Primate origins of morality

Nicholas Wade writes about primate behavior as a model for human morality. The article is mostly a profile of Frans de Waal's work.

Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society's moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals.
Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal's view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. "I look at religions as recent additions," he said. "Their function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do."
As Dr. de Waal sees it, human morality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries, with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. "The profound irony is that our noblest achievement -- morality -- has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior -- warfare," he writes. "The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter."

This is an interesting introduction to the topic, and -- for my Anthro 105 students -- it gives some detail about one of the reasons anthropologists study primate behavior. Several of de Waal's books reward reading on the topic -- the article mentions Priamtes and Philosophers, but I always recommend The Ape and the Sushi Master for its discussion of traditions and culture.