Monday, February 16

Moral Monkeys?

Emory University psychologists released a study suggesting altruistic behavior in chimpanzees looks a lot like moral behavior in humans. By measuring different levels of altruism in the chimps and looking at genetic similarities with humans, they are suggesting that different levels of conscientious human behavior may come from our ancestors. They claim genetics may be the link as to why humans exhibit such conscientious behavior. The monkeys would offer gifts to others, help other monkeys and humans in need, and demonstrate other behavior that offered a self reward. Lead researcher Frans de Waal was weary to suggest that monkeys are moral creatures, but thought it may offer insight into human morality.
These psychological studies, while fascinating, are always problematic for me. They tend to use inference to the best explanation as their sole rationale for concluding scientific results. Though this is often how science is practiced, it does beg the question, “Could there be another cause of these results?” Or as Justin asked his the previous blog, “Maybe this is a case of monkey ethics and not monkey morality?” Clearly though the monkey does what’s right which suggests morality, but we know that primates socialize in groups, so perhaps this is simply a case of herd instinct. It would seem that these researchers might be inclined to say there is a gene or collection of genes that evolved to form our conscience. I wouldn't necessarily reject this idea, but the criminal example at the end of the article seems to fall short of offering quality empirical evidence to support this claim.
Knowing such information also raises questions about the use of primates in scientific testing. If these animals potentially carry a higher level of awareness should we be performing harmful or fatal experiments on them?

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