What Great Apes Teach Us About Emotions, Morality, and Civilization

great apes

As civilized humans, we don’t often like to think of ourselves as animals, but that is exactly what we are.

When it comes to the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans), we share over 90 percent of our genes with these species, making them our closest evolutionary cousins. Neuroscientists also now know that we share very similar brain structure and neural circuitry with great apes (and other social mammals).

According to primatologist Frans de Waal in The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, while we tend to think of civilization and morality as wholly unique to us, you can often find strong evidence of them in apes (as well as other species like elephants and dogs).

    “Just like us, monkeys and apes strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we have computers and airplanes, but our psychological makeup remains that of a social primate.”

Basically, we share much of the same natural drives and instincts as apes. This includes both our desire for power, food, sex, and security, but also moral instincts like empathy, trust, fairness, and equality.

All social species (especially mammals) have ways of regulating the behavior of their members. This includes punishing those that are bad for the group and rewarding those who are good for the group. In this way, these species have a type of civilization, a code of moral conduct or rules to follow.

One of the main themes throughout the book is that our own sense of morality is “bottom-up” rather than “top-down.” This means morality is largely something that comes from our natural instincts, rather than something that is solely imposed by a religion or government.

According to Waal, while religion and government can be very important institutions to create and maintain our civilization, he seems them as largely a byproduct of our complex moral instincts. They come primarily from our biology and nature.

It’s very enlightening to think about civilization and morality from an evolutionary perspective. It can tell us a lot about who we are and where we come from. One of the best ways of doing this is by observing the similarities (and differences) between us and our evolutionary cousins, such as bonobos and chimpanzees.

The emotions that drive our morality

We like to believe our morality is based on strict principles and rationality, but more and more research is showing that emotions are the main drive behind our morality, not reason.

This contradicts a lot of philosophy on morality that often tries to deduce morality to certain “principles” or “axioms,” but the truth is that is not how morality plays itself out in the real world (neither for humans nor for apes).

Instead, we often feel what is “right” or “wrong,” and then we rationalize why we feel that way after the fact. This is one of the key ideas expressed in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider. The elephant is the main engine behind our morality, it represents our emotions and automatic responses, while the rider represents our thoughts and rationalizations. The rider can direct the elephant and influence it, but it isn’t the one who is truly in charge.

This metaphor fits perfectly with Frans de Waal’s “bottom up” version of morality, the idea that morality springs from our natural instincts, and isn’t something that’s enforced on us “top down.”

If emotions are the primary drive behind our morality, then one important question to ask ourselves is, “What emotions do we share with great apes, like chimpanzees and bonobos?”

As it turns out, chimpanzees and bonobos share an incredibly wide-range of emotions with us. In Frans de Waal’s 40+ years of observing primates, he has witnessed many different displays of emotions and shares many illuminating examples in his book.

Emotions and moral instincts we share with great apes:

  • Empathy – Great apes are capable of empathy when witnessing the pain of another ape, which often leads them to console the hurt ape by providing food, grooming, and comfort.
  • Shame – Great apes are capable of shame and regret. For example, when a chimpanzee gets into a fight with another ape they will often seek to reconcile the conflict, and can also be found carefully inspecting where they had left wounds, bite marks, or scratches.
  • Trust – Great apes are capable of trust and reciprocity. Apes that provide more favors (food, grooming, or support in a fight), are more likely to have that ape help them out in return. Chimpanzees especially follow a “tit for tat” system, and members who break trust by not reciprocating a favor are often severely punished and ostracized.
  • Grief – Great apes are capable of grief, especially after the loss of a relative or loved one. When witnessing death, it’s not uncommon for bonobos to stare at the dead body in complete silence for long periods of time, almost like a funeral. Mothers too can be found carrying around their dead children, knowing well that they are gone.
  • Equality – Great apes are sensitive to equality and sharing. In one controlled experiment, bonobos that were given a lesser reward for the same work (a carrot rather than a grape), refused to do work until they received the same reward. This was true for both the ape receiving the lesser reward, and sometimes for the ape receiving the bigger reward (recognizing the unequal distribution). This instinct likely comes from distributing food within the group after a session of hunting or gathering.
  • Community – Great apes don’t just act out of self-interest, they have a concern for the community as a whole. Whether it’s respecting social hierarchies, punishing aggressors or cheaters, or taking care of their weak – apes are largely interested in “keeping the peace” and working together to benefit the group or community.
    These are just some of the emotions common between apes and humans that help drive our morality.

