Fairness and the Monkey Mind

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.

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2 Responses to Fairness and the Monkey Mind

  1. I’m amazed that you can cram so much falsehood into such a short post.

    Let’s start first with Marc Hauser. His academic disgrace was because he was found to have falsified data, not because of how he interpreted said data. A cursory look through Wikipedia could have made that clear for you.

    The notion that the monkey was reacting to fairness was the conclusion of the researchers, not just Jerry Coyne. That’s because the monkey was able to see that his friend was getting a treat, while he was not. More profound was the example given later in the talk of a chimp who refused to eat the sweets until his friend got a similar treat (based on this: http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2010/04/22/chimpanzees-prefer-fair-play-o/)

    Now, it’s worth noting that the moral capacity of primates is still the subject of much controversy. We’re not sure exactly to what extent they can abstract about things like “fairness”. In the study that you cite, chimps could not simply see their friend getting a better reward for the same task, but would have had to abstract about how their actions might affect another. Saying that a primate does not have a human-like capacity for cognitive abstractions is not the same thing as saying that analogs of human fairness exist in primates.

    And that was De Waal’s point, if you’d bothered to watch the video. Nobody’s arguing that primates have a system of morals anything like that of humans. Yet they do appear to have a rudimentary sense of fairness, of cooperative pro-social behavior, and of empathy – all of which do not constitute human morality in themselves, but are integral to it. They are “analogs”, or “building blocks” without which human morality could not exist, indicating that human morality is part of an evolutionary continuum rather than the invention of human minds or bestowed upon humans by gods.

    Finally:

    Theists tend to cherry pick such studies. Because they have an a priori commitment to the supernatural, they are forced to believe that human morality must have been the product of a creative intelligence. So any animal behavior that fails to resemble a human action motivated by a moral precept is interpreted as evidence for this notion.

    See how easy it is to turn around your masturbatory drivel? The fact is, it is your position that is dogmatically committed to human exceptionalism, despite the mountains of evidence that it is a wholly unjustified belief.

    Not to mention Jack that, as usual, you’re wrong about atheism. Atheism does not require, nor entail, a commitment to naturalism/materialism. It is the product of an evidence-based worldview – a result, not a thesis. But it’s not like I and many others haven’t bludgeoned you over the head with that fact innumerable times in the hope, clearly in vain, that a proper understanding of atheism might at least keep you from erecting one straw man after another.

    But then again theism is never a product of evidence.

  2. jackhudson says:

    Let’s start first with Marc Hauser. His academic disgrace was because he was found to have falsified data, not because of how he interpreted said data. A cursory look through Wikipedia could have made that clear for you.

    If you had bothered to do more than a ‘cursory look’ at the Marc Hauser investigation as I have, you would find information like this in the NYT’s article on the investigation:

    There is a wide spectrum of scientific sins, ranging from wrist-slap offenses like bad data storage at one end, to data fabrication at the other. It is still not clear where on this spectrum Dr. Hauser’s errors may fall. He has admitted only to unspecified “mistakes,” not to misconduct.

    Many of his experiments involved inferring a monkey’s thoughts or expectations from its response to a sight or sound. But the technique required somewhat subjective assessments by the researcher as to whether the monkey stared longer than usual at a display or turned its head toward a loudspeaker broadcasting an unexpected sound.

    At least some of Dr. Hauser’s students disagreed with his interpretation of one such experiment three years ago, and reported their reservations to the Harvard authorities in a letter that was obtained this week by The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was this letter that spurred a three-year investigation of Dr. Hauser’s work going back at least as far as 2002.

    You should do more than read Wikipedia articles on the subject.

    The notion that the monkey was reacting to fairness was the conclusion of the researchers, not just Jerry Coyne. That’s because the monkey was able to see that his friend was getting a treat, while he was not. More profound was the example given later in the talk of a chimp who refused to eat the sweets until his friend got a similar treat (based on this: http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2010/04/22/chimpanzees-prefer-fair-play-o/)

    Yes, this was noted in the quote I included. Again, anyone reading carefully before responding would have noted this.

    Now, it’s worth noting that the moral capacity of primates is still the subject of much controversy. We’re not sure exactly to what extent they can abstract about things like “fairness”. In the study that you cite, chimps could not simply see their friend getting a better reward for the same task, but would have had to abstract about how their actions might affect another. Saying that a primate does not have a human-like capacity for cognitive abstractions is not the same thing as saying that analogs of human fairness exist in primates.

    There is no way to know this of course unless we can actually communicate with primates about what they think of fairness – which we can’t because they don’t conceptualize fairness in any way that can be communicated. Which is why these sort of experiments are highly subjective, and prone to the sort of nonsense we see in the interpretations above. Which is the entire pioint of this post which you seem to have missed.

    And that was De Waal’s point, if you’d bothered to watch the video. Nobody’s arguing that primates have a system of morals anything like that of humans. Yet they do appear to have a rudimentary sense of fairness, of cooperative pro-social behavior, and of empathy – all of which do not constitute human morality in themselves, but are integral to it. They are “analogs”, or “building blocks” without which human morality could not exist, indicating that human morality is part of an evolutionary continuum rather than the invention of human minds or bestowed upon humans by gods.

    Well again, if you had read the actual post instead of reacting mindlessly, you would see where I said, “Now its possible monkeys have some idea of fairness. It’s possible other animals do … 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.”

    So basically you just repeated and affirmed what I have already wrote, because you don’t read before you reacted.

    “Finally:

    Theists tend to cherry pick such studies. Because they have an a priori commitment to the supernatural, they are forced to believe that human morality must have been the product of a creative intelligence. So any animal behavior that fails to resemble a human action motivated by a moral precept is interpreted as evidence for this notion.
    See how easy it is to turn around your masturbatory drivel? The fact is, it is your position that is dogmatically committed to human exceptionalism, despite the mountains of evidence that it is a wholly unjustified belief.”

    I know schools don’t teach logic in the lower levels, but a tu quoque is a cogent argument against a proposition. It’s like saying “You say smoking is unhealthy, but you smoke, therefore, smoking isn’t bad for your health”

    Nonetheless, you are right, I am committed to human exceptionalism (all humans are of course, some just aren’t willing to admit it) but I would be glad to abandon this bias the second a non-human explains to me why I should.

    Not to mention Jack that, as usual, you’re wrong about atheism. Atheism does not require, nor entail, a commitment to naturalism/materialism. It is the product of an evidence-based worldview – a result, not a thesis. But it’s not like I and many others haven’t bludgeoned you over the head with that fact innumerable times in the hope, clearly in vain, that a proper understanding of atheism might at least keep you from erecting one straw man after another.

    I know atheists themselves are still trying to figure out what atheism means (see my last post), so feel free to bludgeon away once that’s settled. Until then, there are no atheists who don’t first accept some notion of naturalism or materialism as a condition upon which their atheism rests.

    That critter just don’t exist.

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