The Art of Following the Rules

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The Art of Following the Rules

Bailey Baumann


            Humanmorality is an extremely complex entity that shapes our daily lives everysecond of everyday. Morality is indeed a complex subject, one that most humanstake for granted, seeing it as a static function that has always existed andwill continue to exist indefinitely. Although the majority of the populationdoes not see reason to contemplate or dissect what they consider to be anintegral and unique part of human nature, many philosophers and scientists spendtheir careers unraveling human morality to tell us both what morality is and from where morality came.

            Asan aspiring primatologist, I find the second question particularly fascinatingbecause it forces morality researchers to consider the role that ourevolutionary history has played in the development of human morals. Scientistshave known for many years that primates are our closest living relative, butthe characteristics that are most noted, at least in the general population,are limited to physical and superficial qualities. “Look Susan, that chimpanzeehas a thumb!” “Look John, that gorilla can throw a ball just like you!”  The reactions that primates elicit seemto suggest that many humans see our closest living relative as a novelty, as acheap version of the homo sapien sapienpopulation, desperately trying to have what humans have already accomplished.Although much is mentioned about how similar primates are in their physicalproperties and their superficial behaviors, less is discussed concerning themorality of primates (6).

            Fransde Waals, a world-renowned primatologist at Emory University, has seen firsthand the prejudices in the descriptions of animal behavior and motivation byresearchers. It is commonplace and acceptable to describe, in full detail, theaggressive or hostile behavior of primates and other animal. In fact, de Waalshas seen animals described as the following; “suckers, grudgers, cheaters,spiteful, greedy, and murderous” (1). While it is easy to come upon literaturethat describes the more unappetizing aspects of animal behavior, it is morerare to come across a description of animal behavior that uses words such as“loving” “sympathetic” or “ caring.” De Waals, who has observed primates forover twenty years, does not agree with the way in which the majority of animalbehavior is described in scientific literature. In fact, de Waals has receivedcriticism from fellow field researchers for using the word reconciliation, oncebeing forced to describe a reconciliation followed by as kiss as “…apostconflict interaction involving mouth-to-mouth contact” (1).

            Whyis this bias seen in the field of animal research, and why is it fair toproject feelings of greed or spitefulness onto a chimpanzee, while it isconsidered naive or “romantic” to graph positive emotions such as love onto thesame creature? I believe that this disconnect is born from our desire toidentify a characteristic, feeling, or action that is uniquely human, becauseif this novel trait does exist, it is much easier to justify our place at thetop of the animal kingdom. We would like to see ourselves as both part of thelarger picture of life but at the same time, separate and unique. The idea ofemphasizing and deemphasizing certain human traits is not limited to thescientific community. The general public is also inclined to pick and choosethe characteristics that can be deemed “human” and those considered “animal.”Consider the two familiar phrases, “Acting like an animal” and “That animal almost looks human.”

            Iknow that I am not immune from these tendencies, as I have often caught myselfcomparing my younger brother’s actions to those of a pig or bear, butrecognizing these prejudices in myself has further convinced me of the need tolook at human morality not as a search for what makes us distinctively human,but as a search into where our seemingly unique characteristics have emerged.Although it may seem fruitless to explore what is actually occurring inside themind of a non-human primate, it is important that the scientific communitycontinue to try and understand how the animal brain differs from that of ahuman, so the evolution of human morality can be revealed.

            Thestudy of animal behavior has evolved considerably from the beginnings of human’sinterest in animal’s minds. In Darwin’s time, many held the belief that animalsact on innate behaviors that have become instinctive because of evolutionaryselection, while humans acted based on reason rather than instinct (3).According to this view, humans seem to have developed the ability to redirect aneural pathway and change the order in which an input is registered in thenervous system.

            Obviously,not all human behavior is governed by reason; we instinctively breathe and ourheart instinctively beats. So, the original hypothesis of human vs. animalbehavior needs to be redefined. As stated before, it is always difficult to saywith any type of certainty what an animal is actually feeling when performing abehavior, so it seems to me that the best way to compare human and primatebehavior is to choose a circumstance that is familiar to each species andcompare their reactions to changing variables.

            Tome one of the most interesting aspects of morality is group living,determination of rank, and the following and distribution of rules; basicallythe things that make living in a society tolerable and actually beneficial tothe residents. Living in groups and obeying societies rules in extremelyimportant in determining the moral compass of an individual and a population.In particular, I would like to explore the use of two mental states that leadto differential ways of rule following by primates and humans, expectation andguilt.

