Friday, 29 March 2013

Moral behaviour in animals

Frans de waal on moral behaviour in animals.

The argument here is that animals also display cooperative behaviour and empathy, just like humans. first off, this argument is invalid as cooperative behaviour as we know it is a very human concept. To study animal behaviour in terms of a human context is a form of anthropomorphism, and is asking the wrong question (a question loaded with incorrect assumptions).

Irrespective of this argument, there are problems with the talk. Most of the animals in the video that show cooperative behaviour or empathy have been trained to perform those behaviours. They aren't spontaneous. A breakup of the video is discussed below.


The presentation begins by showing chimps and bonobos who display reconciliation behaviour. Isn't reconciliatory behaviour in these species mostly linked to dominance? Yes, it is. Which means we can't really see it as a form of cooperation in line with human cooperation. But how different is this to reconciliatory behaviour in humans, you say? Maybe not very different. But a difference still exists. Our different culture and cognition means we need to view reconciliation differently. In any case, dominance should have been mentioned in the talk. And if not, De Waal should have at least mentioned that cooperation in chimps differs from cooperation in humans.

Chimps then cooperate to pull a reward. The chimps have probably been been trained to do this. The partner who helps out could be motivated by fear. This could be linked to dominance. We need more information before assuming cooperation.

Elephants cooperating to pull a reward. Again, the elephants are trained to use the apparatus. This does not reflect instinctive cooperative behaviour. Rather, it means that one elephant is smart enough to learn that he doesn't need to do any work on his part to get a reward. I can just imagine that elephant doing that trial over and over again till he realises he will still get a reward if he just places his foot on the rope. And the fact that the partner does not get any reward also needs to be remembered. How long would the partner keep this up if it wasn't being instructed to by a mahout? This isn't really cooperation as we know it.


This section begins with contagious yawning in chimps. Firstly, can we really connect yawning with empathy? If so, what part does dominance and gender play in this experiment?

Children empathising with adults. You can't compare children and adults because of dominance again. Would children show similar empathy towards other children? These limitations need to be mentioned.

Prosocial choices by chimps. Again, no control for dominance and gender? A chimp might be prosocial because of dominance, not empathy. Yes, this could be considered one interpretation of what constitutes empathy to begin with, but it must be stressed that this is very different from human empathy, where we put ourselves in someone's else's place and see things from their perspective. Do animals do this? Or is their empathy more basic, if they have any at all?

Capuchins reject unequal pay. This is more about a sense of fairness. Not really empathy. And that monkey that's getting agitated in the video could be more dominant, which would explain its agitation.

I realise I've mentioned dominance a lot here, but this is a social mechanism that explains behaviour in different species, and we need to see behaviour in other species in this context. We also need to view human cooperation in various contexts to understand exactly what 'cooperation' and 'empathy' mean and to accurately compare these traits in humans and and other animals.

I have no doubt that many animals have a sense of empathy, but their empathy tends to differ from that of humans. Empathy, like many other things, is a continuum & we seem to be on a different part of this continuum than animals.

If we could devise a series of experiments to show that this complex empathy of ours is really no more than a cover for a more basic reaction with adaptationary value, then I'm wrong, but this hasn't been indicated yet.