Sunday, October 24, 2010

Planet of the apes

Writing in the NYT, renowned primatologist Frans de Waal explains the utter feasibility of “Morals without God.” He bases his conviction on a theory of “continuity between human and animal,” or a denial of “human exceptionalism.” From this point of view, there is no qualitative difference between the way the human brain churns out an ethical judgment, and how a chimp’s brain motivates some altruistic behaviors. Nay, there isn’t really a meaningful quantitative difference in the structure of the human and the ape brain – “even our vaunted pre-frontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as …” Really? Reading Dr. de Waal’s expose, I would suspect that his and my brain click in qualitatively different rhythms, to say nothing of the brains of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Cheeky Charley.

De Waal’s focuses on the altruistic tendencies we share with our primate cousins. A chimp, you see, will sometimes help – without the promise of any reward! – an arthritic elderly female climb on a tree to hang out with her kin; or will console a male who has lost a fight. Though de Waal says we should see the whole package of human motivations and behaviors as a product of evolution and a legacy we share with the animal kingdom, it’s clear where his heart lies. He wants to revive the old tale of the “noble savage” once popularized by Rousseau – the altruistic, compassionate side of our psychological makeup is inborn or natural (and thus shared with kindly behaving animals); and the nasty aspects come from the way our natural goodness has been twisted by “civilization.” Forget about those allegedly aggressive drives Freud fretted over, ready to break through the ”veneer” of civilized “propriety.” But why forget about them? In an older article, de Waal drew a contrast between chimps and their close relatives, the bonobos. The latter have apparently invented the ape version of la dolce vita: they engage in constant mutual grooming and casual sex, and spend most of their time in leisurely companionship and relaxation. Chimps, on the other hand, live in troops with rigid hierarchies where status is won and lost by a combination of fierce fighting and Machiavellianism. Submissive families occasionally stage coups against dominant ones, and chimp platoons sometimes even wage “wars” against other colonies. In general, the lives of young males (who, after puberty, need to win acceptance in a new troop) are often nasty, brutish, and short. Females fare a bit better, but most also need to show deference for the dominant female. They can also be savagely attacked by raiding males from other troops. So, should we attribute human bestiality, not just those spurts of altruism de Waal highlights, to the natural endowment we share with chimps?

As I was reading de Waal’s incisive analysis, I repeatedly cringed at all those evocations of obvious behavioral kinship between “us” and apes. Apparently, he did not cringe while typing out the whole piece. This could be a matter of personal idiosyncracies, including presence of lack of the “left-brained” sharpness needed for a high-flying scientific career. I am trying to banish from my mind another heretical thought, though. Could de Waal’s attitudes, which betray some very peculiar patterns of brain activation, be partly attributed to his own biocultural heritage? He is Dutch, and if you look at Dutch society, it seems pervaded – even against the backdrop of rising xenophobic fears – by a kind of bonobo-style, relaxed permissiveness combined with easy-going utilitarianism. Soft drugs, harder drugs administered to addicts, prostitutes posing in display windows, euthanasia, open-minded attitudes toward teenage sex, open-air urinals events attracting large numbers of beer-gulping young men – please, help yourself, you can have it all. Could such broad-mindedness partly translate into cheerful praise for the natural goodness we ostensibly share with those good-hearted, altruistic chimps? But probably we shouldn't stereotype - neither the Dutch, nor the chimps.