My salad dressing days

And now for the science bit
August 19, 2005, 7:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I dropped all the sciences in my early teens owing to the silly state of our education system, which pushes kids to choose arts or science way too early in the game. (Before Motherhen leaps in, things are somewhat more sensible in Scotland, where you can pursue a more diverse range of subjects for longer.)

However, when I can, I like to read a popular science book or magazine, to keep abreast of scientific developments and new thinking.

Whilst I didn’t manage to read more than the conclusion, I kept peeking over Mr Chick’s shoulder on holiday as he read ‘Good natured: the origins of right and wrong in humans and other animals’ by Frans De Waal. Mr Chick talked me through the gist of it.

Zoologist De Waal specialises in the study of primate behaviour and the following back cover quote gives you a sense of what the book is saying:

“Far from being half ape, half angel, torn between a moral sense that strives upwards and an eons-old bestial viciousness that drags us down, [we are portrayed by De Waal] as inheritors of a basically moral view of life that has evolved over countless millenniums (sic*) – not through some fictitious social contract between self-sufficient individuals, but through the inevitable give-and-take of communal living.” – Derek Bickerton, New York Book Review

De Waal observed that non-human primates display the ability to empathise, that they use primitive concepts of fairness and trust and that they display, to some degree, what we might call ‘moral behaviour’.

All of this leads him to conclude that “many of the sentiments and cognitive abilities underlying human morality antedate the appearance of our species on the planet”.

The idea that concepts such as compassion and forgiveness are evolutionarily basic, hard-wired into our brains, appeals to me. I’ve always felt that these are essentially human virtues rather than Christian or Jewish or Buddhist virtues. We are social animals and we need each other for our own survival, so it pays in the long run to be loyal and trustworthy and compassionate and forgiving.


Well, there you go. UC does science. You’ve seen it all now, no?! A return to silliness beckons as we say sayonara to Sayonara To Silliness Week…

* I know! It should be ‘millennia’! I was going to say perhaps we should forgive him as he’s a scientist, but looks like he is a journalist. Sigh. Still, I forgive him because it’s in my very nature to do so!


5 Comments so far
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I think I get hit with the whole moral compass argument more than anything else. There are large segments of the population here that are convinced you cannot possibly be an upstanding, moral person without belief in a God. It has always seemed to me that most of the “moral” rules which govern us are really social no-brainers. Don’t kill? Don’t steal? Any being living in a social setting would have to follow these simple rules or risk being ostracized.

Great post! Thanks, I needed that.

Comment by GodlessMom

The specialization aspect of the British education system has always been something I’ve found curious. On the one hand, I think its great that kids can pursue their intrests and develop them early on. On the other, I know that what I was interested as a teenager is not the same as what I find interesting now. And specialization tends to discourage the development of “Renaissance Men,” those who can think in broad, synthetical ways.

The picture you found is priceless. I am a sucker for silly monkeys, though.

I, too, like the postulation that certain moral behaviours are inherent to our genetic makeup. I think a good deal of it is simply logical – if I am kind to you, I increase the odds that you will be kind to me, etc. Just watching nature films of chimps tells you kindness is born into primates, really. The flea picking! The back scratching! They share food, when there’s no motive for it except to be social.

I enjoyed your break from silliness, but welcome the return of it, too.

Comment by katiedid

The idea that we are inherently decent — as are our primate brothers and sisters — stirs gratitude in me. Now if only we could get underneath and root out whatever gets in the way of that inherent goodness … but I’m afraid it’s the other side of the same coin. We cooperate to survive and there will always be those who seek the devious, mean, evil shortcut to survival. Or who have been cornered long enough that they’ve forgotten the goodness they started with. Still, I am grateful for even the premise. sorry for the overlong comment. xoxo

Comment by mireille

I’m a sucker for the whole Id, Ego, Superego thing. We know the right thing to do but we don’t always want to do it, and not always for the right reasons.
(I did my Q&A before I read this.)

Comment by Nigel Patel

I had an ethics professor who argued that the correct moral choices were “intuitively obvious” to most people, regardless of culture, except for sociopaths. Interesting idea.

Comment by Kate

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