Like all social species including humans, it’s important for apes to work together in groups to survive, reproduce, and protect themselves from outside threats. The stronger the group, the more likely they are to fulfill these basic evolutionary needs.

When you discover examples of apes displaying these types of complex emotions, it’s not hard to see how we are very similar to them and share many of the same moral instincts that drive our own society, culture, and institutions.

great apes

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal is an interesting look into the world of primates and what they can teach us about emotions, morality, and civilization as a whole. Based on his 40+ years of observation and research of chimpanzees and bonobos, Waal finds that morality is largely a “bottom up” process that is built into our nature.

The power of “community concern”

It’s of great importance to bonobos and chimpanzees to have a concern for the group as a whole rather than only focusing on individual interests.

One crucial role of “alpha males” among chimpanzees is that they often try to keep peace in the community by helping to settle conflicts within the group and police bad behavior. For example, if another male chimp picks a fight with a weaker party or tries to have sex with an unwilling female, the alpha male will step in to resolve the conflict:

    “Remarkably, males in this role don’t take sides: they defend the weaker party even if the attack is their best buddy. I have often puzzled over their impartiality, which deviates from so much else chimpanzees do. By transcending the performer’s social biases, the control role truly aims at what’s best for the community. Jessica Flack and I demonstrated how much the group benefits from such a behavior by temporarily removing males that act as arbiters. The result was a society coming apart at its seams. Aggression increased and reconciliation decreased. Order was restored, however, as soon as we returned the males to their group.”

Frans de Waal calls this type of behavior “community concern.” The alpha male doesn’t receive any direct benefit for resolving these conflicts, but it does serve the community and make the group better off as a whole.

Female chimps also exhibit “community concern,” but instead of functioning as the police of the community, they are often found taking a more nurturing role as peace-keepers, consolers of hurt apes, and encouraging reconciliation among in-group rivals:

    “The same impartial ‘policing’ is known from wild chimps, and a recent study comparing it across various groups concluded that it stabilizes social dynamics. There are also the intercessions by older females, who bring warring males together, literally tugging at their arm to get them to approach their adversary. Females pry heavy rocks from violent males’ hands. They do so even if they are not directly involved themselves and could easily have stayed on the sidelines. Chimpanzees thus ameliorate the social atmosphere around them, promoting peace not just for themselves but for everyone else as well.”

Waal sees these hints of “community concern” as the building blocks of morality and civilization in humans. And I think it’s easy to see how similar dynamics like these often play out among humans, especially when it comes to upholding law, civility, and order.

Here he describes one common example of “community concern” among humans:

    “Human community concern is driven by enlightened self-interest. We strive for a well-functioning whole because this is what we thrive in. If I see a burglar breaking into a house in my street, even though it is not my house and none of my business, I will follow the rules of society and call the police. If something equivalent were to happen in an ancestral settlement, we’d mobilize everyone to stop the person who has trouble telling mine from thine. Moral transgressions, even those that don’t directly affect us, are bad for everyone.”

In general, rules and norms help preserve order and peace when they are followed and enforced. It’s interesting to see how great apes practice and enforce their own rules and norms in a similar way to humans.

Natural hierarchies

Most great apes, especially chimpanzees, have very hierarchy-based societies – and respecting these hierarchies is often important for maintaining a peaceful and orderly community.

One time a group of chimpanzees in captivity were given macadamia nuts and everyone in the group shared the food equally. However, for the chimps to be able to eat the macadamias, they each needed to use a “cracking station” to help them open it. Only one ape could use the “cracking station” at a time, so the lower-ranking apes let the higher-ranking apes go first before they took their turn.

