[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
More than one-quarter of Gaza's population has been displaced, causing a humanitarian crisis.
Ministers and MPs caught on camera sleeping through important speeches have sparked criticism that they are not working.
Muslim charities claim discrimination after major UK banks began closing their accounts.
Italy struggles to deal with growing flood of migrants willing to risk their lives to reach the nearest European shores.
Featured
The seizure of the Tabqa airbase highlights the Islamic State's consolidation of power in eastern Syria, analysts say.
Traditional spring festival blossoms outside India through fun runs, raves and TV commercials.
Parents unable to look after children are marrying them off at a tender age, exposing them to maternal deaths.
New measures needed as dozens of citizens fighting with Islamic State pose home-grown terror threat, PM Abbott says.
Israel has re-arrested dozens of Palestinians in the West Bank, an act a human rights group says is 'unjustified'.
join our mailing list