Reciprocity, Empathy, and Reconciliation: The Roots of Human Morality in Our Primate Ancestors by Carol P. Christ

carol mitzi sarahA link to a talk called “Moral Behavior in Animals” by Franz de Waal recently found its way into my email inbox. I am a big fan of Franz de Waal because his findings confirm what I always believed—that animals are intelligent. I followed the link and other suggested links and spent most of the evening listening to de Waal.

De Waal began his studies of animal behavior at a time when instinctual behaviorism was academic orthodoxy: the idea that animals can think and feel was “poo-pooed” by “scientists.” As de Waal observed ironically, everyone who has a pet knows better than that. But academic researchers continued down this path, expressing contempt for ordinary people who thought their pets were intelligent and the likes of de Waal who suggested that scientists might be colossally wrong.

De Waal’s discovery that chimps almost always “reconcile” after fights by touching hands, hugging each other, grooming, and even kissing, led him down “the garden path” to his discovery that what he calls the “two pillars of morality”—“reciprocity and empathy”– are found in primate social systems and in those of other higher mammals including dolphins and elephants .

Reciprocity might be translated as a sense of fairness—rooted in the feeling that “I should get what she gets.” Empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others and begins with mirroring behaviors such as yawning when another does or feeling sad or happy in the presence of others who express strong emotions. When empathy expands to feeling the feelings of another as the feelings of a separate individual, the sense that “I should get what she gets” expands include “she should get what I get.” This in turn leads to sharing and generosity, promoting relatively equal distribution of food and resources within a group.

As animals do not have language, de Waal is suspicious of those who argue that humans would not be moral without some version of the Ten Commandments handed down by a transcendent God. In contrast to those who believe humans are naturally selfish, violent, and aggressive, de Waal argues, without denying that violence occurs, that humans and animals are basically “Good Natured.”

De Waal says that animals and humans do not need God to tell us to be good. According to him, during our long evolutionary journey, our ancestors “figured out for themselves” that cooperation is the route to survival. De Waal is also suspicious of rational rule-based ethical systems, arguing that the roots of morality are in our emotions. Reason, he suggests, is a way of justifying what we feel.

De Waal admits that he is an atheist who grew up in a country of atheists. Like most atheists he does not appear to have given much thought to questions about the nature of God in his adult life. The God he rejects is the transcendent God of traditional theism and popular Biblical religion, understood as a transcendent source of morality. This God is not “in” the world, but outside it. In the Christian version of this story, the nature of the world is “bad,” and God must intervene to save it. The instinctual behaviorists who focus on selfishness and aggression as the driving forces in evolution offer secular versions of this old story.

If I were speaking to de Waal, I would suggest to him that if divine power is immanent in the world and in intimate relation to all individuals in the web of life, then it must be able to communicate with individuals in the world in a myriad of ways. The offering of written instructions on stone tablets would not have been the main way divinity communicated with the world throughout the course of evolution.

I agree with de Waal that animals and humans do not need a God outside the world in order to become moral. However, I would suggest to him that God or Goddess may have been involved in the evolution of morality from the inside, appealing to whatever forms of intelligence individuals had and suggesting that they cooperate with others. In other words, though his understanding of animals is profound, his understanding of the nature of divine power is limited by his background.

In several of the interviews I watched, de Waal states that the origins of empathy are in the relationships of mothers and infants in species where the young require care. Reptiles do not develop empathy the way animals do, because they do not care for their young in the same ways. According to de Waal the adult males of other primate species do not get involved with the care of infants, and thus we must assume that in primates empathy first developed in females.

De Waal adds that female primates and female humans seem to be more hard-wired for empathy than males. Males, he says, have a mechanism in their brains that makes it easier for them than it is for females to “override” empathy. According to de Waal, when male primates feel competitive with other males, their empathy track is turned off, enabling them to compete with, fight with, and even kill other members of their group. De Waal also states that the degree of violence that structures human life today is not found in other primates or in human beings for most of our history.

