[QODLink]
Americas
Humans are 'naturally nice'
New research shows there is a biological basis for co-operative and empathetic behaviour.
Last Modified: 21 Feb 2012 00:56
Human children, and most higher animals such as primates, are "moral" in a scientific sense, research found [Getty]

Biological research is increasingly debunking the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish.

"Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies," Frans de Waal, a biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Monday.

New research on higher animals from primates and elephants to mice shows there is a biological basis for behavior such as co-operation, said de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society.

Until just 12 years ago, the common view among scientists was that humans were "nasty" at the core but had developed a veneer of morality - albeit a thin one, de Waal told scientists and journalists from some 50 countries at the conference in Vancouver, Canada.

But human children - and most higher animals - are "moral" in a scientific sense, because they need to co-operate with each other to reproduce and pass on their genes, he said.

Research has disproved the view, dominant since the 19th century, typical of biologist Thomas Henry Huxley's argument that morality is absent in nature and something created by humans, said de Waal.

And common assumptions that the harsh view was promoted by Charles Darwin, the so-called father of evolution, are also wrong, he said.

'Pro-social' tendencies

"Darwin was much smarter than most of his followers," said de Waal, quoting from Darwin's The Descent of Man that animals that developed "well-marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience".

De Waal showed the audience videos from laboratories revealing the dramatic emotional distress of a monkey denied a treat that another monkey received; and of a rat giving up chocolate in order to help another rat escape from a trap.

Such research shows that animals naturally have pro-social tendencies for "reciprocity, fairness, empathy and consolation," said de Waal.

"Human morality is unthinkable without empathy."

Asked if wide public acceptance of empathy as natural would change the intense competition on which capitalist economic and political systems are based, de Waal quipped, "I'm just a monkey watcher."

But he told reporters that research also shows animals bestow their empathy on animals they are familiar with in their "in-group" - and that natural tendency is a challenge in a globalised human world.

"Morality" developed in humans in small communities, he said, adding: "It's a challenge... it's experimental for the human species to apply a system intended for [in-groups] to the whole world."

Source:
AFP
Topics in this article
People
Country
City
Organisation
Featured on Al Jazeera
An innovative rehabilitation programme offers Danish fighters in Syria an escape route and help without prosecution.
Street tension between radical Muslims and Holland's hard right rises, as Islamic State anxiety grows.
Take an immersive look at the challenges facing the war-torn country as US troops begin their withdrawal.
Ministers and MPs caught on camera sleeping through important speeches have sparked criticism that they are not working.
Featured
Referendum on Scottish independence is the first major election in the UK where 16 and 17-year olds get a vote.
Blogger critical of a lack of government transparency faces defamation lawsuit from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Farmers worry about their future as buyers shun local produce and rivers show an elevated presence of heavy metals.
War-torn neighbour is an uncertain haven for refugees fleeing Pakistan's Balochistan, where locals seek independence.
NSA whistleblower Snowden and journalist Greenwald accuse Wellington of mass spying on New Zealanders.
join our mailing list