            Weall know that animals tend to form groups. Even the simplest units of life,cells, will form specialized groups that become our internal organs. It shouldnot surprise us that a two day old baby will show increased cerebral blood flowwhen they see a human face or a rhesus macaque will show a distinct brain activitywhen she hears the call of another rhesus macaque (3). It is obvious thatanimals do form permanent groups and that the desire to be with your own kindis established very early in an animal’s life. What isn’t obvious is why wetend to form groups instead living solitary lives. The plain and simple answeris that it is easier to survive in numbers. Groups afford an animal moreresources, more protection, and a greater chance of mating and passing on theirgenes to another generation.

            Itis obvious that even the simplest organisms obey some types of rules. At anatomic level, atoms have specific numbers of protons and without thesespecifications distinct atoms would cease to exist. For the idea of morality tosurvive, there needs to be society, because in the absence of other organismsand an interactive environment there is no need for morality to be created.There is nothing special about forming groups; it is a very old product ofevolution. What’s interesting about group living, is the ability and the desireof its members to follow rules. 

            Animalsobey rules for a number of reasons, which I believe can tell us about theevolutionary history of rule following in a hierarchical system. Kellman andSpelke, two scientists wanted to know if young babies had the ability to haveexpectations about the outcome of a situation. In this experiment, babies wereshown a rectangle with a rod behind, oscillating. Next, the rectangle was takenaway to reveal two situations, first, the rod would be intact, and second, therod would be split in half. By measuring focus and staring, scientistsconcluded that the babies were more interested in the broken rod, perhapsbecause it did not met the baby’s expectations (4). If a species is able tohave expectations about what will happen if a rule is broken, they are morelikely to learn this rule without the help of direct punishment or reward.Species that are less evolved may have a harder time formulating expectations,and thus require a more regimented system of rewards and punishment.

            Becausesome species require a more direct approach to learning rules, it would makesense that these animals would engage in more physical altercations during thelearning process. If this were true, it would make sense to see a gradualdecrease in the violence involved in learning from monkeys to non-humanprimates, to human primates. Primatologists who have observed the behavior ofadults monkeys and primates in the discipline of children have noticed thatthere is a large difference between the way in which mothers and dominantstreat their children and subordinates, respectively. For instance, de Waals hasobserved that dominant male chimpanzees are much less apt to use violence thanthe Rhesus Macaque (1).  

            So,as a population becomes more evolved and “intelligent,” the role of thedominant becomes less absolute and violence driven, and although violence maysuggest to some the absence of morality, I don’t entirely agree. Enforcingrules is essential to the success of a group because by enforcing the specificrules of the society, social stability is maintained and the society continuesto survive. In a study of food competition and aggression, researchers foundthat although dominant Rhesus monkeys were more likely to punish otherindividuals, they did not monopolize food sources (5). This suggests that thepresence of a well-established dominant leader does not cut off resources forother members of the group, but aggressively enforces equal sharing.

            Ina world where you will literally die without the presence of a group structure,the dominant leader realizes that it will be to his disadvantage to isolatehimself through completely selfish acts. In human society, where there is aless obvious and direct need for society membership, the necessity of equalsharing and equality of rule may not be as pressing. So, humans do have theability to be just as aggressive as primates, but the way in which our societyhas evolved, makes it less favorable because highly aggressive acts leads toisolation.

            Anotherinteresting aspect of rule following is the reasons and the ability of ananimal to follow rules. As humans, we are able to vocally discuss our reasonsfor doing something while refraining from doing something else. A common reasonthat we don’t do an activity, despite an instantaneous personal reward is guiltor shame. I know that I have refrained from eating the last piece of mysister’s cake because of an emotion that I recognized as guilt. Many claim thatguilt is a strictly human emotion, one of those elusive unique human traits(6), but I have to disagree on principle. We have no evidence that suggeststhat animals do not experience guilt. Moreover, I don’t believe that guilt is aquality that leads to morality.

