sapiens, my acceptance was more than somewhat bold of me. And some of the audience must have thought I had a death wish when I challenged the way Professor de Waal framed his argument: in particular his strategy of thinking about human nature on the basis of what we know of animal nature. De Waal argued that, contrary to what many biologically-inclined anthropologists and psychologists had claimed, Darwinism does not require us to believe that we humans are born nasty as a result of being vehicles for our ‘selfish genes’. This reading of Darwin is, De Waal said, bad biology. Darwinism allows for cooperative behaviour between individuals of the same species. The survival of the fittest does not require the destruction of the less fit by their conspecifics.

This becomes clear if we take on board the idea of ‘inclusive fitness’ particularly associated with the evolutionary biologist Bill Hamilton. Hamilton argued that selection takes place at the level of the group: genetic material maximizes its chances of surviving by making the group care for itself, not the individual. So to make sense of animal behaviour, we have to take account not only of an organism’s classical fitness (how many of its own offspring it produces and supports), but also of the number of equivalents of its offspring it can add to the population by supporting others. That is why laying down your life for your friend makes evolutionary sense, particularly if your friend is genetical kin, as JBS Haldane pointed out. Two full brothers or 8 half-brothers would satisfy a selfish gene. In other words, there is nothing unDarwinian about altruism.

It is bad biology, therefore, to believe that that we are destined to be shits; and that belief may have serious adverse consequences, as Professor de Waal pointed out. The supposedly Darwinian defence of unfettered market forces, of Wall Street ‘greed is good’ turbo-capitalism, is a case in point. A quote from a column by David Brooks of the New York Times neatly encapsulates what worried de Waal: “From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it is clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest.” And so I shared de Waal’s concern that bad biology was being used to justify bad behaviour.

So much for our agreement. After this, however, we parted company. There are, it seems to me, two ways forward from bad biology as a guide to what we are, and indeed, to what we might become. One is good biology. The other is to question the relevance of biology at all. Professor de Waal chose the former path; and I, notwithstanding that I am an atheist humanist, prefer the latter. I want here to set out some reasons why, although I agreed with Professor de Waal’s conclusion that we are not destined to be nasty, I don’t agree with the way he arrived at it.

The Human Animal

Let me add a little flesh to the bare bones of De Waal’s argument. Empathy, he claimed, is an ancient trait; possibly as old as maternal care itself. Primates have many mechanisms to defuse tension, resolve conflicts and heal the social wounds caused by them. They are not endlessly engaged in ape-eat-ape activities. Since we too are primates, we may be reassured that empathy and pro-social behaviour are also deeply rooted in us. So because it has such ancient origins, ethical behaviour is not fragile: civilisation is not ‘a thin veneer’. We may be beasts, but this does not require us to be beastly, De Waal argued.

What could I possibly object to in this argument? Well, I had not one but three kinds of problems. They relate, firstly, to the hazards of reading across from animals, even other primates, to humans; secondly, to the variability of the animal record – you have to pick the right ancestors to be comforted by the thought that ancientness of traits makes them stick fast in us; and thirdly, there is the variability of the human record.

First, the hazards of read-across from beasts to us. There are so many profound differences between animal and human behaviour that it is anthropomorphising to speak of animals behaving ‘ethically’. What counts as ethical behaviour in humans is judged against explicit, argued-over, defended, transgressed ‘norms’ that emerged as a result of various historical forces, including reference to history itself. By contrast, beasts may not be gormless, but are certainly normless. What’s more, the feelings that shape ethical behaviour in humans are evidently different from those that prompt quasi-ethical behaviour in animals. Our actions, unlike those of beasts, are not typically impulsive. For examples, I may feel obliged to keep a promise that I made ten hours, ten days, or ten years ago; or I may carry out an action that has an overall goal of improving someone else’s life in rather abstractly-conceived ways. This is connected with a further point: that the ethical constraints on our behaviour are mediated through our personal history and psychology, determining our take on norms and principles, as well as through the collective forces mediated via the groups with which we identify, and, more broadly, via the expectations that are normal in our culture.

