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Why We Care about Chimpanzees: The Origins of Human Morality

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Chimpanzee research is a hot topic this summer; it has been discussed on the big screen, in the New York Times, and in the science blogosphere. The debate is complicated; there are government funding issues, several ethical dilemmas to consider, and potential benefits to human health at stake. However, all of the discourse boils down to a simple question: what are the moral parameters of chimpanzee research?

It is a riveting debate, no doubt, and I think that addressing moral questions head-on is necessary. But as a philosophy major, I also know that pondering and arguing the moral qualifications and conditions of an action can be endless, tiring, and dry. That is why I am interested in a much deeper, and much more fascinating question: Why are human beings so moral?

Let’s back up; are we? Consider the following thought experiment proposed by Sarah Hrdy in her book Mothers with Others. You’re boarding a plane, it’s crowded, people are impatient, and a baby starts crying. Some empathize, some get annoyed, but everyone keeps to himself or herself politely. Now, take the same scenario but replace humans with chimps. What would happen?

As Hrdy says, “any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all their fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmaimed. Bloody earlobes and other appendages would litter the aisles.” Hrdy’s point is that our species has a special gift for mutual understanding. We can imagine what it is like to be someone else – what philosophers call a “theory of mind” – which permits us to identify, understand, and sympathize. In short, unlike chimps and most other species, we often act altruistically even when there isn’t an immediate reward involved because we care about strangers.

There are plenty of macro examples of this behavior: we form complex social hierarchies, our economy is highly reliant on the trust of people we’ve never met, and we punish unprovoked violence and harm. This is also true when it comes to interactions between individuals. In the famous Ultimatum experiment (pdf) in which people are given $20 and the choice to either take all of it, split it $18/$2, or split it $10/$10, most split it evenly. In another experiment, researchers found that deliberately dropped envelopes were stamped and mailed one fifth of the time by complete strangers. Moreover, psychologist Jenifer Kunz found that (pdf) when people receive a Christmas card from a family they do not know, they usually send one back in return.

So it is clear that human beings are exceptionally moral compared to other species, but the question remains: Why?

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, whose current research on moral psychology is beginning to shed some light on this topic. He described several experiments, run alongside Kiley Hamlin and Karen Wynn, that demonstrate how human babies show a strong moral sense from as early as a few months. He summarizes one study in a recent article:

In one of our first studies of moral evaluation, we decided… to use… a three-dimensional display in which real geometrical objects, manipulated like puppets, acted out the helping/hindering situations: a yellow square would help the circle up the hill; a red triangle would push it down. After showing the babies the scene, the experimenter placed the helper and the hinderer on a tray and brought them to the child. In this instance, we opted to record… which character they reached for, on the theory that what a baby reaches for is a reliable indicator of what a baby wants. In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual.

Bloom, Hamlin, and Wynn have conducted several similar studies in the past year. Their work clearly demonstrates that our moral intuitions are at least partially innate (that is not to say that we are innately moral); humans are not born as blank slates then, contrary to the popular Hobbesian savage idea. So it is safe to say that our moral sense comes at birth, but how and why did we evolve to be so kind, especially towards strangers?

I asked Bloom his take on this problem, and he explained the following:

I think there are two different answers. One category, which is explored by Robert Wright, is that a lot of what happens is enlightened self-interest. As you interact with more and more people, you become interdepended. As a result, you begin to care more for others not because you are a nicer person or your genes have changed, but because of self-interest…. the second has to do with reason. That is, we have the capacity to take the perspective of others. As Peter Singer argues, we come to this insight over and over again that one needs to develop a moral code that is impartial and considers others just as much as the self; it’s the golden rule, it’s Adam Smith, it’s Rawl’s veil of ignorance, it’s Kant’s categorical imperative. It is spelled out in a million different ways, and it is an insight of reason…. our capacity for fairness and empathy is an accomplishment of reason.

These two points make sense to me, but they address the question of why we are so kind to human strangers. What about being kind and feeling altruistic towards non-human strangers, such as chimpanzees? I can think of three reasons. First, I would point to our ability to empathize, or, as Jack Handy quipped, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” as the source of the debate over the morality of chimp research. When we see a chimp experience pain, we feel sympathetic and become motivated to do something – as any TV ad for the humane society illustrates, we are easily swayed by empathetic gut reactions.

Second, how intelligent or conscious an animal is also relevant. We tend to be much more concerned with animals that demonstrate these human-like behaviors, which is why we care more about chimps than we do fish, and much more than we do about ants. And third, cuteness plays a big roll. Giant Pandas aren’t intelligent by any stretch of the imagination, but we don’t kill or eat them because they are so adorable. However, it is likely more complicated than that, and I admit to being somewhat speculative.

This being said, I do strongly believe that there isn’t a matter of fact in the chimp debate. When it comes to defining the moral standards, we feel first and justify second. This is Jonathan Haidt’s ‘elephant atop a rider’ model (pdf) in which our moral judgments are made by quick intuitive reactions and later justified by slow rational arguments. Haidt’s metaphor is indicative of what many social psychologists have found in the last few decades – that our morality is essentially rationalized intuitions. The downside to Haidt’s idea is that it suggests that objective moral principles are mere post hoc justifications and that we have far less control over our conscious moral thoughts and deliberations.

