This article is from
Journal of Creation 37(1):112–119, April 2023

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What’s wrong with being wrong: part 4b—a more than cursory look into evolutionary ethics


In part 1, I examined problems associated with using evolution, a materialist philosophy, to explain ethics, a non-material discipline. Subsequent discussion addressed the failure of group selection and kin selection to clarify how morality came to be. This part continues the critique of reciprocal altruism. Evolutionary dogma logically demands a biological continuum from non-human life to the human. Consequently, reciprocal altruism is almost totally reliant on evolutionists’ belief that animal studies demonstrate a proto-morality.

It’s all down to the relatives

In 1838, some twenty-one years before he published On The Origin of Species, Darwin penned the following: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work. Worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble & I believe true to consider him created from animals.”1

Darwin needed to demonstrate that human morality originated in animal behaviour and was not, as was then near universally held, an aspect of man mirroring the divine image.2 To this end, his The Descent of Man contained a lengthy catalogue detailing the physical and mental similarities between animals and man. These provided an empirical and protreptic base for the fourth chapter, solely devoted to the origin of human morality. Darwin’s linking humans to animals was the watershed moment for a new vision of the world and ourselves.3

It comes as no great surprise, then, that contemporary evolutionists underscore their claims for reciprocal altruism being an ancestral bridge to psychological altruism by pointing to animal behaviour examples which appear to be acts of kindness. The animal rights activist and Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (figure 1) unpacks the logic behind this:

“… if the origins of ethics lie in a past which we share with many non-human animals, evolutionary theory and observations of non-human social animals should have some bearing on the nature of ethics … .[And conversely] Understanding the development of altruism in animals will improve our understanding of the development of ethics in human beings, for our present ethical systems have their roots in the altruistic behaviour of our early human and prehuman ancestors.”4

Image: Crawford Forum, Wikimedia / CC BY 2.0 photo of peter singer
Figure 1. As a consequence of his evolutionary worldview, philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer must extend ethics to the nonhuman world. He admits this creates cognitive dissonance when he finds it difficult to decide whether rats’ interests are to be considered even when they bite and infect children in the slums

As one author uncompromisingly put it, “Attempting to unhook all our links to the animal kingdom would constitute a costly conceit.”5

Although now regarded more accurately as mutualism, the cleaner wrasse found in the mouths of larger fishes are serially paraded as representative of reciprocal altruism.6,7 Such intricate behaviour, it is contended, was brought about by selection, despite conceding that originally the larger fish would have immediately eaten the much smaller. How would such symbiosis get off the ground? It’s clearly a case of all or nothing and no Dawkins’ one-percent-success-is-better-than-nothing explanation could logically fit. Yet, with no incremental steps available to scale this Mount Improbable, evolutionists routinely turn toward the god of exigent necessity by simply invoking its appearance: “[The cleaner fish] have developed behavioural signals that simply shut down the aggressive impulses of the cleaned fish.”8 Williams unilluminatingly calls the arising of such mutualism a “chance relation [though] relatively rare, and it must be that these necessary preconditions seldom arise.”9

As an example of reciprocal altruism, Trivers proposed alarm calls from birds alerting others in the flock to the existence of a predator. It’s been pointed out, however, that Trivers’ example isn’t a genuine type of reciprocal altruism because there is no fitness cost to the caller and no genuine exchange. Although the call may dissuade the predator from returning to hunt on any subsequent occasion, the caller itself will be less likely to be killed by the same predator.10

More promising evidence for reciprocal altruism is found in higher primates.11 The reasoning, stripped of any abstruseness, is uncomplicated. Evolution is incrementally slow, and since morality is an important biological strategy for survival—it supposedly increases reproductive success—behaviour suggestive of it (often labelled ‘proto-morality’) should be found in our close relatives. This would support the proposition that morality, and altruism specifically, has a biological foundation. Devoid of restraint, this project understands well its mission, as reflected in Gallup’s words: “Primate research poses one of the greatest contemporary threats to traditional notions about man.”12

Ruse draws from de Waal’s studies in which a mother chimp notices her child fighting another. The mother wakes the nearby sleeping oldest female and this senior makes threatening noises and gesticulations to halt their fighting. Ruse then asks, “If this [quietening influence] is not … act[ing] as a moral force—or, let me say cautiously, a proto-moral force—I do not know what is. ‘Blessed are the Peace-makers: for they shall be called the Children of God’.”13 Chimps kissing and embracing after fights serves to preserve peace within the community and are thus proposed as mechanisms that eventually led to morality in humans.14 De Waal admits that reconciliation and forgiveness are not synonymous but argues that the two are related. Perhaps an alternative explanation is that these may be better understood as instrumental means to a non-moral end; problem-solving exercises designed to bring peace and quiet to a community, not morality.

