Were You Born Selfish?: An Interview with Frans de Waal

Richard Dawkins has declared that humans are “nicer than is good for our selfish genes.” Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal argues against this popular picture of evolution as a Hobbesian wilderness of selfishly competing individuals, where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” De Waal focuses his research on the social behavior of primates, studying questions of culture, altruism, morality, and empathy.

Citing social animal behavior, de Waal posits that justice, morality, altruism, empathy—noble notions we tend to think of as being particularly human, and therefore antithetical to “animal nature”—are not “unnatural,” but rather are deeply rooted in our primate past; that the good in us is as instinctive a part of our biology as the bad.

De Waal is the author of, among other books, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton University Press, 2006) and The Age of Empathy (Harmony Books, 2009).

Where do you think human empathy came from?

Where everything started for me was maternal care. It’s advantageous for female mammals to be sensitive to the mood states of their offspring, so they react when their offspring are distressed or in danger. That also explains why empathy is more developed in females than males in many species, including humans. From there it spread to other areas of social life. It’s contagious: if you have a cooperative society, you need to be concerned about the well-being of those you depend on.

If I live in a society where I depend on others, I need to be concerned if those others are doing well, and that’s where empathy and altruism come in. It’s also why we think you find empathy in all mammalian species. It’s not limited to humans, and it’s not limited to primates. It’s probably universal in mammals.

How close do you think the connection is between this instinct for empathy and religion?

Many religions stress compassion. I recently had a meeting with the Dalai Lama here at Emory University—for him, morality’s all about compassion—that’s the core of it. I think all religions emphasize that you need to be compassionate, to some degree or another. Sometimes that is forgotten. I personally feel the Christian Right in this country is not always as compassionate as they could be. But that’s in practice. In theory, I think it’s always emphasized in all religions.

Explain what you mean by “veneer theory.”

Veneer theory is the idea that humans and animals are inherently selfish and always out for their own goals, that things like kindness, compassion and mutual help don’t come naturally. You can work on it—but if you want to believe in moral life, you have to work very hard, because we are not naturally made that way.

That’s the theory of original sin: we are born selfish. It’s not in agreement with what we know about human biology, and it’s not in agreement with what we know about animal biology, either. It assumes the only thing individual humans or animals care about are their own selfish benefits. There’s nothing wrong with saying that empathy evolved for reasons to serve yourself, or that cooperation evolved in the end to serve yourself. But that needs to be distinguished from what we call the proximate reasons for behavior, or the proximate motivations for behavior. They concern psychology—what makes you do something.

At that level, not everything is self-serving. There are a lot of things we do on a daily basis that are not necessarily self-serving. The reasons for the evolution of empathy are self-serving, but the reasons why you show empathy in your daily life are not necessarily self-serving—that’s the big distinction.

The way I often explain it is by sexual behavior. Sex evolves for reproduction, but not everyone engaging in sex is thinking of reproduction. The sexual motivation has become an autonomous motivation. What drives you to have sex is not the reason why sex evolves. The same is true with the connection with empathy and altruism, and veneer theory trying to explain everything in selfish terms—the “selfish gene,” and all that kind of language. That’s a narrow way of looking at things. That’s a purely genetic, evolutionary way of looking at things that doesn’t cover human psychology very well.

Why do people like to think of nature as being competitive, and empathy and ethics as being unnatural?

Humans for a long time have denied that they are like animals, and related to animals. If humans did very bad things, like kill each other, we would say they’re “acting like animals,” and if humans did very nice things, like massive acts of altruism, we would claim that for ourselves, and say that’s something we came up with—in our religion, our culture, whatever. Humans have that tendency. Humans were not very happy to be connected to nature. Humans liked to be considered the crown of creation, totally separate from everything else. They used nature to blame things on themselves, and never made that full connection that I am advocating, which is that both the good and bad in our species come from our primate background.

In your work you often criticize the 19th-century British biologist T. H. Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” as having misinterpreted Darwin in this regard.

Huxley had a very mechanistic view of organisms, including humans. He was an atheist, and Richard Dawkins has expressed admiration for Huxley—he’s a Huxleyan, he’s not really a Darwinian.

