Un-Churched Chimps

Primate studies undermine a political truism about the foundations of morality.

Posted May 27, 2015

Stockvault
Source: Stockvault

What Candidates Dare Not Question

In his recent review of Kevin M. Kruse’s new book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Michael Kazin notes the impossibility of any of the current contenders for the Republican Party’s nomination for President of the United States dissenting from Ronald Reagan’s assumption that “morality’s foundation is religion.” If anything, Kazin’s declaration is too timid. It is hard to imagine any (serious) candidate for the US Presidency disputing Reagan’s premise.  

As my previous blog indicated, however, philosophers, at least since Plato, are a whole different story. Various philosophers have raised diverse arguments that question the normative soundness of moral conceptions that are rooted in religious sensibilities. As this and subsequent blogs will suggest, a variety of social and psychological scientists have uncovered evidence for skepticism about the descriptive adequacy of this putative truism that American politicians share. Those scientists’ research suggests that humans’ moral sentiments are both older and more fundamental than their susceptibilities to religions. 

Inequity Aversion

I reviewed in an earlier blog research by Frans de Waal and Sarah Brosnan showing that capuchin monkeys exhibit “inequity aversion.” The capuchins in their experiments would reject a piece of cucumber, which they had regarded as a perfectly acceptable reward before, once they observed that another capuchin had received a more highly prized grape for doing the same task. Capuchins’ inequity aversion, however, falls short of what is a less transparently self-interested and more nuanced notion of fairness to which humans often appeal, and even a well-developed sense of fairness hardly exhausts the range of humans’ moral sensitivities and insights. 

Capuchins, of course, are neither the only species nor the most interesting species with whom such experiments might be done. Chimpanzees are both closer to humans phylogenetically and more cognitively and socially sophisticated than capuchins. So, what about chimps? 

Although the systematic study of chimpanzees is less than a hundred years old and Jane Goodall’s studies of chimps in the wild began less than sixty years ago, numerous anecdotes have emerged of the various kindnesses (in addition to plenty of nastiness and violence on other occasions) that unrelated chimps are capable of showing one another. Such anecdotes may constitute existence-proofs for the possibility of such conduct, but it is usually unclear how much the reported behaviors turn on the specific circumstances and individuals in question. Consequently, scientists have sought evidence from experimental studies involving larger numbers of chimps.

Godless Chimps’ Concerns about Fairness

At least two experiments that de Waal discusses, in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist, have yielded results that suggest that chimpanzees manifest spontaneous fellow-feeling, in addition to the sort of self-interested, first-order sense of fairness that the capuchins demonstrated. Vicky Horner, de Waal, and their colleagues devised a “chimp-friendly” Prosocial Choice Test. The task for one chimp in one of two adjacent enclosures, in which the occupants can easily see one another, is to hand over colored tokens to the experimenter for food rewards. This chimp is rewarded regardless of the color of the token that she chooses. Crucially, though, if she chooses a green as opposed to a red token, then the second chimp in the other enclosure receives a food reward as well. On average the token-choosers opted for the green tokens about two thirds of the time. This result is not only significantly different from chance, it is also only a difference of degree from the findings from a sample of children in which the token-choosers opted to help the other children 78% of the time.

In the second experiment Brosnan and her colleagues put chimps through the same experiment that she and de Waal had used with the capuchins. It was no surprise that the chimps exhibited the same self-interested sense of fairness that the capuchins had displayed. The chimps too were no longer satisfied (in this case) with a piece of carrot, when a second chimp was receiving a grape for the same performance.  The startling result, though, was that chimps who received grapes were less likely to accept those grapes, when the other chimp received a lower-valued piece of carrot, as opposed to also receiving a grape. Whether they did so out of a second-order sense of fairness (for all!) or merely out of concern about eventual retaliation is unclear, but Brosnan’s chimpanzee participants exhibited a sensitivity to the inequitable treatment of others and not just themselves. 

These chimps, so far as we know, are un-churched.