Exchanges of food or grooming in animals are commonly cited as strong indicators of reciprocal altruism. The return of favour, sometimes many hours after the initial act of feeding or grooming, is labelled by many evolutionary behaviourists as ‘gratitude’, something which is deemed essential for human morality.15

A brief excursus to ethical philosophy

It is important to recall precisely what morality involves: the non-instrumental ‘ought’ component. Gratitude has nothing particularly moral about it unless it is accompanied by a sense that one should thank the other person or, in the case of apes, return the favour with some conscious deliberation that if one did not, it would be wrong; i.e. wrong in a non-expedient or non-instrumental sense.16 It seems unlikely an ape would be able to self-reflect to the degree of critically analyzing its own behaviour and feel the pang of conscience it had acted inappropriately and broken a moral dictum like, “It is morally reprehensible to not demonstrate gratitude when a favour is done for you.”

Moral philosophers place themselves in one of two camps: moral judgements are either controlled by the emotions or cognitive mechanisms. References to Hume, an 18th-century proponent of the former,17 litter evolutionary ethical explanations, and De Waal relies heavily on him. De Waal’s thesis turns on a set of propositions: morality is reducible to an emotional aspect of behaviour; emotional behaviours like empathetic reactions and reciprocated favours appear to be displayed in animals; these, then, are strong evidence evolution via natural selection has preserved the same behaviours in humans and the non-human examples are the antecedent source for human morality. The argument is that there are essential behaviours and processes which must accompany moral behaviour for it to be called moral. If these are found in animals, there is no great gap to overcome in explaining psychological altruism in humans.

This evolutionary explanation unmasks several conceptual errors. It confuses morality, qua non instrumental rightness and wrongness, with the flow-on behaviours, responses, and reactions. It also seems to blur the line between necessary and sufficient components. Empathy, apparent or actual, while necessary, is not sufficient for morality and is certainly not synonymous, something De Waal does concede.18 Nevertheless, he appears to ignore his own principle:

“In human behaviour, there exists a tight relation between empathy and sympathy, and their expression in psychological altruism. It is reasonable to assume that the altruistic and caring responses of other animals, especially mammals, rest on similar mechanisms.”19

This error is compounded by confusing effects with causes. Being in possession of true morality means being aware of a compelling ‘ought’. It is this which is the engine that acts as the cause for these behaviours, not the reverse, no matter how tight a relationship the two fields have with each other.20

Language misappropriation

One major criticism of these studies is that many scientists anthropomorphize animal behaviour, particularly in the higher order primates. For example, they may talk about chimps’ ability to ‘deceive’, ‘plan’, or possess a sense of ‘humour’ or ‘honour’. In and of itself this is not particularly misplaced when it’s used for a pragmatic communication reason, but often it’s incorporated to tendentiously forge the evolutionary link between primates and humans. De Waal admits this:

“[Using anthropomorphic expressions] is hardly dangerous, though, to those working from an evolutionary perspective so long as they treat anthropomorphic explanations as hypotheses. Anthropomorphism is a possibility among many, but one to be taken seriously given that it applies intuitions about ourselves to creatures very much like us.”21

Once anthropomorphic language enters the academic argot, it is a small step to insert moral terminology as though one leads to the other. Singer routinely does this, and, given his publicly expressed views on animal welfare and the negligible difference between the human ‘animal’ and ‘other’ animals, it seems his ideology drives his conclusions. For example, from discussing what appears payback from one set of monkeys, ones who participate in delousing, toward non-participatory individuals, he jumps effortlessly to the claim that “more sophisticated reciprocators, able to think and use language, may regard reciprocity as good and ‘right’ and cheating as bad and ‘wrong’”.22 Apparently, Singer believes introducing inverted commas around crucial words replaces a science-based demonstration.

Wright commits the same error. Behavioural biologists will use emotive language to describe chimpanzees as ‘outraged’, ‘aggrieved’ or ‘insecure’ (e.g. “the chimps, upon dimly sensing their shared plight, developed friendly feelings, and attendant feelings of mutual obligations, that drew them into alliance.”23) and cognitive language such as ‘anticipate’ or ‘plan’ (“the chimps saw that they shared a strategic interest and decided to form an alliance”24). However, Wright insists that

“… it isn’t always clear from the behavioural evidence alone which kind of anthropomorphic language is in order. Fairly often, in both humans and non-human primates, a behaviour could in principle be explained either as a product of conscious reflection and strategising or as a product of essentially emotional reaction.”25

The ‘Theory of Mind’ and behind the mask

Image: Vera Kratochvil / Public DomainChimp
Figure 2. Philosophizing or anthropomorphic imputation?

Often connected with the inclusion of anthropomorphic language is the attribution to non-human primates and humans of common mental states (figure 2). In other words, to some degree, the former also possess a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). It is inferred from certain behaviours that a chimp, for example, conceives of another conspecific’s behaviour (or sometimes a human’s) in terms of a mental state. The individual animal is not just capable of first-order mental states, such as wanting and thinking, but being able to attach these states of mind to others, so called second-order states.26 In order to impute moral deliberation to a creature, it is essential it possesses a ToM.

