A Book Review
Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
By Frans de Waal. Edited by Stephen Macedo & Josiah Ober
NY: Princeton University Press, 2009, 232 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4008-3033-6 [Paper $14.95 US].
Primatologist Frans de Waal was included in “Time Magazine’s” 2007 list of the World 100 Most Influential People—a profoundly correct choice. Through many years of skepticism and criticism from within his academic community, de Waal patiently persisted in letting his subjects reveal themselves to him rather than imposing preconceptions of dominance or aggression or brute nature on them. Primates and Philosophers: the Evolution of Morality is a remarkable result, and its subject—the origins of human morality—is a profoundly important one.
Using the data from his years of research, working primarily with captive chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys, de Waal convincingly reveals their capacities for a sense of fairness and for empathy. He builds the case for why a system of morality, however sophisticated, must include these features. He explains how the elaboration of morality in humans makes sense when it is viewed, not as some external overlay on a fundamentally brute nature, but as an evolutionary outgrowth of empathetic tendencies and a fairness sensibility present in human primate ancestors. He makes the case that we evolved from a deep primate past in which animals often care for the weak and build cooperative coalitions by reciprocal transactions.
Following the section written by de Waal, the book presents responses by four other students of human morality: Peter Singer, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher and science writer Robert Wright. These responses give this book a tremendous breadth. Primates and Philosophers is a must-read by anyone seriously interested in human nature.
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