Wednesday: Primates and Morality

What makes us human, and what makes a chimp a chimp? In this discussion, visitors to our web site had the chance to ask two researchers who have studied our simian relatives about the similarities and differences between the species.

Wednesday's Question:
Primates and Morality

“The human capacity for moral reasoning is often cited as an example of a key distinction between "us" and the animals. How much do researchers know about to what extent other primates might have the capacity for making moral judgments? And what might that tell us about ourselves?”

—Sarah in Lincoln, NE, is a journalist who covers science issues.

William Fields

Humans and non-humans are different; however, those differences are, often, a matter of degree. Moral reasoning in the styles of Dennett, Kohlberg, or my mother (a housewife) are each different classes within human genres of moral judgment. Dennett and Kohlberg have commonality with respect to professional moral reasoning that arises out of the tradition of the writing. One is philosophical and the other experimental. My mother’s approach to right and wrong is more practical and spontaneous. She does not describe or operationalize moral judgments in a distilled manner; rather she makes moral choices based upon intuitive sensibilities of right and wrong. I believe bonobos Kanzi, Panbanisha, Nyota, and Nathan have a similar expression of moral judgment that is practical, spontaneous, and symbolic. I offer three examples:

Example One

One night, many years ago, in Decatur, Georgia, the bonobo were going through their nighttime ritual of preparing for bed. I was busy handing out blankets and making bedtime milk. There were nine apes building blanket-nests and waiting for their milk deliveries --- and I was rushing to satisfy each individual need. I had overlooked the fact that one of our apes, Mari, had not joined the bonobos indoors in the colony room as she was making her bed outdoors in the play yard. The bonobos had made a mega-nest of 40 blankets and had piled together to create a sea of black hair, arms, and legs. As I delivered the last glass of milk, I sat down by Panbanisha to rest. I was extremely tired, having been with bonobos all day. Just as I was about to take my shoes off, Panbanisha put her hand over my foot. I looked at her and vocalized “What?” She picked up her paper lexigram keyboard and uttered “MILK.” I responded, “Panbanisha, everybody has had enough milk. It is time to go to bed and I am very tired.” She looked up at me, gazing intently, and then uttered, MARI OUTDOORS.


I had forgotten that Mari was sleeping outdoors and that she had not come indoors for her milk. When I acknowledged the oversight, and explained I would make sure Mari got her milk, Panbanisha went to sleep.

Example Two

A few years earlier, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh had accidentally locked herself inside the cage with Panbanisha. After waiting for someone to come and open the door, Sue decided to take the cage apart to escape. Panbanisha watched Sue’s behavior and uttered at the keyboard “BAD.” When Sue had created an opening large enough to escape, Panbanisha refused to exit through the hole with Sue and waited until Sue returned with the key to move to another area through the door rather than the illicit hole.


Example Three

In our world of humans and bonobos, dogs are considered good and snakes are considered bad; however, over the years we have had social instances of categorical violations of these concepts. Normally, when the apes refer to the dogs in the laboratory, they utter DOG.

However, when the apes have referred to the wild dogs in the forests, which are very dangerous, they use the phrase, BAD DOG.


In the case of snakes, which all the bonobos dislike, we had an instance of a black snake visiting the colony room hunting for mice. The snake was harmless to us --- and it was in fact helpful. The bonobos distinguished the black snake, after a lot of explanation, as a GOOD SNAKE. It was clear Kanzi and Panbanisha accepted the snake (following the explanation), although their mother Matata (who does not have human language as they do) continued to be alarmed by the snake.


While apes, as far as I know, do not ponder moral dimensions of abortion, war, or free market values of Late Capitalism, I do believe the captive bonobos I know have tendencies to behave in culturally appropriate ways consistent with a moral perspective. Most importantly, they are able to talk about good and bad.

Daniel Povinelli

Many primatologists revel in trying to blur the distinction between the mental and emotional lives of chimpanzees (and the other great apes) and humans — often leaving the impression that these animals are watered-down, incomplete versions of ourselves. Oh, they may not be as intelligent, symbolic, moral, cooperative (fill in your favorite topic), but by golly, they sure do have at least some of that! One of the approaches that primatologists love to use in service of this game, is to recount anecdotes about their favorite animals. Anecdotes do the job perfectly: They are unverifiable, ambiguous, open to a myriad of interpretations, satisfying to the public who has an insatiable appetite for a good story about animals, and (most of all) convincing to the already converted.

What a disservice to the apes!

Indeed, it is almost impossible to find a popular media story about great apes that does not begin or end with the claim that yet another cherished hallmark of humanity has been shattered. Just recently, a popular account of a discovery concerning tool-use in chimpanzees heralded the discovery that chimpanzees hunt mammals with spears (even to the point of honing sharp points). A careful inspection of the original research report yields a far less-startling (although still interesting) finding: When chimps encounter a dark hollow that they don’t want to stick their hands into, they bite off fronds or thin branches to probe inside. A small prosimian was found once by one chimpanzee. It was not speared. This pattern of exaggerated claims followed by deflation is a cyclical pattern in the recent history of research on chimpanzees and other great apes. I believe that historians of science and sociologists alike would be richly rewarded by studying the connection between this phenomenon and the deep human need not to feel alone in the universe.

Moral reasoning is an excellent case study. Although humans and animals share many behaviors in common that may or may not be thought of as “precursors” to moral behavior, humans (even seemingly objective scientists) have an extremely hard time separating their own higher-order, abstract psychological interpretation of those behaviors from the true causes of that behavior — both in the animals and ourselves! Although there is abundant evidence of bonding, attachment, emotional expression, food-sharing, reprisals against kin, etc., in chimpanzees and other non-human animals, there is no evidence whatsoever that there has ever been a chimpanzee alive who pondered concepts like “love” or “hate” or “morality” or “fairness.” These are highly abstract notions that are the product of a mental machinery that we apparently do not share with even our closest living relatives.

Ah, but as normal, healthy human beings, our minds resist this claim. We effortlessly project ourselves into the behaviors of other species — especially those most closely related to us. After all, given our common heritage, we share many of those behaviors with them. And besides, our minds ask us: “How could chimpanzees and other apes possibly behave so much like us without thinking, feeling, and reasoning like us?” A subtle shift in thinking provides the answer. Our species may be the peculiar one. At some point in our evolutionary history, after we diverged from our last common ancestor with the African apes, humans grafted a new cognitive system into the older mental one we still share (suitably modified) with apes. This explains the confusing observations that confront us: Humans are in the business of “re-interpreting” ancient behaviors according to a highly abstract code that we simply do not share with other species. Interpreting our behaviors as “moral” or “immoral” or “right” or “wrong” and inventing cultural norms and institutions to cope with these judgments are just the tip of the iceberg. In every area of cognition, we are both radically similar to chimpanzees and other apes, and radically different, as well.

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