This is part of the DR Book Collection.
I was at the zoo recently with my wife, my sister-in-law, her husband, and their baby. As we looked at the bonobos and observed their eerily human behavior, I made the comment that I needed to read primatologist Frans de Waal’s book The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. Morality, de Waal argues, is bottom-up. Behaviors we label as “moral”–such as empathy or fairness–are grounded in our evolutionary development. Morality arises from the emotions and social rules that can be found in other primates. The book made Nathaniel’s best of 2015 list. And I happen to agree with one of his criticisms:
Merely because you can show how a thing arises through evolution doesn’t get you out of this problem. You could explain how humans came to have the ability to reason objectively, but that wouldn’t mean that logic and math were suddenly subjective. It would just prove that somehow evolution managed to get us in touch with non-contingent, objective reason. Same idea here: you can explain how humans came to behave morally or even to understand and think about morality, but it’s a colossal mistake to think that, in so doing, you have proved that morality is “constructed” or in any way subjective any more than reason or logic are. (For fun: let someone try to reason you out of the position that reason is objective. See how that works? It’s a non-starter.)
Even if the philosophy is lacking, the science is fascinating. You can see a Big Think interview with de Waal below.