This is just one example of how apes are aware of social hierarchies and often have to “know their place” if they want to preserve order and peace.

Frans de Waal discusses more on this example of hierarchies here:

    “When we see a disciplined society, there is often a social hierarchy behind it. This hierarchy, which determines who can eat or mate first, is ultimately rooted in violence. If one of the lower-ranking females and her offspring had tried to claim the cracking station before their turn, things would have gotten ugly. It is not just that these apes knew their place; they knew what to expect in case of a breach of rule. A social hierarchy is a giant system of inhibitions, which is no doubt what paved the way for human morality, which is also such a system.”

By having a hierarchy, the apes are expressing a preference for “social order” over “individual self-interest.” If every ape was constantly trying to be #1 all of the time, there would quickly be chaos and anarchy.

The alpha males tend to be the ones who are in charge of preserving order the most, so that top position naturally comes with a level of respect and dignity from the group.

Of course, we have hierarchies in most human cultures too, whether it’s in business, politics, or religion. While we can try our best to uproot systematic injustices, it seems that hierarchies are a natural mode of existence and we seem to naturally look toward leaders to guide us and preserve law, peace, and order.

Religion as an evolutionary mechanism

One of the core ideas behind The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates is that much of our morality and civilization comes from our nature, and isn’t imposed by an outside force like God.

However, while Frans de Waal is an atheist, he thinks that religion can still be a very powerful and healthy force in society, and that it serves an evolutionary benefit.

Unlike “neo-atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who commonly criticize religion as ultimately evil and destructive, Waal takes an evolutionary perspective and explains why religion exists and what function it serves in creating shared commitment and group cohesion.

    “Religion seems to promote well-being in body and mind. Let me hasten to add, though, that there is little agreement about how it does so. Even if many religions have rules governing diet, drugs, marriage, and hygiene, this doesn’t seem the reason. Research points, instead, to church attendance as a major factor, which suggests a social dimension. It is well known that social connectedness strengthens the immune system, and church attendance surely helps in this regard. If so, it may not be religiosity per se that protects against disease, but rather human contact. For all we know, the same benefits may apply to members of a book club or birding society. Churches, however, produce more shared commitment, which does add to a sense of belonging. Emile Durkheim, the French father of sociology, emphasized the collective rituals, sacred music, and singing in unison that make religious practice an irresistible bonding experience.”

From an evolutionary perspective, religion might be a mechanism that helps improve cooperation, group cohesion, and working together.

Sharing the same religion often signals to others that you share similar values and beliefs in life, and this can dramatically improve trust and cooperation within a group or community.

One anthropology study showed that religious-based communes in the U.S. often last longer than secular-based communes, perhaps due to this increase in trust and group commitment.

Perhaps this explains why religion has been so common throughout our history and why it is still so prevalent today. It often creates a sense of group belonging that is hard to achieve without it.


It can be very illuminating to learn about our evolutionary cousins and the similarities we share with them. It can often tell us a lot about where we came from and where some of our own concepts of morality and civilization may have originated.

At the same time, we have to be cautious of extrapolating too much from nature and animals – and applying it to what humans “should” or “shouldn’t” do.

Learning about nature and evolution can help explain more about ourselves, but it doesn’t necessarily prescribe what we should do in the future. The common caveat in evolutionary biology is that “explanation doesn’t mean justification.”

At the end of the day, we aren’t chimpanzees or bonobos even if we share a lot in common with them. Frans de Waal elaborates more on this below:

    “I don’t believe that watching chimpanzees or bonobos can tell us what is right or wrong, nor do I think that science can do so, but surely knowledge of the natural world helps us understand how and why we came to care about each other and seek moral outcomes.”

Overall, The Bonobo and the Atheist is a great book worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in animal behavior and evolutionary biology. It will help you see human nature in a light you aren’t normally used to.

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