            Thefeeling of guilt may be similar to the experience of pain, just on a longertime scale. When you place your hand on a hot surface, you remove it quicklypartially because of your previous knowledge that hot objects will burn yourhand. This quick instinctual removal has been accomplished without the help ofthe I-Function. The ability to make a moral judgment may work the same way. Ineveryday life we are faced with many small moral decisions, and I believe thatwe have the ability to make many moral decisions without the use of the I-Function.Like pain, shame and guilt are emotions or states that we attribute to thesituation after the fact. So, if higher reasoning and guilt are not required tomake all moral decisions, it would be feasible that primates and other animalswould also be capable of making some moral decisions, even if they have noI-Function. 

            Avery clever task that has been tested in both experimental settings and throughnaturalistic observation is a primate’s ability to follow rules without thepresence of an authority figure or rule enforcer. Some researchers believe thatby observing the behavior of an animal without the constant watch of a dominantanimal, we will learn more about that animal’s capacity to experience guilt orshame. There has been mixed results that show that some primates do have theability to follow some rules without the presence of a dominant figure, butthere are also well documented occasions where the primate will immediatelydisobey the rules when they believe they are no longer being watched (1). Inone experiment, lower ranking male long-tailed macaques did not initiate sexwith a female in the presence of a dominant male, but will quickly initiate sexonce they believe the other male has left the area (8). The reason that thesetests are done is to determine if a primate is able to internalize a rule andrealize why it exists. If primates were able to internalize a rule, they shouldbe able to stop themselves from breaking that rule without outside influencebecause of feelings of guilt and shame (7).

            Ido think that these tests are useful in observing the dynamics of a primatehierarchical system, but I don’t think that they can tell us a lot aboutmorality. Yes, humans do have the ability to internalize rules and controltheir personal urges better than primates, but highly domesticated animals suchas dogs show an extraordinary ability to adhere to rules without their ownerpresent. I believe that the ability to internalize rules has more to do with apredisposition to follow rules that have been either natural or artificiallyselected upon, than morality.

Overall, I don’tbelieve that after looking at all the research being done on primatepopulations that it is possible to say that morality has developedindependently of our evolutionary history. Nor is it appropriate to say thathumans are the only animals to possess morality. Obviously the study of rulefollowing and rule formation is just one tiny aspect of shared human andprimate behavior, but I believe it is a good starting point for further studyof the evolution of morality. To ignore the wealth of knowledge that can beobtained about morality through the study of primate behavior would be a hugewaste, and would be just as ridiculous as the theory adapted by classicalscholars who believed that the more similar an animal was to the human, theless human it became (3). We should continue to take advantage of the livinglink that we have to our evolutionary history.








Works Cited


1. de Waals, F. (1996). Good natured: The origins ofright and wrong in humans and other animals.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


2. de Waals, F. (2006). Primates and philosophers: Howmorality evolved. Princeton, NJ: PrincetonUniversity Press.


3. Cheney, D., & Seyfarth, R. (2007). Baboon metaphysics:The evolution of a social mind. Chicago,IL: The University of Chicago Press.


4. Kellman, P.J., & E.S. Spelke. 1983. Perception ofpartially occluded objects in infancy. Cog. Psych. 15:483-524.


5. Chancellor, R. & Isbell, L. 2007. Punishment andcompetition over food in captive rhesus macaques, Macac mulatta. AnimalBehavior. 75: 1939-1947.


6. Monkeys have a sense of morality. 2/20/2009


7. Animal Fear and Human Guilt. 2/21/2009.


8. Coe, C.L., & L.A. Rosenblum. 1984. Male Dominance inthe bonnet macaque: A malleable relationship. In P.R. Barchas and S.P. Mendoza,eds., Social Cohesion: Essays towards a Sociophysicological Perspective, pp. 31-63. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.











Paul Grobstein's picture

Morality: animal/human, unconscious/conscious

I agree it is doubtful that morality "has deveoped independently of our evolutionary history." And so agree we have much to learn about our own sense of "morality" from observations on other living things. Like, for example, that much of "morality" doesn't involve thinking? See for example The Moral Dog and its Rationale Tale. And perhaps that much of our group behavior isn't actually so rational either? See, for example, Being on the Spectrum and Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical.
jrlewis's picture

The study of animal behavior

The study of animal behavior is a very interesting field.  One that appeals to me because of my experience with mammals, horses, cats, and dogs.  The issue of anthropomorphisation in describing animal behavior is a challenge.  Does identifying animal behavior that is similar to human behavior imply the same intention on the part of the animal agent?  Or the same brain activity?  What I am trying to ask is whether or not it is possible to directly parallel human behavior in animals?  Or is a certain amount of translation required? 

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