While there has been no shortage of quite elaborate experiments constructed to demonstrate both first-order and second-order mental states, the crucial underpinning is the background belief that primates and humans share common ancestry though an evolutionary lineage.27 In addition is the metaphysical commitment to a principle of biological parsimony which dictates that, in this case, sharing of an evolutionary history entails possessing similar biological functions.28 In order to provide any initial explanation, evolutionists are forced to erase or shrink the real distance between primates and humans.29

Povinelli and Vonk, notwithstanding their expressed commitment to evolution, point out several fallacies involved in animal ToM studies. The chief criticism is the default position’s authority that the animals’ behaviour is a product of their assumed ability to form mental abstractions, no matter how many controls are put in place during the tasks. In other words, there is an overlooked circularity at the heart of how these experiments are designed.30

Complex primate studies involving token exchange systems based on differential food rewards between paired animals produced quite startling emotional reactions from one animal when the other pair member received an ‘unfair’ distribution of rewards. De Waal admits that genuine recognition of unfairness would entail a favoured capuchin, the primate of choice in these matters, actually sharing the extra food with the less advantaged partner rather than the latter merely ‘objecting’ to not receiving an equal reward.31

Hauser, for a number of reasons, is critical of the structure and conclusions drawn from variations on this type of experiment. These objections include the assessment that some are really instantiations of mutualism due to the absence of any time delay between the initial instance of supposed altruism and its reciprocated act, and that the frequency of reciprocation is often predominantly dependent upon the quality of food on offer and the capuchins’ ability to accurately recognize this. The artificiality of the experiments poorly reflects real-life conditions and the apparent absence in nature of capuchins working together for a common end.32

Kitcher likewise doesn’t find much to convince him that these capuchins are actually taking a stand against the lack of fairness. He sardonically states, “if the lucky capuchin were to throw down the grape until his comrade had a similar reward, that would be very interesting!”33

Other experiments designed in such a way that one animal is electrically shocked or starved while another in an adjacent chamber isn’t have this latter animal, it is supposed, responding with a proto-moral behaviour by exhibiting clear signs of distress or refusing to eat while its conspecific goes without. Prinz, going against this well-intrenched idea in moral evolutionary biology, attributes not empathy to these reactions but rather mere instances of, for example, a monkey reading the other’s cry of pain as a warning sign of imminent danger or experiencing vicarious distress because they were fearful that they too would be shocked or hung upside-down.34 These goal-driven explanations of animal behaviour suffer from what Dennett branded “the incessant pull of generous over-generalization by human observers”.35

Seyfarth and Cheney point out that the putative mechanisms that support reciprocal altruism, like individual recognition, memory, identification of cheats and cost/benefit calculations, are exceedingly complex and themselves cry out for an explanation as to how they too could arise through evolution.36 In addition, the authors grapple with the problem faced by observers in lab experiments concerning the sheer numbers of variables that would seem to resist cashing out in a common ‘currency’. For example, how much value is placed on each component of an exchange by each individual? Is a single instance of an alliance against aggression equal to 20 sessions of flea-picking aid? And what is the duration of each? Despite the overwhelming and unyielding nature of the exercise, the authors are forever optimistic:

“We emphasize these problems not to argue against Trivers’ theory or to dismiss our own [experimental] results, but instead to point out that the necessary conditions for evolution by reciprocal altruism—animals with long lifespans, low dispersal rates, high rates of interaction in stable social groups—by their very nature make quantitative tests of reciprocity theory extremely difficult.”37

Korsgaard alludes to the problem of other minds when raising the intrinsic difficulty of gaining access to an animal’s mind and knowing what the real intentions are:

“A capuchin rejects a cucumber when her partner is offered a grape—is she protesting the unfairness, or is she just holding out for a grape? Do the chimps share food because they are grateful to those who have groomed them, or is it just that the grooming has put them in a relaxed and beneficent mood? … . The question of intention is a question about how an episode in which an animal does something looks from the acting animal’s own point of view, whether it is plausible to think that the animal acts with a certain kind of purpose in mind. I think there is a temptation to think that the question whether we can see the origins of morality in animal behaviour depends on how exactly we interpret their intentions, whether their intentions are ‘good’ or not. I think that, at least taken in the most obvious way, this is a mistake.”38

Broom contends that the

“… complexity of reciprocation and the subtlety of the effects of some actions make assessing the magnitude of reciprocal altruism very difficult … . … an individual may be motivated to show sympathy because of being disturbed by the sight or smell of blood.”39

There are a number of psychological prerequisites which must obtain for the idea of reciprocal altruism to be coherent and ‘a reciprocally stable relationship’. As Hauser points out, these include:

  • the ability to recognize each other
  • a functional memory to record and recall what was given, to whom and when it was given, whether it was given intentionally or as an accident arising from an intentional selfish act
  • being aware of each other’s expectations
  • appropriate emotional responses for violation of these expectations
  • a psychological well-being
  • empathy
  • the ability to accurately predict another’s state of mind without directly experiencing their behaviour and
  • the ability to establish, obey and enforce rules.40
Image: Oasalehm, Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 4.0vampire bats
Figure 3. Vampire bats involved in regurgitating blood to others in the roost is an example of reciprocal sharing.