I asked Bloom about this, and he said that unlike many of his colleagues, he is a little more faithful in our rationality: “Although a lot of psychologists have a Humean view of morality – where our reasons are the “slaves” of our emotions – I think that this is mistaken. I think that there is excellent research that says our emotions can be persuaded by rationality, and that is where moral progress comes from.” (His view is briefly outlined in this Nature article (pdf)) I initially disagreed with Bloom, but looking back on civil rights movements throughout history made me think otherwise. I now believe that he is correct to say that our ability to reason is responsible for moral progress. But I am not certain. At the end of the day, Haidt’s “elephant atop a ride” metaphor is always lurking in the back of my brain, just waiting to pounce whenever I begin to think that humans are rational.

This is precisely why I don’t think there are objective truths to the chimp debate. Even the most valid and sound arguments for why we shouldn’t test chimps won’t stand unless they agree with our intuition; persuading a society to follow certain moral guidelines can only be done on the emotional level after all.

To be sure, the relationship between our intuition and rational systems is still fairly mysterious. But psychologists like Haidt and Bloom are highly motivated to continue research in this area. If nothing else, they are rightly moving us away from armchair-morality towards understanding morality empirically with experiments like Bloom’s. It is unclear if any of this research will help us become more moral or help us answer philosophical questions regarding morality, such as the one that surrounds the chimp debate, but it will certainly inform our understanding of human behavior – and that is what I find most interesting.

Finally, I don’t care to take sides on the chimp debate because I am too amazed by how wonderfully it illustrates our species unique drive to be moral. Because of that, I will continue to engage articles and blog posts that take either side while I ask myself a much more fascinating question: Why are human beings so moral?

Images: Chimp from Wikipedia commons; Panda from Wikipedia commons.

Sam would like to personally thank Professor Bloom for the interview. You can find his latest book ‘How Pleasure Works’ at your local bookstore or online. Also, be sure to check his recent  TED talk.


Samuel McNerney About the Author: Sam McNerney graduated from the greatest school on Earth, Hamilton College, where he earned a bachelors in Philosophy. After reading too much Descartes and Nietzsche, he realized that his true passion is reading and writing about cognitive science. Now, he is working as a science journalist writing about philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. He has a column at and a blog at called "Moments of Genius". He spends his free time listening to Lady Gaga, dreaming about writing bestsellers, and tweeting @SamMcNerney. Follow on Twitter @SamMcNerney.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 16 Comments

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  1. 1. jasongoldman 6:51 pm 08/18/2011

    The examples you bring up of the mother on the plane, the ultimatum game, the mailed letters and christmas cards… are these really measures of moral behavior? or something more like social convention?

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  2. 2. smcnerne 7:44 pm 08/18/2011

    Bloom’s research suggests that we have this “moral sense” from the beginning – meaning they cannot be explained by social conventions. In addition, results from the Ultimatum game hold true across all cultures, also suggesting that people were motivated by an inborn influence (I don’t know if the xmas card and mail letter studies have been done cross-culturally)

    So yes, I do think they measure moral behavior, specifically, altruistic behavior.

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  3. 3. distantobserver 9:57 pm 08/18/2011

    The pictures above remind me of the Real Housewifes of New York, another primal species that begs scientific study.

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  4. 4. smcnerne 11:07 pm 08/18/2011


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  5. 5. da bahstid 11:41 am 08/19/2011

    Something that throws considerable noise in the topic that doesn’t get discussed much is there is astonishing variability in the degree of real morality (that which is derived from empathy as opposed to random religious ritual behavior) across the nearly 7 billion people on the planet today.

    We have some people with tremendous sense of understanding while others demonstrate complete insensitivity and still others cross over to completely irrational maliciousness.

    There are a lot of people who are much more moral than the average chimp. There are also plenty who are a lot less. Even a chimp has been shown to become compassionate and caring for a housecat. Compare that to the behavior of animal torturers.

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  6. 6. smcnerne 4:03 pm 08/19/2011

    I disagree. Bloom’s studies (and others) suggest that the vast majority of people on Earth have a basic sense of right and wrong – and that sense does not vary much.

    Things like unprovoked physical harm, theft, or being deceitful prompt similar reactions across all cultures.

    Also, excluding people with serious brain conditions, nobody is less moral than the average chimp. Although chimps show signs of cooperation and altruism, humans are by far more moral.

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  7. 7. da bahstid 10:39 am 08/20/2011

    Don’t get me wrong, because I would like to hope so.

    I would like to believe and speculate that some neural hardwiring has evolutionarily become more developed that gives humans a head start in moralistic thought processes, selected for to make use of our ability to communicate for the purposes of social contracting, which is of considerable advantage for one population competing against another, thereby giving a path for altruistic behavior to be selected for. This is something i have suggested to some evolutionary professors in the past and was met with considerable skepticism, so in that sense i am glad to see research pointing in this direction. Unfortunately i do not believe it is non-over-ridable by more animalistic hardwiring that has existed in mammalian behavior considerably longer.