When I hear de Waal say that empathy is stronger in females, I have two reactions: one emotional and the other rational. My emotional reaction is that this generalization “feels right.” My rational reaction is: does this make de Waal or me a gender essentialist? Is empathy a feminine or female trait and aggression a masculine or male trait after all? Might it even be true that one of the two pillars of morality—empathy and care– is associated with females and the other—reciprocity or fairness–with males?

Or is it possible to affirm some differences between males and females without being a gender essentialist?

De Waal is clear that empathy is felt by and motivates action in male animals and in male humans. Discussing his ability to sit for hours watching animals he acknowledges, “I am very empathetic.” He does not add that this makes him “feminine” or involved the integration of his “feminine” side. Moreover, females as well as males embody the principles of reciprocity: it is a female capuchin monkey who is filmed throwing her food and shaking her cage at the “unfairness” and “injustice” occurring when “the other monkey gets grapes and I don’t.”

To me this says that we can talk about both empathy and reciprocity as being characteristic of males and females, while at the same time allowing ourselves to recognize evidence that females may be more consistently empathetic than males. We can do this without making the essentialist statements that females are “by nature” empathetic while males are not, or that males are “by nature” aggressive, while females are not. Acknowledging this might lead to “reconciliation” among feminists. Maybe we too should kiss and make up.

Carol is leaving in a few days for the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–early bird discount available on the 2015 tours–  Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

13 thoughts on “Reciprocity, Empathy, and Reconciliation: The Roots of Human Morality in Our Primate Ancestors by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Carol, I love this picture of you with your canine companions!
    At this point of my life I experience the One we call “god” as creating and sustaining all things – Not “up” or “over there”, but the creative energy that gives birth with love. Difficult to find the words. But the “White guy on the heavenly throne” is dead for many. I also think that male and female roles are being integrated more, leading to more whole people using all our abilities to both nurture and protect. I see so many men expressing tenderness and gentleness with others, and can’t think of a stronger image than a mother protecting her family. Perhaps we are re-discovering the better parts of ourselves? Integrating them? Escaping Patriarchy with it’s wars and power trips? I hope so…for the survival and life of the planet and all that lives in and on it.


  2. As usual, brava! Several years ago, I read in a book on brain chemistry that whereas men have the “fight or flight” instinct, women have a “care and nurture” instinct. (Is instinct the right word?) These two instincts arise as a result of the same stimuli, like attacks or other episodes of violence. I have long believed that that commandment “be good so you can go to heaven” is a bribe with no perceivable reward. Of course, it comes from people who worship that distant god who told Abraham to murder and sacrifice his son just because he could give that order and just because he wanted Abraham to do what he said. So he could go to heaven??

    Yes, there are many men and male animals who nurture and protect. Good for them! Perhaps they’re the one who have found the goddess who is right here on earth with us and who grows as we grow. Immanence is a good thing.

    Thanks for writing this very thoughtful and thought-provoking blog.


  3. Compassion has a lot do with your life experience, suffering brings wisdom, there’s no question. If women suffer more misunderstanding or abuse, etc, they might be more compassionate, because they are not detached, not aloof to suffering, they can relate. But there are also some built in gender differences we may know nothing about, but which influence our lives as women. In an essay titled “Gender Differences in Face Recognition” (see pdf from scholar google), Johanna Loven says that various studies have demonstrated that:

    “Women outperform men in face recognition and are especially good at recognizing other female faces.” […] “This general female advantage in face recognition may have a biological origin, supported by studies of infants. Girls have been found to look for a longer time than boys on a face.”

    As regards FAR, how does that inborn ability of women to recognize identity, or individuality in other women, improve our participation in a group like this — it might be at work intuitively somehow, who knows?


  4. I’m trying hard not to generalize about aggression in males, as I sit here in my house in Canadensis, PA, surrounded by police officers with guns, who are trying to catch a man who killed a state policeman. Helicopters are circling overhead and we are not allowed to leave our houses. Meanwhile, my 29-year-old son, who suffers from anxiety, depression, and ADHD, plays war-related video games and cannot work. I do not understand how most male minds work, but I do wonder whether having and raising children may contribute to females’ desire to protect and nurture life.