Other ascriptions of reciprocal sharing include blood regurgitation by vampire bats (figure 3) to others in the roost who were less successful accessing victims and who have been judged unrelated,41 tamarins, again manipulating tools which gave food to another, tit-for-tat guppies and pairs of blue jays participating in prisoner’s dilemma games. Hauser, critical of even his own work on the subject, sums up such supposed proof of animal reciprocity by stating that:

“Reciprocation in animals, if it exists, is based on a highly scripted text for how to interact in a particular context with a particular commodity over a short window of opportunity. As such, it lacks the generality and abstractness that typifies human reciprocation, as well as the potential to maintain the relationship with relatively long delays between reciprocated acts.”42

If reciprocal altruism represents the ‘nice’ side of the animal world, then there’s also an inescapable dark side to it. Hrdy spent a considerable amount of her life studying langurs in India. She has documented the widespread existence of infanticide committed by conspecific males. These males attack and kill the offspring of other males and then quickly impregnate the females who have lost their children to these marauding males. The sexual selection hypothesis which accompanies her fieldwork argues that infanticide is an evolutionary strategy which gives an adaptive advantage to the infanticidal males.43

Although higher-order primates have many features in common with humans, there are tremendous biological and genetic differences which controvert any mooted evolutionary linkage. Further, to attach, free of justification, an assumption that the ostensible like can be compared with like, and thus primate affective responses displayed are seemingly incipient or rudimentary acts of altruism, begs the question that animal experiments are apposite.44 Humans are humans not because they share many similarities with, and have only a few differences to, chimps, but because they’re uniquely different. This leads to an expectation that higher-order emotions and behaviours, like altruism, are unique.45


There’s much at stake here. If it can be successfully, or at least forcefully, argued that our biological roots are located in an evolutionary animal ancestry, then it certainly impoverishes, if not destroys, a case for Christianity and its values. Dawkins argues evolution confers no special status on humans and leads to the dissolution of ethical absolutes. Far better than many Christians are able, he recognizes the significance of evolution’s reliance on a continuity between all of life:

“… there is no absolute distinction [and] absolutist moral discrimination is devastatingly undermined by the fact of evolution. An uneasy awareness of this fact might, indeed, underlie one of the main motives creationists have for opposing evolution: they fear what they believe to be its moral consequences.”46

Theorizing that animals and humans are not separate but share space on a moral continuum raises a conundrum for the committed evolutionist. When conflicts of interest arise, how and by whom are rights distributed? There would appear to be no straightforward solution, particularly for the evolutionary vegetarian. Singer finds himself in an awkward position when he appears powerless to resolve this unproblematic pseudo-challenge: “What”, he asks, “are we to do about genuine conflicts of interest like rats biting slum children? I am not sure of the answer, but the essential point is just that we do see this as a conflict of interests, that we recognize that rats have interests too.”47

It would be a foolishly brave evolutionist to argue that moral qualities arose de novo in humans, because this would signal some sort of extra-somatic source. Similarly, it would be an equally rash enterprise to contend animals possessed a fully developed morality. The third choice, and the only viable one available for the evolutionist, is to hypothesize that a proto-morality must have taken root at some time in prehuman ancestry. Reciprocal altruism (and kin selection) attempts to do just that.

The very real risk, though apparently ignored by evolutionists, is that they have defined morality out of existence by resetting morality as some other quality (for example, in terms of cooperative behaviour). This dark flip side to evolutionary explanations, as Rachels pointed out, means that “Man is a moral (altruistic) being, not because he intuits the rightness of loving his neighbour, or because he responds to some noble ideal, but because his behaviour is comprised of tendencies which natural selection has favoured.”48

If we allow these behaviours to be termed ‘morality’ in a very primitive sense, the problem arises that the individual is moral only in a very circumscribed manner. He is acting ‘morally’ to his kin or to outsiders with an expectation of return. Furthermore, there is no moral reason to act morally unless it is in his best interests to do so. Virtues are not universal but entirely contextually dependent and become “contractarian mutations of them”.49 These deliberate twists prop up evolution because “they hide from view the degree to which [evolutionists’] proposals and analyses are revisionary of our normal moral consciousness.”50

In the next part, I will describe other attempts to rationalize the rise of morality and altruism through evolution. In particular, I will examine E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology.

