For decades, what the primatologist Frans de Waal called 'Veneer Theory' used to be the dominant biological view of human nature. It regarded genuine kindness as either absent or an evolutionary misstep. Morality was a thin veneer barely able to conceal our true nature, which was entirely selfish. In the past couple of decades, however, Veneer Theory has been increasingly questioned by new evidence to the contrary. For example, anthropologists demonstrated a sense of fairness in people across the world and economists found humans to be more cooperative and altruistic than the Homo economicus view would allow.
When we behave horribly, we are called 'animals' but when we behave generously, we are called 'humane'. We like to think that our finer characteristics are the result of our culture and have nothing to do with our evolutionary history. But as Stephen Jay Gould said, ‘Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human? Why should we not seek continuity with other animals for our “noble” traits as well?’ Morality is a direct outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals.
In the Origin, Darwin drew no distinction between man and other organisms. At the heart of Darwin’s theory is the denial of humanity’s special status. Humans, just like any other species, were descended, with modification, from more ancient ancestors. Even those qualities that seemed to set people apart — language, wisdom, a sense of right and wrong - had evolved in the same manner as other physical traits, such as longer beaks or sharper incisors. Evolution has shaped people to be altruistic by instilling within us a genuine concern for the fate of certain other individuals.
Darwin wrote an entire book about animal emotions, including their capacity for sympathy. Having companions offers immense advantages in locating food and avoiding predators. Darwin’s writing massively contradicts Veneer Theory. He speculated, for example, that 'The social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.' After over 40 years of observation of primate behavior, Frans de Waal contends that concern for others is their natural conduct.
It appears that social animals are wired to cooperate and to reduce stress by seeking each others’ company. Many types of social interactions may be best understood in terms of a non-zero-sum game with multiple winners. Darwin had this idea long before scientific studies of animal behavior when he noted that natural selection would opt for “the feeling of pleasure from society”. Studying primate biology brings us closer to the truth than studying Hobbs, which is that we are social to the core.
Anyone who says that large-scale cooperation is beyond our nature knows too little about primates, including ourselves. Research with other primates has shown that the propensity to forgive can be shaped heavily by one’s cultural experiences. Separate infant monkeys from their mothers, and they’ll grow up to be less conciliatory than is typical for their species. Raise them among individuals from a more conciliatory species, and they’ll become more conciliatory than is typical.
It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo ape and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply our empathic tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in existence since time immemorial. Biology holds us “on a leash,” said biologist Edward Wilson, and will let us stray only so far from who we are.
This also means that the reputation that Darwinism has gained of painting nature as a cold, unforgiving theater is misplaced. The idea that Darwinism has to be replaced in our daily lives so as to build a moral society are based on a profound misreading of Darwin. Since he saw morality as an evolutionary product, he envisioned an eminently more livable world than the one proposed by many of his followers, who believe in a culturally imposed, artificial morality that receives no helping hand from human nature.
The most common theory about our earliest ancestors is the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis. But early hominids were largely defenseless creatures of small stature and had body structures that would have made them less efficient hunters compared to other predators. They much better fit the profile of prey species, vulnerable to a large variety of carnivores. It makes sense to relabel “Man the Hunter” as “Man the Hunted”. It is highly likely that these creatures lived in large groups for protection requiring individuals to be highly social and cooperative.
It is only because of the prevalence of Veneer Theory that it was believed that goodness is not part of human nature, and that we need to work hard to teach it to our children. Children were seen as selfish monsters, who learn to be moral from teachers and parents despite their natural inclinations. They were seen as reluctant moralists. But experiments have shown that moral understanding develops astonishingly early in life. Infants under one year of age already favor the good guy in a puppet show. The puppet who nicely rolls a ball back and forth with another is preferred over one who steals the ball and runs off with it.
Darwin noted that the only uniquely human expression is blushing, an observation that has stood the test of time. Blushing is an evolutionary mystery that must be particularly perplexing for those who believe that exploitation of others is all that humans are capable of. Such a signal makes no sense for a born manipulator. Blushing tells others that you are aware how your actions affect them. This fosters trust. We prefer people whose emotions we can read from their faces over those who never show the slightest hint of shame or guilt.
Recent studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive. Compassion and benevolence are rooted in our brain and biology. For example, helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. People who develop the need for psychiatric intervention are those who have become alienated and antisocial. It works this way only because we are not born as loners. Our bodies and minds are not designed for life in the absence of others.
German and Japanese aggression once shook the world, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility. Our expectations for ourselves play a strong role in shaping our behavior. It is important that we get out of the rut of giving cooperation and fairness secondary roles in the evolution of cohesive and smoothly functioning social groups. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote Orwell .