  5. Good post, Carol. I think it’s important for us feminists in various religious contexts to be aware of the movement of science in understanding what used to be divided as nature and nurture. Since my husband is a scientist who wants to understand how everything in the world works, I hear a lot about the studies into human and primate (as well as other animals’) innate “wisdom.” Franz de Waal isn’t the only scientist out there coming to these conclusions about fairness and empathy. Evolutionary psychologists, many primatologists like my sister Amy Vedder — who told me the mountain gorilla families she had studied were emotionally similar to communes she had lived in — and child and developmental psychologists like my friend Carolyn Zahn-Wachsler study empathy and fairness. Carolyn has worked with very young children to look at what’s innate in our species and found that we are innately empathetic.

    I’m not afraid of the term “essentialism,” because I know that we humans are a totally intertwined combination of nature and nurture. For example, if we don’t get proper parenting at a young age, our brains change and we don’t develop some of the qualities that are innate to our species, including empathy. Brain plasticity is the new big concept in neuroscience. We can change our brains, and our environment does that to us as well. There are many studies that point out differences between men and women, but all of the characteristics that this research looks at are HUMAN qualities, found in both men and women. There are tendencies in one direction or the other that correlate with male and female proclivities. I’m with Barbara (above) in hoping that more men will develop what our CULTURE defines as “feminine qualities,” but which I know from living with a gentle, nurturing and supportive man are human qualities.


  6. In the last book he wrote (Religion in Human Evolution), Robert Bellah suggested that the lengthy childhood of humans led to a culture of play which then developed into a culture of ritual and then religion. I’m not sure I buy the “play” argument, but it is very interesting to think about. The idea that in play you have rules and everyone has to obey the rules if they want to play the game could easily lead to a sense of justice- regardless of gender.

    As for females having more empathy, there is a hormone called oxytocin which enhances feelings of intimacy and trust. Brain levels increase during lactation. Do men have it? Of course they do, but scientists haven’t been looking at it very much. Do hormone levels make you a man or woman? What about the fact that BOTH sexes secrete estrogen and testosterone and these levels change over time. And the levels probably change with respect to stress (environment), etc. It is a complex picture that cannot be captured by simplistic behavioralist dogma.

    If you are the primary caregiver for offspring, it would make more sense to for the caregiver to have the most empathy. Therefore, before I describe a female as more “empathic”, I would look at species where the MALE is the primary caregiver to offspring (seahorses, penguins) and examine empathy in these species. Unfortunately, I am not sure they secrete oxytocin because I think that is a mammalian hormone.


  7. The main thing is to tend to your own garden. Maybe people fail us but that’s up to them to work out. All we can do is keep our head out of all that judgment and be generous. We need some playfulness and humor and yes stay open always to reconciliation. It wastes too much of own creativity to hold onto to any sort of moralistic anger. I’ll vote for the “kiss and make up.”


  8. I love reading about these kinds of research and theories because they resonate so well with my own experience. One of the benefits of working in human services is that I have been able to witness how many, many families, networks of friends, and whole communities respond in real-life crises. While there are occasionally situations in which I’m disappointed, so often what I see is the deep kindness and compassion that people, both women and men, exhibit towards one another, especially in times of sorrow and great need. Usually these are situations in which those caring for others receive no recognition or reward – sometimes after decades of sacrifice on behalf of a loved one with frailty, illness, or disabilities of one kind or another – but just do it out of love or because they believe it is the right thing to do.


  9. As a feminist theologian whose area of research is evolution and religion, I have come to the conclusion that all the evidence points towards innate gender differences; as someone else pointed out, however, humans are noted for their behavioural plasticity and ability to adjust to different environments.
    Have you read De Waal’s fascinating research on bonobos, who are the closest primates to humans? In bonobo troops, females are dominant, and they attain this dominance through forming coalitions. Chances are that in early humans this was also the case, though somehow the males got control. In my opinion, to accept some degree of essentialism is a small price to be for the prospect of retrieving that state of affairs!!


  10. Dr Jerilyn C Prior vs Conscious Menses
    by Lynne Haines, founder of the Conscious Menses Sorority.

    This is my response to Dr Jerilynn Prior’s work. Dr. Jerilynn Prior is the founder of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research. She is well intentioned and the topic certainly deserves attention. Menses has been a taboo topic for so long that no one even remembers why it is taboo. We all agree we don’t need to discuss it, but we don’t know why.