Dawkins will say that we are the robots produced by our genes, so to speak, and Huxley had that same sort of mechanistic view of the human species. And he could not for the life of him understand how evolution—which is a nasty process of natural selection—could have produced morality. So Huxley pushed morality outside the domain of evolution. He said, that must come from somewhere else; humans have morality, but it’s not produced by evolution.

That’s where Huxley deviated from Darwin, as Darwin tried to explain morality in the framework of evolution. Huxley was a big defender of Darwin, and the only time he deviated from Darwin was in the pessimistic view he had—which he shares with Dawkins—that humans are not naturally moral. I consider that pessimistic, because that means morality is not really deeply rooted in human nature. You’ve talked yourself into a corner if you are an atheist—as Huxley was and as Dawkins is—and you think evolution cannot produce morality. Then it’s a real dilemma—where does it come from? If it does not come from biology, and you don’t believe in religion, you’re going to have a very hard time explaining why humans are moral.

The solution Dawkins has found is to attack God. But that’s a distraction. Whether God exists or not doesn’t solve the issue of where morality comes from. On the other hand, Francis Collins says that morality cannot come from biology, but we clearly do have morality, so that means God must exist—which in a way is more logical.

Atheists—some of them, at least—have talked themselves into a corner and they don’t know how to get out of it, because we need to find a way of explaining where morality comes from. I think the way to do that is to return to Darwin. Darwin tried to place morality within human evolution. And that’s what I’m trying to do, at least with my primate studies. I’m trying to say, look at the behavior of other primates—there are enough indications that they have what Darwin would call the social instincts needed to get to morality. They don’t exactly have it, but they’re close enough for me to see that there’s a continuity. I think that’s the way out of the dilemma. Talking about whether God exists or not just really doesn’t do any good for that problem.

You recently wrote, “Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts.” Why is this change happening now?

That’s partly the influence of my own work, and of neuroscience that’s in line with what Darwin was saying, that the continuity exists with the social instincts. Some psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt, have been working on the issue of the intuitions surrounding morality. The moral decision-making humans do is much faster than you would expect from a simple rational reasoning process. Neuroscientists are finding that if you present moral dilemmas to humans and look at what happens in the brain, it activates areas that are extremely old, that have to do with emotions.

So it’s not just thinking through a number of propositions and reasoning yourself to a moral position. There are certain gut feelings involved in these moral decision-making processes that make it more like a Humean process than a Kantian process, in the sense that it’s more related to the moral sentiments than to reasoning. There are now certain philosophers, like Richard Joyce, who are interested in the origins of morality.

All these things have come together within the last ten years or so. Scientists can help with the question of where morality comes from, instead of just leaving it in the hands of philosophers, as used to be the case. Scientists are now actively interested in this particular issue, and that’s going to continue.

Marc Hauser, a Harvard biologist who studies primate behavior and has written about morality, was recently accused of eight counts of scientific misconduct, including fabricating data. Following the Hauser controversy, there was a lot of commentary from, for instance, linguists like Derek Bickerton, criticizing what they see as an undisciplined bias against the case for human uniqueness.

That’s an eternal issue. There are people who feel that we are not animals. Of course, as a biologist, I feel that we are basically animals. I am much more inclined to see the continuities rather than the discontinuities. In almost everything you can imagine, there’s some continuity between humans and other animals.

But in academia, especially in the social sciences—in linguistics, in philosophy—a lot of people can’t stand this continuity. They’re not creationists per se—they are not necessarily saying that we were created by God—but they still have this idea that we’re extremely special and nothing compares to us, which is not so far removed from creationism.

The Hauser case brought out those people, because all of the sudden they had a good target—someone who was accused of misconduct, who had been working on issues of human/animal comparisons. This was the right moment for them, they felt, to jump in and say that all this is partly based on fraudulent data. But you know, that case is only one case—I hope it’s only one case—and our science is much bigger than just one person, so I don’t think it really undermines all the other findings people keep coming up with.

The general trend in our field over the last fifty years has been to knock down each and every distinction that people have come up with. So people would say, only humans can make tools—yes, animals use tools, but only humans make tools—but that was knocked down. Or, only humans have theory of mind. People come up with all these distinctions, and one by one we have been knocking them down. There’s not so much left now. I think language is the big one that is left, and that will probably remain, but other than that there’s not a whole lot that’s been left standing.