Posted on homepage: 10 May 2024

References and notes

  1. Darwin, C., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836–1844: Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries, Barrett, P.H., Gautrey, P.J., Herbert, S., Kohn, D., and Smith, S. (Eds.), Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, Notebook C196–197, p. 300, 1987. For a brief survey of Darwin’s early jottings on the continuity between man and animals see Degler, C.N., In Search of Human Nature: The decline and revival of Darwinism in American social thought, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 7, 1991. Return to text.
  2. Despite the occasional reference to deity and religion, Darwin unequivocally dismissed any sense of man’s having been created when his book concluded with the following: “Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future [despite] Man still bear[ing] in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” (Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, Penguin, London, p. 689, 2004 (1879)). Return to text.
  3. However, note that the belief that man and apes were not as distant as the Bible states was not a novel idea. A century before Darwin’s publication, the atheist French philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie declared that apes could be taught to speak a language and be trained to become a man. According to his worldview, mental processes were natural processes of their material structures. For an insight to the pre-Darwinian intellectual environment at the time, see Toulmin, S., Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990. On La Mettrie’s beliefs see esp. p. 122. If we’re referring to the book just cited (this reference), just “see esp. p. 122” should be enough. Although I can’t swear to its accuracy, a worthwhile summary of animal and human differences can be found in Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief, Faber and Faber, London, pp. 51–68, 2007. In addition, Wolpert mentions some rather amazing skills displayed by, relative to the primates, quite lower order animals. My sneaking suspicion is that this was God’s way of eliminating any potential evolutionary hierarchical explanation for their acquisition. Return to text.
  4. Singer, P., The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 5, 1981. As a consequence of their overriding worldview, the eagerness (and thus their all-too-ready willingness to be blinded to the conceptual and scientific differences) of evolutionists to forge a genealogical link between the cause of animal and human behaviour can be easily understood by the putative existence of the so-called ‘warrior gene’. An allele that inhibited the production of an enzyme (monoamine oxidase A), which in turn caused an increase in serotonin (a neurotransmitter believed to play a key role in impulsivity and aggression), was identified in humans, transgenic mice and rhesus monkeys. A number of these studies ignored the clear but disconfirming role environment contributes to aggression and other antisocial behaviour, both in the human and animal experiments. For example, while promoting a strong correlation, even cause, between the genetic predisposition for MAOA reduction and aggression, Buckholtz and Meyer-Lindenberg nevertheless minimally grant that childhood maltreatment and socio-environmental factors are relevant considerations. Furthermore, they concede that the “inheritance of the MAOA-L allele is completely compatible with psychiatric health.” (Buckholtz, J.W. and Meyer-Lindenberg, A., MAOA and the neurogenetic architecture of human aggression, Trends in Neurosciences 31(3):120–129, Mar 2008.) This surely raises doubt as to any correlation or causative force of the genetic component if its appearance does not impose any psychopathology. Also see the nonpredictive value of the genotypes associated with MAOA levels to violence and antisocial behaviours, and the confounding and unexpected results when race and environment were variables in Widom, C.S. and Brzustowicz, L.M., MAOA and the ‘cycle of violence’: childhood abuse and neglect, MAOA genotype, and risk for violent and antisocial behavior, Biological Psychiatry 60(7):684–689, 1 Oct 2006. For a critical overview of MAOA’s importance, or lack of, see Jalava, J., Griffiths, S., and Maraun, M., The Myth of the Born Criminal: Psychopathy, neurobiology, and the creation of the modern degenerate, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 157–161, 2015. Notwithstanding the contrary arguments, thinking as a Christian, and taking into account the tremendously life-altering physical effects of the Edenic Fall, it still may be the case that there is a link between mutation at the MAOA site(s) and increased levels of violent and anti-social behaviours. Return to text.
  5. Maletzky, B.M., Evolution, psychopathology, and sexual offending: aping our ancestors, Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 7(4):243–248, Oct 1995; p. 245. Leaving aside the absurdity of its claiming any empirical cash value, in what must surely be an instance of grandiose inflated omniscience, Maletzky attaches the neologism ‘paleopsychology’ (p. 245) to the novel discipline which purports to peer a million or so years into the past and analyze the psyche and behaviour of the ‘prehuman hominids’. Yes, it’s easy enough to imagine homo-something-or-other lying comfortably supinely on a bed of granite explaining to his professional contemporary how ‘his’ psychological trauma is all down to his having come down from the trees to a savannah existence. Return to text.
  6. It is claimed that one distinguishing feature of genuine reciprocal altruism, absent from mutualism, is a significant time delay between the initial act of giving and the reciprocated payment. This provides ample opportunity for the initial donor to receive its return reward, thus demonstrating a ‘decision’ by the initial receiver of favour to act altruistically. Also, mutualistic behaviours are ones “that have a positive effect on the fitness of both”, distinguishing them from reciprocity as those that “have a negative effect on the fitness of the actor and a positive effect on the recipient”. (Boyd, R., Is the repeated prisoner’s dilemma a good model of reciprocal altruism? Ethology and Sociobiology 9(2–4):211–222, Jul 1988; p. 212.) Return to text.