    Dr Jerilynn Prior bravely tackles the topic from a strictly scientific perspective. She is, after all, an accomplished scientist who wants to shed light on the problem without endangering her reputation in the scientific community. Hiding our periods to date, has caused us to reject our own femininity.

    Suppressing our menstrual cycle in a successful effort to control conception doesn’t effect the other processes that occur emotionally, mentally and spiritually during menses. But these experiences are ignored by the women experiencing them and the medical profession. Periods serve a greater purpose than just insuring fertility. Periods are womankind’s method of acquiring personal wisdom.

    Dr Jerilyn C Prior says menses effects every part of our lives. I agree but I see it in a less scientific way than Dr Jerilyn C Prior. I say that when we consciously menstruate we individuate, self-actualize, we mature in the personal wisdom of our own lives. She overlooks this fact in her scientific study. But we don’t have to overlook it. We can explore it fully each month by consciously menstruating: taking private personal time to write, read, masturbate, laugh, cry, dance, paint, sleep, bathe, dream, go inside and look around: do a little inner personal redecorating.

    The importance of talking about our periods with other women insures healthy management of our own reality which includes: healthy blood, prevention of anemia and the control of conception.

    Menstrual cramps are alleviated by taking time to rest and care for yourself. More importantly these symptoms of discomfort are relieved by letting yourself focus on your feelings and thoughts. By taking time to examine and process your inner realities, your thoughts and the feelings that accompany those thoughts; all the natural results of experiencing life for a period of time; you learn. You educate yourself about your life.

    Journalling is recommended as a good menstrual exercise. A journal becomes a personal history of internal maturation, self actualization and individuation. It becomes a record of the evolution of one woman’s journey, her validation, a personal history of her battles with confusion, life’s crisis, and her triumphs of heart, her survival, her adjustments; the glory of her recreation every step of her way.

    Dr Jerilynn Prior’s Menstrual Cycle Diary is a similar tool to the Conscious Menstruation Estimated Bleeding Date calculator. Scheduling future private personal time, on the day that you are pre-menstrual, the time right before you bleed, is the best time to explore the inner workings of yourself. During this time prior to bleeding every woman is physiologically programmed by nature to experience the resurfacing into consciousness of difficulties that are ripe to be resolved. This process is difficult to describe in general terms due to the lack of words that represent the actual experience and process. Men don’t experience menses, and women have only recently begun to describe the distinct differences between men and women from their own perspective.

    Headaches occur mostly prior to bleeding. They represent the mental issues that are surfacing; the formerly unconscious realizations that are becoming conscious. I know that laying down and listening, looking at the issues arising and the feelings attached will provide insight into what you may be processing: mental sifting and gleaning.

    Frustration, anger, depression which is caused by suppressed feelings, sadness, anxiety, unsettled, nervous, uneasy tension; these are all commonly acknowledged as women’s feelings prior to bleeding. “More sensitive to feelings,” is how one woman on Dr Jerilynn Prior’s panel describes the Feelings part of the Menstrual Cycle Diary. Write at night before sleeping, write in the morning before getting out of bed; keep it beside your bed. Put these feelings down on paper, let yourself feel them fully and describe them to yourself in your journal. This practice is a form of purging that is cathartic and in sync with what is happening to you physically as you get ready to purge the unused conception platform/nest from your body as menstrual blood.

    Interest in sex is mentioned but not really discussed in Dr Jerilyn C Prior’s work. Sex is a great topic for women to discuss with each other thereby learning more about themselves and other women’s relationships. We are all very isolated in single family relationships, from other women. It is devastating to many who turn to medical prescriptions to tame the anxiety caused by such lonely isolation from those of our kind: other women.

    Dr Jerilyn C Prior doesn’t mention masturbation a menstrual cramp cure. But it is. Orgasms are spasms that not only provide the vital endorphins and oxytocin required for good health; they feel great and relieve menstrual cramps. But finding a place and a time to lavish yourself with such behavior is difficult. It isn’t built into our daily schedules of service to our family and employers. In fact until recently masturbation was also a taboo topic. Less now for men than women, but suggesting that a woman masturbate to relieve her menstrual cramps doesn’t sell prescriptions and may even offend certain male value oriented religiously compliant women.

