The Center for Neural and Cognitive Sciences, University of Hyderabad organized a lecture on ‘Morality Before Religion: Empathy, Fairness and the Primate Brain’ by Dr. Frans B M de Waal, under the series – The CogTalk, a distinguished speaker series on frontiers in cognitive science – on February 23, 2021.

Dr. Frans B M de Waal is a Dutch/American ethologist and biologist known for his works on the behaviour and social intelligence of primates. His first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982) compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. He has been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was also selected by Time as one of The World’s 100 Most Influential People Today.

Dr Frans started the lecture by saying, “There is an old saying: ‘man is a social being’. But in biology, we have this debate as we study natural selection that talks about the survival of the strongest. With these two theories, we may say that there are two outcomes – One that emphasizes our nasty nature and second that says we have moral tendencies and that we are a social being.”

Dr de Waal presented conflicting views on morality. Some people like TH Huxley believed that morality is not a natural thing and something that is learned. In contrast, Charles Darwin believed that morality is a product of evolution and is continuous with other animals. The lecture then focussed on the different aspects of morality such as empathy, compassion and reciprocity. These are the pillars of morality that define a human being. Dr de Waal also showed several video clips demonstrating cooperation in chimpanzees and other primates. Why do animals display such behaviour without any immediate reward? The speakers explained that animals cooperate with the hope of reciprocity. That they will receive cooperation later in times of need. There is also evidence of primates showing inequity aversion – the displeasure of someone else receiving a higher reward than you. Similar behaviour is also observed in very young children. Dr. Frans B M de Waal concluded the talk by suggesting that Darwin was right. Morality is deeply seated and emotionally driven. It is universal in all mammals.

The talk was followed by a discussion with Prof. Ramesh Mishra, Head, Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences. Prof. Mishra asked if traits like morality are universal and found across species, then why do humans feel like they are unique in these aspects. Dr de Waal was of the option that psychologists and humanists have attributed this uniqueness to humans which could be misguided. Humans are considered to be rational, cognitive agents whereas a lot of evidence suggests that we are much more similar to primates than we are willing to accept. Prof. Mishra also asked if animals show acceptance of inequity the way humans do when they feel like they got what they deserved even if it was less than their peers. Dr de Waal agreed that this could be uniquely human behaviour.

There was also a lively discussion with the audience. Some members asked questions on Dr de Waal’s TED talk and his views on alpha males. There was also discussion on whether moral behaviour can be changed or modified. Dr de Waal concluded the discussion on an optimistic note that societies and individuals can be taught to be more empathetic and cooperative – this is the only hope for a better world.

Contributed by Soumya Sharma, Department of Communication.