One ongoing contention by atheists is that God is unnecessary to ground morality because humans are naturally social and interdependent creatures who have inherited these characteristics from their evolutionary forebears. As evidence for this contention they often point to examples of certain social behaviors in apes and monkeys, our presumed nearest non-human cousins. We’ll ignore certain nasty behaviors by such animals (and why such behaviors aren’t equally ‘moral’ by this estimation) for now and examine instead a concept that is generally seen as moral in the Christian West – fairness.
In an August post called Where does morality come from? A demonstration with monkeys atheist and evolutionist cheerleader Jerry Coyne (who seems to be a big fan of these sort of studies) attributes the reactions of a capuchin to not receiving a grape in exchange for a rock during the course of an experiment to the monkey’s sense of ‘fairness’, a characteristic he considers to be a basis for morality:
This video is about as powerful a refutation I’ve seen of the notion that our morality is given by God rather than either evolved or a product of our culture. This is taken from a wonderful TED talk by Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of several popular books. His talk is called “Moral behavior in animals”, and is witty and full of insights (you can also watch it here if you don’t have the right Flash player).
Do watch the whole talk, as you’ll learn a lot about “morality” in our mammalian relatives, and there are several nice videos. In the one I show below, two naive capuchin monkeys display what looks for all the world like a reaction to “unfairness” (the video appears about 3/4 of the way through de Waal’s talk). As de Waal notes, cucumbers are okay food for the monkeys, but they really like grapes (de Waal claims that monkeys like food in proportion to its price at the supermarket). A pair of capuchins can see each other getting cucumbers and grapes (they have to give the experimenter a rock before they get a piece of food).
See what happens when one of them is given a grape for his rock, and the other a cucumber. Remember, this is the first time these monkeys have been subject to this procedure:
So in the estimation of Jerry Coyne the capuchin’s reaction is an offense to the monkey’s sense of fairness. How does he know this? Because the monkey appears to be reacting in a manner a human might act when they are frustrated by being treated unfairly. And from this appearance he comes to the conclusion that this sense of fairness humans concern themselves with can be understood to derive from our animal ancestors and we can dismiss with God.
Now its possible monkeys have some idea of fairness. It’s possible other animals do. I have a Golden Retriever that gets petulant when I don’t take her with me when I run an errand. The response is similar to that of a three year old that declares it’s “Just not fair” that they didn’t get to go to the park. There is no reason why I as a Christian would deny the existence of such sensations in animals – but is such frustration really the basis for our moral notion of fairness? This is where I think comparisons start to break down.
Fairness in humans of course is a much more idealistic concept than mere frustration at unexpected treatment. We have entire social and political system designed specifically to ensure fairness. We even have symbols of fairness like Lady Justice, a symbol which goes back to the Ancient Egyptians. It is the notion that there is an underlying moral order against which actions should be evaluated without regard for the individual conducting the actions. So the human notion of fairness or the closely related concept of justice is not merely an innate reaction, but a sense that there is way the world ought to be and certain circumstances contradicted this ideal. There is no evidence capuchins are motivated by such ideals.
Of course, Jerry Coyne is inclined to see the rudiments of these ideals in the grasping of a monkey for a grape because he has a belief system which is supported by interpreting monkey responses this way. Though he would call such observations scientific, the reality is such experiments are far from empirical since we have no idea what is happening in the minds of these animals as they react. Both Coyne’s ideas about what fairness is and how he interprets such reactions are highly subjective. Indeed these sorts of experiments have soiled the scientific reputations of other researchers like Marc Hauser who bet his career on interpreting the motivations of monkeys and ended up resigning his position at Harvard due in part to the inherently interpretive nature of such studies.
Atheist tend to cherry pick such studies. Because they have an a priori commitment to naturalism, they are forced to believe that human morality must have been the product of evolutionary development from ape-like ancestors. So any animal behavior that slightly resembles a human action motivated by a moral precept is interpreted as evidence for this notion. Of course, atheists tend to ignore studies that that indicate our presumed ape relatives actually have little interest in fairness, like the one recently published in Biology Letters aptly titled, Theft in an ultimatum game: chimpanzees and bonobos are insensitive to unfairness. In the study researchers set up a scenario where the apes could choose to leave a portion of grapes for the group mates. This is what Professor Keith Jensen, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences observed:
“In each scenario one ape had to choose whether to steal the grapes or leave a portion of grapes for the other. We found that consistently they would steal the food without taking into account whether their action would have an effect on their partner. Neither the chimpanzees nor bonobos seemed to care whether food was stolen or not, or whether the outcomes were fair or not, as long as they got something. Our findings support other studies of chimpanzees but also extend these to bonobos. Both apes have no concern for fairness or the effects that their choices may have on others; in stark contrast to the way humans behave. We can therefore conclude that our results indicate that our sense of fairness is a derived trait and may be unique to the human race.”
Presumed similarities between the behavior humans and apes always lead atheists to conclude they are related, but the opposite is never true – when their behaviors so obviously diverge, atheists never take from that fact that humans have instilled in them something unique that was not merely the result of naturalism.
But then again atheism is never a product of evidence.