  7. See Ruse, M., Taking Darwin Seriously, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, p. 226, 1987; Trivers, R.L., The evolution of reciprocal altruism, The Quarterly Review of Biology 46(1):39–43, March 1971; pp. 35–57. (Trivers, however, labels cleaning symbiosis a precursor to all-out reciprocal altruism.); and Barash, D.P., Sociobiology and Behavior, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1982. Return to text.
  8. Ruse, ref. 7, p. 226. Return to text.
  9. Williams, G.C., Adaptation and Natural Selection: A critique of some current evolutionary thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, p. 247, 1966. Return to text.
  10. Koenig, W.D., Reciprocal altruism in birds: a critical review, Ethology and Sociobiology 9(2–4): 73–84, Jul 1988; p. 74. Various other mooted examples in birds, such as step-parenting, mate sharing and communal feeding, are analyzed in Koenig’s paper. Although suggesting reciprocal altruism may still be possible, Koenig concludes, “Reciprocal altruism theory has not fared well in the avian literature because of definitional problems and because it has been applied to many examples in which is [sic] only debatably appropriate … . This presents a considerable challenge to ornithologists, as there are currently no unambiguous examples of RA in this taxon” (p. 83). Return to text.
  11. See, for example, Ruse, ref. 7, p. 227ff. Notwithstanding the inevitable evolutionary cant and filter, much of the animal data, at first blush, seem to be straightforward and beyond reproach. However, in surveying the empirical studies designed to investigate whether or not chimps have, in part, a Theory of Mind (having a Theory of Mind means the individual possesses mental states that are capable of appreciating that others also have beliefs, desires, and intentions.), Hare et al. note the high number of negative results and the low replication rate between similar experiments. More interestingly for creationists is Hare et al.’s concluding comment that domestic dogs outperform chimps in being able to read human communication signalling the location of a hidden food resource. (Hare, B., Call, J., and Tomasello, M., Do chimpanzees know what conspecifics know? Animal Behaviour 61(1):139–151, Jan 2001.) Return to text.
  12. Gallup, G.G., Self-recognition in Primates: A comparative approach to the bidirectional properties of consciousness, American Psychologist 32(5): 329–338, May 1977; p. 329. The challenge goes even further, striking at the heart of Christian claims. Consider Oliver Putz’s argument that, given the (supposed) ethological data of morality exhibited by chimps and the like, “a narrow anthropocentric understanding of the imago Dei is inadequate [and] warrants a more inclusive interpretation of the imago Dei … . To share with great apes in the imago Dei is neither removing human beings from our special relationship with God nor releasing us from our special responsibility toward the earth as a highly technological species. It is an expression of the abundant presence and richness of God’s self-communication in the world.” (Putz, O., Moral apes, human uniqueness, and the image of God, Zygon 44(3):613–624, Sep 2009; pp. 620–621.) Fortunately, Putz doesn’t quite pull it off: his epistemological warrant precipitously favours a self-serving blend of postmodernism, mysticism, and metaphor. Return to text.
  13. Ruse, ref. 7, p. 228. Return to text.
  14. De Waal, F., Primates and Philosophers: How morality evolved, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, p. 19, 2006. Return to text.
  15. De Waal, ref. 14, p. 44. In any case, it is not entirely certain that grooming itself does not have an ulterior motive. DeVore reports that this act is not altruistic as the removed insects are edible and are apparently the real motivation for the grooming. Devore, I. (Ed.), Primate Behaviour: Field studies of monkeys and apes, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1965: Cited in Aronfreed, J., The socialization of altruistic and sympathetic behaviour: some theoretical and experimental analyses; in: Macaulay, J. and Berkowitz, L. (Eds.), Altruism and Helping Behaviour: Social psychological studies of some antecedents and consequences, Academic Press, New York, p. 109, 1970. Return to text.
  16. Irving Goldman astutely recognizes the problem here: “In all probability the search for a ‘scientific morality’ is a self-defeating endeavor. It will be self-defeating because a fully explained morality would be essentially expediential. Morality and expediency are quite distinctive standards of conduct.” (Goldman, I., The war between the words: biological versus social evolution and some related issues, American Psychologist 31(5):361–363, May 1976; p. 362.) Return to text.
  17. Hume famously penned that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, book 2, part 3, section 3, J.M. Dent & Sons, London, p. 127, 1956 (1740).) According to Christine Korsgaard, Hume was right when he criticized the Rationalists for not having explained how reason is the normative force behind moral motivation. See her The Sources of Normativity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 10–12, 2009, along with her analysis of Realism on pp. 28–48. Return to text.
  18. De Waal, ref. 14, pp. 20–21. Return to text.
  19. De Waal, ref. 14, pp. 28–29. Return to text.
  20. Francisco Ayala dissents, arguing morality is an evolutionary development from humans’ extraordinary brain power. “Humans”, he counters, “are ethical beings by their biological nature … as a consequence of their eminent intellectual capacities … are products of the evolutionary process, but they are distinctively human. Thus, I maintain that ethical behaviour is not causally related to the social behaviour of animals, including kin and reciprocal ‘altruism’.” (Ayala, F., Biology to Ethics: An evolutionist’s view of human nature; in: Boniolo. G. and De Anna, G. (Eds.), Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 148, 2006.) Return to text.
  21. De Waal, ref. 14, p. 67. In case it is assumed that only the higher primates’ actions are anthropomorphized, intention is oddly occasionally attributed to life-forms much further down the scale. For example, Yucca plants ‘evaluate’ and ‘exercise’ choice, and cleaner fish ‘cheat the client’. For these and others, see Sachs, J.L., Mueller, U.G., Wilcox, T.P., and Bull, J.J., The evolution of cooperation, The Quarterly Review of Biology 79(2):135–160, Jun 2004. James Rachels has an interesting few pages on the inclusion of anthropomorphic language in popular animal accounts and its omission, or the use of scare quotes when doing so, in the academic journals. See his Created From Animals: The moral implications of Darwinism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 167–171, 1991. Return to text.
