Morality Before Religion: Empathy, Reciprocity, and Fairness in Our Fellow Primates


Location: McKenna Hall Auditorium

Frans de Waal C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory University

Homo homini lupus – “man is wolf to man” - is an old Roman proverb popularized by Thomas Hobbes. Even though it permeates large parts of law, economics, and political science, the proverb fails to do justice to our species’ thoroughly social nature as well as to canids, which are among the most gregarious and cooperative animals. For the past quarter century, this cynical view has also been promoted by an influential school of biology, followers of Thomas Henry Huxley, which holds that we are born nasty as a result of “selfish” genes. Accordingly, it is only with the greatest possible effort that we can hope to become moral beings. Charles Darwin, however, saw things differently: he believed in continuity between animal social instincts and human morality. He wrote an entire book about The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Modern psychology and neuroscience support Darwin’s view about the moral emotions. Human moral decisions often stem from “gut” reactions, some of which we share with other animals. I will elaborate on the connection between morality and primate behavior. Other primates show signs of empathy, prosocial tendencies, reciprocity, and a sense of fairness that promote a mutually satisfactory modus vivendi. I will review evidence for continuity to support the view that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity.

Frans de Waal is C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University, and Director of the Living Links Center, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, The Age of Empathy (Harmony Books, 2009) and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton University Press, 2006).

This lecture is sponsored by the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts’ Henkels Lecturer Series, and the Office of the Provost (Provost’s Initiative on Building Intellectual Community), which funds an interdisciplinary faculty discussion group, “Conversations on Mind, Brain, and Behavior”.

For more information, contact Jessica Payne ( ) or Michelle Wirth ( ).