Animals · Anthropology · Evolution

“Morals Without God” by Frans de Waal

The article below consists of a my very sparse notes from “Morals Without God, ” an essay by Frans de Waal which appeared in the New York Times, in the philosophy section, “The Stone” on 17 October, 2010.  The article also is part of the book called  The Stone Reader, which is a selection of the best articles that appeared in the NYT’s The Stone.

This post is still in very rough shape, to say the least.  It is basically just a set of notes that I took on the book when I read it.  You might be able to get something out of these notes with a bit of struggle though.  I apologize for the state of this post.   I’ll get back to whipping it into a more readable shape just as soon as I can find the time to do it.  This blog is new, and there is currently more work than I can deal with.  Thanks for your patience.

De Waal grew up in Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymous Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights:

Society under the waning influence of God

Society free of guilt and shame before the fall or no fall at all

Humanity in its natural state

Today we argue about whether we can have morality without God.

De Waal thinks our humanity, morals, social norms are built into us.

Morality predates religion.  Religion is an add-on, not the source of morality.

Human exceptionalism (humans are special- different from animals)  is nonsense.

In the field of cognition: the idea of continuity between human and animal marches on.

Human brains are bigger than chimps but have all the same parts

Even prefrontal cortex is similar.  Our brain is a linearly scaled up monkey brain.

Man’s psychological makeup is the same as a social primate

Darwin: any social animal would develop a moral sense

Robert Wright in the Moral Animal says nature is 100% selfish.

Thus morality is just a thin veneer over man’s nastiness and brutality

Veneer theory was popular for awhile

De Waal has always fought this theory.  See his book Good Natured.

Lately a resurgence of Darwin’s view that morality grew out of the social instincts

Anthropologists: Humans are naturally cooperative, altruistic and fair.

Primatology: primates and humans that came from them are altruistic.

Chimps and bonobos will share food even if it means they get less themselves.

Capuchin Monkeys are prosocial: sharing, altuistic, generous

Altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers

This doesn’t mean it’s really selfish.  Animals not motivated by future benefits.

There is a disconnect between evolution and motivation

Animals are capable of genuine altruism. Man is the same.

Old Chimp Peony is helped by younger chimps

Chimps will console distressed chimps with hugging and kissing

The emerging field of animal empathy: primates, dogs ,elephants

Animals have emotions and can give and receive affection

Animals have an innate sense of Justice & fairness.  Inequity aversion.

Chimps like cucumbers until others get grapes.  Then they reject cucs.

Dogs will do tricks for no reward but stop when see others get rewards

Even the animal who gets the better deal will sometimes refuse the reward.

Morality is not top down, it is not a veneer, we came with morality already installed.

We don’t reason ourselves to a moral position

We start out with morality, we don’t impose it later.  

Morality is part of being a social animal and we inherited this.

Humans are different in that they can deal with morality on an abstract level

Humans want to make their morals universal.  Now religion comes in.

Chimps have community concern.  Females unarming male warriors, peace.

“The building blocks of morality are older than humanity.”

We don’t need God to explain morality.

If we could excise religion, science would not fill the void.

Science is not about morality.  It is about the truth of the physical world.


Strident atheists, brights: Dawkins, Hitchens

[Many strident atheists are serial dogmatists, Hitchens.]

[The enemy of science is not religion but dogmatism.  Bonobo & Atheist.]

[Open minded religious people can pick and choose what they want from religion]

Science is not about morality or how to live our lives or the human condition.

Science is about the truth of the physical world

Science developed really good ways to deal with flawed data

There have never been cultures without religion.  Cultures color religions.  Africa.

It makes no sense to insult religious people.  Reason will not change their minds.

[Religion may have value.  Ursula Goodenough’s Religious Naturalism: awe in the face of the wonder & mystery and complexity of life as described by natural science.  All religion has a creation myth and ours is the story told by science.  All religions are about morality, about what ought to be.]


This article is still in progress.  It will be finished soon.

Teton Range in Wyoming, Sunset.  Picture by Hanselmann Photography. 

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