  22. Singer, P., Ethics and intuitions, J. Ethics 9(3–4):331–352, Oct 2005; p. 336. Return to text.
  23. Wright, R., The uses of anthropomorphism; in: De Waal, ref. 14, p. 88–89. Return to text.
  24. Wright, ref. 23, p. 88. Return to text.
  25. Wright, ref. 23, p. 85. Without doubt the greatest risible misuse of such language is found in Jane Goodall’s speculation that chimps she observed, on their approach to a waterfall, displayed “awe [a] feeling generated by the mystery of water”. What was the proof of such a claim? The chimps display a “slow rhythmic motion along the riverbed [and] pick up and throw great rocks and branches, and swung out on vines over the stream … a magnificent ‘dance’” (Goodhall., J., Reason for Hope: A spiritual journey, Thorsons, London, p. 188ff., 1999.) If that were not egregiously sloppy enough, Goodall, throwing all rationality out the window, postulates that this experience of awe, once language had emerged, may have been the origin of religion. Elsewhere, she writes of a caged lab chimp showing gratitude when she stopped to “talk to him”. (Wright, ref. 23, p. 216.) Return to text.
  26. Sanjida O’Connell proposes four levels of awareness: a “zero-order intentionality is where the animal is not aware of any subjective thoughts. First order intentionality states that the animal knows X, [e.g.] wants a banana, or has a representation of the banana. Second order intentionality states that the animal knows that another animal knows X, i.e. knows that the other animal wants a banana. The animal has a representation about a representation: it represents its belief about the second animal’s desire (the representation of a banana) … . The capacity to have second order intentionality may be connected with self awareness, i.e. the animal knows that it knows. Third order intentionality would require the animal to know that a second animal knows that the first animal knows X. The ability to acquire third order intentionality and false belief is an acid test of theory of mind.” (O’Connell, S., Empathy in chimpanzees: evidence for theory of mind? Primates 36(3):398, Jul 1995.) It’s somewhat difficult to imagine a living creature possessing second-order intentionality without the capability of the third. My thought is that it appears the latter is superfluous. Return to text.
  27. For an argument as to why animals have consciousness similar to ours, see Griffin, D.R., The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary continuity of mental experience, The Rockefeller University Press, New York, 1976. Griffin argues that once you accept the evolutionary relationship between animal and man, it is “unparsimonious to assume a rigid dichotomy of interpretation which insists that mental experiences have some effect on the behaviour of one species of animal [i.e. man] but none at all on any other” (p. 74). Return to text.
  28. Note the following as typical: “I begin by laying out some essential philosophical precepts underlying my argument, in particular the importance of assuming a phylogenetic continuum and with it evolutionary parsimony … . In order to be persuasive, any assessment of the ethological data relevant to animal morality has to presuppose such a phylogenetic continuum [emphases added].” (Putz, O., Moral apes, human uniqueness, and the image of God, Zygon 44(3):613–624, Sep 2009, p. 614.) Return to text.
  29. If they didn’t, or were unable to, explain away the data, they would be left with a paradox that leaves a creationist explanation as the only possible solution. Return to text.
  30. See Povinelli, D.J. and Vonk, J., Chimpanzee minds: suspiciously human? TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7(4):157–160, Apr 2003. Others have also ruled out chimps possessing a human-like ToM, though conceding that they do possess some ‘psychological’ states. See the set of experiments in Tomasello, M., Call, J., and Hare, B., Chimpanzees understand psychological states—the question is which ones and to what extent, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7(4):153–156, Apr 2003. Elsewhere it has been noted apes demonstrated no sign of understanding false beliefs in others, one measure of possessing a ToM. See Call, J. and Tomasello, M., A nonverbal false belief task: the performance of children and great apes, Child Development 70(2):381–395, March–April 1999. Return to text.
  31. De Waal, ref. 14, p. 49. Return to text.
  32. Hauser, M.D., Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong, HarperCollins, New York, pp. 387–389, 394–397, 2006. Return to text.
  33. Kitcher, P., Ethics and evolution: how to get here from there; in: De Waal, ref. 14, p. 131. For a brief but relevant alternative interpretation of behavioural observations supporting the argument that apes have moral awareness, see Stingl, M., All the monkeys aren’t in the zoo: evolutionary ethics and the possibility of moral knowledge, Canadian J. Philosophy 30(26):245–265, 2000; p. 252. Return to text.
  34. Prinz, J.J., Is Morality Innate?; in: Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (Ed.), Moral Psychology, vol. 1: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and innateness, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MS, pp. 397–402, 2008. For valuable references of papers elaborating the ambiguity of interpreting animal distress as empathy, see Aronfreed, J., The socialization of altruistic and sympathetic behaviour: some theoretical and experimental analyses; in: Macaulay, J. and Berkowitz, L. (Eds.), Altruism and Helping Behaviour: Social psychological studies of some antecedents and consequences, Academic Press, New York, p. 110, 1970. Return to text.
