Saturday, September 14, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Monkey Morals

A few other thoughts on the nature of evil. As I was talking to you about yesterday, capuchin monkeys have been observed in the wild engaging in might be described as moral behavior. When the troop of monkeys is foraging, looking for food in the jungle, a monkey who finds a rich source of food is expected to give out a cry which tells the rest of the troop to come and start eating . Of course, this means that the monkey will not get as much food for himself. He will have to compete with all his fellows, not to mention the high-ranking monkeys, who will take all the best food for themselves.

So it makes sense for this monkey just to go ahead and eat without making the call. But if he does this and is caught, the other monkeys will gang up on him and beat him up. It's clear that the other monkeys feel he has done something wrong by not sharing his find with them right away.

Then there is the case of chimpanzees losing their food. A long board with food sitting upon it is placed, stretching between two separate cages. There is one chimp in each cage. Chimpanzee A has the food in reach, he also has a rope in his cage which, if he pulls it, dumps the shelf over, dropping all the food on the floor and out of reach. If the other chimpanzee pulls the board to himself, taking the food away from him, chimpanzee A most often pulls the rope denying the other chimp the benefit of the stolen goods. But if a human researcher comes in and moves the food to the other chimpanzee, chimp A does not pull the rope. In other words if he feels the other animal has stolen from him, he pulls the rope to punish it. But when a human has interfered, it does not punish the other chimp and let's it go ahead and eat it's fill.

All of this actually makes a lot of sense when you remember evolution. Anything we humans can do, especially things that we do automatically, must have evolved. Any skill or behavior which has evolved must have started among other animals as well. This is expressed in the old saying of biologists, natura non facit saltum which means nature makes no leap. In other words everything develops slowly over very long periods of time. Nothing just suddenly comes into existence. Any evolved trait we humans have, must have started much earlier in time. Therefore, we should see similar, but not as advanced, behavior in other animals. This has been shown to be true for tool using, communication and speech, and even the development of cultures. It would be really surprising if moral behavior didn't show a similar pattern. Of course, it does show that pattern.

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