Frans de Waal and Moral Mysticism

Go to the website of any of the major booksellers and do a search with the keywords “evolution” and “morality” and you will find an avalanche of books about the biological origins of morality. Acceptance of the connection between these two words implies the slaughter of any number of ideological sacred cows, not the least of which was Communism, but these books generally mention the bitter, decades-long battle the ideologues waged against that acceptance only in passing, if at all. In fact, the connection between evolution and morality has always obvious to anyone with an open mind since at least the days of Darwin, but, of course, such people are rare, especially in academia. In the end, thanks in large measure to advanced neurological imaging and a host of other emerging assistive tools, the weight of evidence finally buried the ideologues.

They may have been buried, but they didn’t go away. The context has certainly changed, but the ideological struggle continues. Read any of the books mentioned above and you are sure to find some trace of it. An interesting example for those whose tastes don’t run to long tomes is a brief work by Frans de Waal entitled, “Primates and Philosophers.” De Waal is a professor at Emory specializing in the field of animal behavior. In Part I of his book he takes issue with “veneer theory,” something of a straw man whose proponents supposedly believe that humans are consciously competitive and selfish creatures, with morality merely a “a thin crust underneath of which boil antisocial, amoral, and egoistic passions.” Part II consists of critical comments supplied by Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer, academics specializing in the area of evolutionary psychology, philosophy, and bioethics. Wright is author of the recent bestseller, “The Evolution of God.” The final section of the book consists of De Waal’s response.

As we learn in an introduction to the book written by Josiah Ober and Stephen Macedo, de Waal and his commenters all “accept the standard scientific account of biological evolution as based on random natural selection,” and “None suggests that there is any reason to suppose that humans are different in their metaphysical essence from other animals, or at least, none base their arguments on the idea that humans uniquely possess a transcendent soul.” However, immediately following these caveats, we are also informed that “A second important premise that is shared by de Waal and all four of his commentators is that moral goodness is something real, about which it is possible to make truth claims… The two basic premises of evolutionary science and moral reality establish the boundaries of the debate over the origins of goodness as it is set forth in this book.”

I actually find it stunning that comments like that could appear in a book by a bevy of perfectly respectable professors as if it were a commonplace, not even worthy of further discussion. One recalls the comment by E.O. Wilson in his book, “Consilience,” that if these people really believe that “moral goodness is something real,” they should “lay their cards on the table” and explain why. I find myself reaching for the works of John Stuart Mill to reassure myself that, even though, like the rest of us, he experienced morality as a transcendental reality, he, too, grasped the irrationality of genuinely believing in that reality. Let me lay my cards on the table. Moral goodness is not something real. The idea that it is real is irrational and basically absurd.

If it is real, pray tell, what is the nature of its existence? Anything that is real in itself cannot depend on human minds for its existence. In what sense, then, would morality exist in a lifeless universe? It would, of course, cease to exist, because it is, in fact, a subjective construct of the human brain. There is no rational justification for morality as a real thing.

I know, I am wasting my breath here. After all, how likely is it that people who have spent their whole lives laboriously absorbing the tomes of Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer will suddenly realize that, while these works may be interesting intellectual curiousities, the idea that they can serve as guides to “real goodness” is nonsense? I suppose I should be content to have witnessed the remarkable paradigm shift in the acceptance of the notion of morality as an evolved trait in my lifetime. It was always a stretch to believe that all the philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists who have spent their lives on the quest for the holy grail of “real moral goodness” would suddenly see the light when they grasped the connection between morality and evolution and stop cobbling away on their transcendentalist theories. The only problem is that this cobbling away is dangerous.

It is dangerous because, to the extent that these people concoct this or that gaudy chimera of the “good in itself,” they will ignore or reject truths about human beings that are in conflict with it. These notions prevent us from knowing ourselves, and, unless we know ourselves, unless we thoroughly understand our own nature and learn to control it, we ourselves will always pose the greatest threat to our own survival.

Read the book, and you’ll see the latest version of the “New Soviet Man” these true believers are aiming at. In their Brave New World, human beings will have finally grasped the “fact” that “society” includes all mankind, and universal brotherhood will prevail. It’s merely a question of recognizing “true goodness” followed by a little judicious “reasoning,” to the effect that, because a equals b and b equals c that, (surprise, surprise) we have really been evolving towards that “true goodness” all this time, and are perfectly suited for it, and, voila, the new straightjacket is ready.

To his credit, de Waal does take a brief peek at the emperor’s new clothes. As he puts it,

It should further be noted that the evolutionary pressures responsible for our moral tendencies may not all have been nice and positive. After all, morality is very much an in-group phenomenon. Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside… Obviously, the most potent force to bring out a sense of community is enmity toward outsiders. It forces unity among elements that are normally at odds. This may not be visible at the zoo, but it is definitely a factor for chimpanzees in the wild, which show lethal intercommunity violence… In the course of human evolution, out-group hostility enhanced in-group solidarity to the point that morality emerged.

It mystifies me that anyone can grasp all these things and yet still, against all odds, fail to see the light. In almost the next sentence, however, we witness the good professor stumbling over the edge of a very familiar cliff;

Humans go much further in all of this than the apes, which is why we have moral systems and apes do not. And so, the profound irony is that our noblest achievement – morality – has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior – warfare.

I have some suggestions of my own. Let us reject the straightjacket once and for all. Let us finally jettison the intellectually bankrupt notion of the “good in itself.” Let us embrace morality as something fundamental about us that will always play a decisive role in our day-to-day relationships with other human beings. At the same time, let us grasp the fact that certain aspects of our nature have been and will continue to be highly destructive in the modern world, and represent, even now, a threat to our survival, and will continue to pose such a threat unless and until we learn to understand and control them. Let us give over the chasing of gaudy moral butterflies. Our intellectual powers are limited, but, if we are to survive, we must at least try to apply them.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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