    One of my work experiences in the past was in mental health, and something I came to learn there is that it is extremely easy for certain people to choose to inflict malicious behavior on others. Much of this has been linked not to brain disorders per se but to emotional and or physical abuse. Specifically, what is called antisocial personality disorder, as well as antisocial personality traits. In fact modern psychiatry recognizes that all people will to varying degrees demonstrate such behaviors (among other dysfunctional behavioral types) in response to sufficiently dysfunctional conditions ie- when there is no functional solution to a dysfunctional situation, what are you going to do? Reinforce this long enough and you instill an abuse cycle that is not easily undone, eventually resulting in a personality disorder. This is entirely learned, it is not something people are just born with. As a blunt example, do you really think a clone of Hitler, raised in entirely different circumstance, would develop into the same foul person we know him as? He had no brain disorder in the clinical sense (I realize now you may just be using the term in a different context), he had a personality disorder. One that can develop in the brilliant as well as the uneducated. And once people learn it, it is painfully difficult to reverse. Components of these dysfunctionalities are what certain government and political authorities have exploited to orchestrate populational atrocities leaving social damages that span generations. The fact that it is so easy to duplicate and promote is to me a depressing fault of our species.

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  8. 8. smcnerne 12:21 pm 08/20/2011

    I appreciate your skepticism. Talking to Bloom I had similar worries. And I have also had run ins with evolutionary biologists who are quick to dismiss some of the claims that I made in the article either directly or indirectly.

    But I still think there are “some neural hardwiring… that gives humans a head start in moralistic thought processes.” I outlined several reasons in the article, but let’s take a step back and look at humanity from a big picture. We have formed enormously complex social and cultural systems that I don’t think are possible without at least some hard wired moral sense. True, there are a number of cases, like the ones you pointed out, where humans demonstrate almost a complete lack of moral behavior. But I wouldn’t let a few bad apples ruin a whole batch.

    Maybe I am just more optimistic. Fair enough. But the fact is we care about people with disorders, like the ones you speak off, while chimps and most other species would be quick to kill or leave those with such conditions. We have entire intuitions dedicated to people that, evolutionarily speaking, contribute nothing. I think that really speaks to some sort of innate moral sense.

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  9. 9. CherryBombSim 10:12 pm 08/21/2011

    The more I ponder altruism, the less likely I think that it is a biological trait at all. da bastid points out that environment certainly has a lot to do with turning people into psychopaths, why is it so hard to accept that environment is responsible for turning people into altruists? There is not an adaptive explanation for every human behavior that can be identified and labelled by psychiatrists. Adaptive explanations for altruism, in particular, seem implausible and forced to me, so I say why not drop the idea?

    From birth, you are surrounded by other people who are trying to get you to do things that benefit them: you are being trained to be an altruist.

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  10. 10. CherryBombSim 10:14 pm 08/21/2011

    I meant to say “sociopaths”, not psychopaths.

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  11. 11. smcnerne 11:25 pm 08/21/2011

    @CherryBombSim, To put it bluntly, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence which shows that the vast majority of humans are born with basic moral sense. Psychologists and evolutionary biologists simply cannot “drop the idea” that altruistic behavior is learning via the environment because there just isn’t enough evidence. I suggest reading this article if you want to know more (

    Indeed, we are being trained to be altruistic from the beginning (assuming we have stable and rational parents), but it feeds off of innate behaviors. In other words, we aren’t born as blank slates moralistically speaking.

    I would also encourage you to read Steve Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” it will change your mind, in a good way, about a few things as it did mine.

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  12. 12. cccampbell38 6:47 pm 08/22/2011

    I have a question for the group which is only marginally related to this topic but you may be able to help me. I know that somewhere in the last year or so I have read something to the effect that evolution has equipped humans with skills and awareness that helps us deal with an immediate threat (a lion in the bush, a hurricane headed for our coast, but that we are ill equipped to prepare for or react to a more abstract threat such as the earthquake that may occur someday or the hurricane that might come next year. Does anyone have any idea where I might find a reference on this? Thanks

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  13. 13. smcnerne 11:01 pm 08/22/2011

    Doesn’t sound familiar to me.

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  14. 14. Guest Post @ Scientific American: Morality and Chimpanzees | yoursite 7:49 am 08/30/2011

    [...] latest at the Scientific American guest blog. Chimpanzee research is a hot topic this summer; it has been [...]

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  15. 15. Is There Anything Wrong With Incest? Emotion, Reason and Altruism in Moral Psychology | Why We Reason 5:36 pm 10/10/2011

    [...] experiment, which I briefly mentioned a couple of months ago, comes from Paul Bloom, Kiley Hamlin and Karen Wynn. Bloom summarizes in the [...]

    Link to this
  16. 16.   Is There Anything Wrong With Incest? Emotion, Reason and Altruism in Moral Psychology | yoursite 5:45 pm 10/10/2011

    [...] experiment, which I briefly mentioned a couple of months ago, comes from Paul Bloom, Kiley Hamlin and Karen Wynn. Bloom summarizes in the [...]

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