  35. Dennett, D.C., An evolutionary perspective on cognition: through a glass lightly, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 35(4):721–727, Dec 2004; p. 724. An early effort to attribute altruism in rats was attempted by George Rice and Priscilla Gainer. See their ‘Altruism’ in the albino rat, J. Comparative and Physiological Psychology 55(1):123–125, Feb 1962. Over a three-month period two sets of rats were daily exposed to an electric shock which could be terminated by pressing a bar. The experiment then added a suspended block which would be lowered once the bar was pressed. After this training and association was acquired, the rats were divided into two groups, one exposed to the same setting, the other, instead of a block, had in its place a suspended distressed rat which was squealing and wriggling. Compared with the controls, which had no suspended rat but a block, it was observed that the subjects with the suspended rat pressed the bar more frequently than the controls. The conclusion attributed altruism to these rats. However, a subsequent experiment pointed out a counterfactual explanation and proposed that the extra activity in the experiment, that is the wriggling rat, may act as a stimulant and thus increase the number of bar presses. This criticism led to an experiment exposing rat subjects to white noise and squeals. Contradicting the first experiment, the result demonstrated that white noise was more of an irritant than was a squealing rat. In conclusion, the authors noted “the squeals and the white noise must be regarded simply as two sources of auditory stimulation, the latter giving rise to more behavioural activity than the former.” (Lavery, J.J. and Foley, P.J., Altruism or arousal in the rat? Science, New Series 140(3563):172–173, 12 Apr 1963.) Return to text.
  36. Seyfarth, R.M. and Cheney, D.L., Empirical tests of reciprocity theory: problems in assessment, Ethology and Sociobiology 9(2–4):181–187, Jul 1988. Return to text.
  37. Seyfarth and Cheney, ref. 36, p. 186. Return to text.
  38. Korsgaard, C.M., Morality and the distinctiveness of human action; in: De Waal, ref. 14, pp. 105–106. Return to text.
  39. Broom, D.M., The Evolution of Morality and Religion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 37, 68, 2003. Return to text.
  40. Hauser, ref. 32, p. 313. Return to text.
  41. Wilkinson, G.S., Reciprocal altruism in bats and other mammals, Ethology and Sociobiology 9(2–4):85–100, Jul 1988. Apart from this being almost entirely an experiment based on computer simulation, Wilkinson admits that undetected cheating remains a problem even if he tweaks thresholds to boundary conditions. He also lists several other problems which possibly undermine the validity of his conclusion. See esp. pp. 96–98. Return to text.
  42. Hauser, ref. 32, p. 391. For Hauser’s brief, though quite detailed, analysis of these experiments, see pp. 383–392. It’s interesting to note a report of a symposium held in 1986 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Trivers’ paper. While probably unaware of the special pleading, the report’s author relates: “Although there are still only a few satisfactory examples of the behaviour, most participants felt that reciprocity is more important and widespread than anyone has been able to show: standards of proof have been very high and the phenomenon is a difficult one to demonstrate.” (Packer, C., Whatever happened to reciprocal altruism?, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 1(6):142–143, Dec 1986; p. 143.) And yet, it is still serially promoted as one path through which morality came into existence. Return to text.
  43. For a brief but detailed analysis of her work and criticisms, see Sussman, R.W., Cheverud, J.M. and Bartlett, T.Q., Infant killing as an evolutionary strategy: reality or myth? Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News and Reviews 3(5):149–151, 1994; and Hardy, S.B., Janson, C., and van Schak, C., Infanticide: let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water, Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News and Reviews 3(5):151–154, 1994. Human psychopathy has also been compared with ‘sneaker’ salmon which stealthily fertilize female eggs before the dominant male can. See Jalava et al., ref. 4, p. 73. Return to text.
  44. For a critical review of the experimental use of animals to infer human behaviour and medical conditions, see chapter 3, ‘What’s Wrong with Their Mice?’ in Rose, N. and Abi-Rached, J.M., Neuro: The new brain sciences and the management of the mind, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2013. Return to text.
  45. Alternatively, and less critically, in an unfallen world, higher-order animals may very well have been capable of higher affective behaviours, such as altruism, and thus in this post-Fall environment, faint traces may still be discernible. Return to text.
  46. Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, New York, p. 301, 2006. Return to text.
  47. Singer, P., Animal liberation; in: Rachels, J. (Ed.), Moral Problems: A collection of philosophical problems, Harper & Row, New York, p. 98, 1979. Singer makes it quite clear he’s averse to the idea of poisoning these little creatures, opting instead for sterilization procedures. Such action may cleanse a guilt-ridden conscience but I wonder if it occurred to him that sterilization, in the end, effects the same end as rat bait; namely, the (quite possibly total) elimination of rodents. Elsewhere, in an online debate with Richard A. Posner, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, Singer presented an argument for animal rights based on equal consideration of interest and abandoning “ancient religious teachings”. He writes, “The only acceptable limit to our moral concern is the point at which there is no awareness of pain or pleasure, and no preferences of any kind. That is why pigs count, but lettuces don’t. Pigs can feel pain and pleasure. Lettuces can’t.” (Singer, P., Animal rights, Slate, 12 Jun 2001. slate.com/news-and-politics/2001/06/animal-rights-2.html. For Posner’s response, see slate.com/news-and-politics/2001/06/animal-rights-3.html, accessed 8 Sep 2021.) I consider this, among other criticisms, arbitrary; for it possesses no more warrant than if I were to articulate, “the only acceptable limit to our moral concern is the point at which there is no awareness of right or wrong, and no moral preferences of any kind. That is why humans count, but pigs don’t. Humans can understand right and wrong. Pigs can’t.” Return to text.
  48. Rachels, ref. 21, p. 77. Return to text.
  49. O’Hear, A., Beyond Evolution: Human nature and the limits of evolutionary explanation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 144, 1999. Return to text.
  50. O’Hear, ref. 49, p. 144. Return to text.