Making It Work: Politics, Culture, and Morality in Apes

There remain few areas of social life where science has not uncovered major continuities between the behavior of humans and other primates, including politics, culture, and morality. Over the last few decades, the consensus has moved from human uniqueness in all of these domains to fundamental similarity. Our socio-emotional mind is essentially a primate mind. In this lecture, Dr. de Waal will review similarities in power politics, transmission of knowledge and habits, and moral prerequisites, such as empathy and the sense of fairness. The possibility that animals have empathy and sympathy has received little attention because evolutionary biology, until recently, preferred a “nature red in tooth and claw” view that had no place for kindness. A second factor has been a taboo on the term “emotion” in relation to animals. Both of these influences take little account of actual animal behavior, which would lead one to agree with Darwin that “Many animals certainly sympathize with each other’s distress or danger.”

Based on Dr. de Waal’s team’s research on apes, monkeys, and elephants at the Yerkes Primate Center, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thailand, and elsewhere, his focus will be on specific, well-defined behavioral mechanisms that permit the complex social organization and extensive cooperation observed in monkeys, apes, and humans.

There remain few areas of social life regarding which science has not uncovered major continuities between the behavior of humans and other primates, including politics, culture, and morality. Over the last few decades, the consensus has moved from human uniqueness in all of these domains to fundamental similarity. Our socio-emotional mind is essentially a primate mind. In this lecture, Dr. de Waal will review similarities in power politics, transmission of knowledge and habits, and moral prerequisites, such as empathy and the sense of fairness. The possibility that animals have empathy and sympathy has received little attention because evolutionary biology, until recently, preferred a “nature red in tooth and claw” view that had no place for kindness. A second factor has been a taboo on the term “emotion” in relation to animals. Both of these influences take little account of actual animal behavior, which would lead one to agree with Darwin that “Many animals certainly sympathize with each other’s distress or danger.”

Based on Dr. de Waal’s team’s research on apes, monkeys, and elephants at the Yerkes Primate Center, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thailand, and elsewhere, his focus will be on specific, well-defined behavioral mechanisms that permit the complex social organization and extensive cooperation observed in monkeys, apes, and humans.

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