A 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–www.goddessariadne.org. 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.