    Well, I hate to tell you Dr Jerilyn C Prior but when it comes to elucidating, illuminating and educating about menses, unfortunately your scientific efforts are doomed. You will be sacrificed on one, or both of the diametrically opposed alters of the current perceptions and understandings of menses.

    The status quo position of: “who cares, it just happens, deal with it” is pretty much the opinion of the general populace. The financially rewarding perspective: “there is obviously something wrong – let’s fix it with medicine” has been embraced by science. Both perspectives are the result of our longstanding male value oriented cultures. Women themselves, have not offered another description of what occurs every month to each and every one of them. Menses happens regardless of wether a woman pays attention to it or not.

    The taboo of menses is rooted in this fact, and to ignore menses is what we were shown by example to do. Menses was ignored universally by women. Until recently. More women are acting on the freedoms and rights guaranteed by the US constitution; we are daring to discuss this taboo topic.

    Ignoring menses has been a form of self preservation. In cultures that denigrate femininity women have clung to their nature by hiding it. Keeping it secret has been our survival instinct for many thousands of years. The question is, “What have we been hiding?”

    Our power source. Our connection to creation itself, the essence of our ability to bring forth new life. Men can’t bleed unless you cut them. Women bleed monthly. Men can’t create another human being out of their own body. Women are the only source of human beings on this planet.

    Taken in the light of simple jealousy this fact can be startling. But when we connect it to the fact that men have bodies that are designed to fight and work hard, then it isn’t hard to see how this dynamic has led to the suppression of women by men.

    No matter how many buffalo men brought home, how many enemies they clubbed, how many stocks they sold at a profit, how many lives they saved with new medical procedures, or how often they walked on the moon: they still can’t create another human being. This fact is implacable.

    Men see life as one big competition. Logically they have competed with women instead of studying them as different from them, and interesting. In their mistaken approach to understanding her, they have measured her against themselves despite the obvious physical differences. It served man’s needs to keep women close, to serve them and to provide more men for them. It’s not hard to understand that this has been a symbiotic endeavor that women have endorsed for their own survival and the survival of their children.

    But human beings have evolved to the point where women can contribute more. We can contribute our intelligence and that is not the same as a man’s intelligence. There are obvious differences. Women are noticing and discussing those differences. It is finally safe enough to speak the truth of our lives to each other, carefully, cautiously; taking care not to scare the men.

    It’s not easy. There are no guidelines. Nothing in human history points out “the way ahead” for women. In fact history shows clearly that independently minded women have not been appreciated generally speaking. Rather they have been used and destroyed. I don’t think much has changed in that department actually. But I do know that educating women about menses – our inherent source of life, intelligence, instinct and health is vital and timely.


    1. Cmsorority, Do you know of the “Red Tent” movement. Based on the novel _The Red Tent_ by Anita Diamant, this movement brings women together monthly (not always during their menses as in the novel) with the purpose of talking about their lives as women. It seems like a powerful way to address women’s subjugation and denigration in our patriarchal cultures (it’s found in Europe and Australia as well as the US). Isadora Leidenfrost made a film about it, which now travels from place to place helping women set up red tents in their communities.

      We may not agree with each other about how significant male/female differences are within patriarchal culture, but what you suggest in terms of empowering self-understanding for women (by journaling, taking time for ourselves, really thinking about our situations and our future, etc.) and what I create in my empowering workshops for women, and what other women here on FAR are doing, all of these activities have the same goal: the empowerment of women, so that we live our lives fully. AND we all know this will change the world. So let’s all go for it.


  11. cmsorority, thank you for this! I had awful menstrual cramps from the time I first got my period at age 11 until I reached menopause at age 50. I remember thinking about the massaging feeling I got during orgasms and trying masturbation to relieve cramps, somewhere along the way, and being elated that it worked! What a lovely solution, although not always practical when in public. We have a long way to go until women’s issues are addressed openly in this patriarchal society. FAR is helping!


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