De Waal spoke a lot about empathy, which he argued was well developed in non-human primates. Yet can we apply this concept to animals without changing its very nature? The nearest that animals come to experiencing empathy is better described as emotional contagion, and is typified by terror spreading through a herd like fire. This has very little ethical content, and is profoundly different from cognitive empathy based upon an elaborated sense of the other person. Imagining what it is like to be another, or mobilising the Golden Rule to do unto others as you wish others to do unto you, does not seem to me to be very prevalent in beasts. Indeed, I would require considerable persuading to believe that cognitive empathy is found in other animals at all. At any rate, putatively ethical behaviour in chimps has little to do with acting on the basis of general principles, frequently teased out in an inner or shared narrative, itself driven by a sense of others’ inner reality – which is what shapes human goodness and badness.

Nasty And Brutish?

So much for the perils of reading across from beasts to us. What about the animal record? To put it mildly, this is not uniformly reassuring. You have to pick your beasts with care. So when de Waal said that he was encouraged by “empathy’s evolutionary antiquity, because that makes it a robust trait that will develop in virtually every human being, so society can count on it and try to foster and grow it,” (italics mine), we have to ask one or two questions. Why should we assume that a more ancient trait will have a firmer hold on us than a more recent one? And even if this is the case, why does it have to be so ancient? Isn’t 200,000 years of emotionally modern humanity enough?

More worryingly, de Waal assumed that the balance of ancient traits would be in favour of nice ones. This is not necessarily so: you have to cherry-pick among your biological ancestors to believe it. This requires focussing disproportionately on little arias of saintly behaviour that have only a small role in the collective biography of even the kindest organism, and downplaying the less pleasant bits of all the rest. If you want to find human traits that have a very ancient and more widespread lineage, then unpleasant ones such fighting, killing, raping, and grabbing all you can get are more likely to spring to mind than the milk of animal kindness. Most animal behaviour is (entre nous) an absolute disgrace. The assumptions that a) we are animals, but that b) we need not be beastly because some beasts are not beastly – or not beastly all the time – does not justify replacing the frightening false belief that we cannot help being bad with the slightly depressing belief that we cannot help being good.

There is a third problem in looking to biology for a secure basis for human goodness: the huge variation in the human ethical record. Notwithstanding the constancy of our biological roots, ethical standards vary from culture to culture, epoch to epoch, human target to human target, and circumstance to circumstance. This is true even within a single individual. Or am I the only person who has wildly fluctuating levels of empathy, and is fortunately kept on the fairly straight and fairly narrow by the social structures within which I operate?

No Comparison

Biologically-based reassurance depends upon reading across from beasts that are assumed to be ethically homogenous (which they are not) to human beings which are assumed to be ethically homogeneous (which they are not). So while I agreed with de Waal that we are not biologically pre-programmed to be nasty to each other, I didn’t buy his idea that we are preprogrammed, or at least predisposed, to be kind, either. We cannot draw conclusions about ourselves from our nearest primate kin, who are preprogrammed. Between us and them is the huge distance opened up by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years of cultural development, in which the direct influence of biology on behaviour has become attenuated, and our choice of ways to behave has become ever more subject to local non-biological influence – most locally something called ‘conscience’ – that little voice which tells you that someone, who may be yourself or a CCTV, is watching.

In short, the appeal to the biological record is equally in error whether it is used to support the claim that greed is good for us or that we are destined to care for one another. More broadly, the stories we tell about animals make a poor mirror in which to see ourselves. For the record, however, Professor de Waal was one of the most stimulating, generous and courteous interlocutors, one of the least beastly people, it has been my privilege to meet.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2011

Raymond Tallis’s latest book Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence (Atlantic) is out in paperback this month, and Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Mankind (Acumen) is published this Spring.


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