Apes, Man And The Evolution Of Morality

Frans de Waal’s ‘Our Inner Ape’ brings forth a comparison between human and their closely related ancestors the apes. He shows the relation (and differences) between characteristics such as violence and sympathy, greed and fairness, community spirit and dominance, and sexual behaviours vis-à-vis morality.

The great work of Charles Darwin in 1859 On the Origin of Species, puts light on the fact that all species had evolved over a period of millennia. He showed that ‘survival of the fittest and ‘adaptation’ was elemental to the preservation of all species and that those that didn’t, disappeared.

Furthermore, Konrad Lorenz, in his 1963 On Aggression, augmented Darwin’s work by theorizing that the purpose of evolution was to pass on one’s own genes – even if it meant to hurt and kill the members of ones own species for dominance – and not only to preserve the species. 

Richard Dawkins in 1975 added to this line of thought. His theory stated that it is the ‘selfish gene’ and not the individual that wants to make sure that its copies are passed on. The selfish gene, he said, behaves socially only when it gains the benefit for individuals of the same genes. He argued that the distinguishing factor between humans and other animals is the fact that they use their intellect and rationale ( their cerebral cortex) to act morally and help others who are not related to them.

There have, however, been many types of research conducted since 1980, that contradict earlier theories and have shown documented proofs of sportsmanship, selflessness, ability to reconcile, and even have a sense of fairness in animal behaviour. Research conducted on bonobos (a chimpanzee species), especially on their social life that differs greatly from their violent cousins changed the way we perceive primate research.

Frans de Waal, through his works showed that apes have morals too.

The Hippies Of The Primate World – Bonobos

Bonobos, though are the same size as chimps, are also known as pygmy chimpanzees. They have smaller heads and longer hair and are more delicate and sensitive than chimps. They even walk upright and have a higher voice than chimpanzees. These differences in physicality were noticed even before they were studied in the 1970s. An important example can be seen in Munich Zoo, when all the bonobos died of shock during the bombings of WWII, whereas all the chimpanzees survived.

A study on bonobos in Congo conducted by a Japanese research team, threw new light on the social life of the primates when they were studied in their natural habitat.  They found that unlike gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans, bonobos do not rape each other or fight to the death. They are more sexually active and the females are more dominating of the species. Sexual they are pansexual – they indulge in sex with all genders. For bonobos, sex is a social indulgence, not only meant for procreation.

Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal
Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal

The Dominant Sex

Bonobo females are physically weaker than bonobo males. Yet, unlike human females, they are the dominant sex of the species. The female bonobos stick together and are able to stand up to males (who are not as socially cohesive), whereas, chimpanzee males are more dominant than chimp females. This difference is due to differences in their natural habitat. Bonobos are found to the south of the Congo River, which is lusher than the north where chimps are found. This enables bonobo females to stay together and form stronger social connections with other females while gathering food.

The lack of vegetation in the north requires chimp females to wander in search of food, often alone with their young ones, whereas the males hunt in the steppes in groups, increasing the power imbalance between male and female chimps.

On the other hand, studies on chimpanzees in zoos have shown that the power imbalance decreases amongst the chimps in zoos, due to the fact that females have more contact with each other, can stand up to the males, and even have been known to disarm fighting male chimpanzees. The disarming is mostly a form of self-protection from the losing male chimp that could end up taking it out on the females later.

This shows that dominance within a species is hardly dictated by physical strength. It is more about having a stronger group cohesion.

Contradictory Reconciliatory Behaviour

In 1980, Frans de Waal discovered an interesting fact about chimpanzees. He witnessed an incident where two male chimps gave each other a heartfelt reconciliatory hug after a bloody and vicious fight. 

He found that chimpanzees, unlike orangutans and gorillas (who either drive away or kill the loser of the fight), publically reconcile. On further studying this strange reconciliatory behavior, de Waal found that chimpanzees ensure that all chimps have a clear understanding of the hierarchical structure in the group. Since they all hunt together they have to cooperate with the alpha male.

De Waal saw clear phases of cohabitation that began with a cycle of one alpha male ruling, until one young male challenges the alpha. This challenger starts looking for supporters. Gathering followers is done by grooming and scratching each other, cleaning fur to gain favor, and make friends. 

The boss, on the other hand, tries to keep his friends closer. Once the challenger male chimp gathers enough support, the two chimps fight, until one of them admits defeat. Unlike other apes, the fighting chimpanzees make up in public, where the males get to stay together in the group, and the supporters of the winning chimp get special privileges, especially with access to females. The new hierarchy then gets accepted and established until the next cycle begins.

Sexual Behaviour Among Chimpanzees

Amongst the male chimps, sexual activity is determined by a male’s strength and power within the group. Basically, the more females the powerful chimp mates with, the higher the chances of reproduction. 

Male chimpanzees however have a very small mating window. This is because female chimpanzees bear only one child in pregnancy, and breastfeed for about 4 years during which they cannot reproduce. Therefore, there is more competition between males.

Females, on the other hand, compete for food and not for sex. Often, they don’t get enough to feed their babies and keep them alive. Therefore, only those young ones who make it into adulthood and end up with their own progeny can pass on genes. 

Females make their own decisions with respect to male partners, and mostly have sex with the alpha male. They are very choosy when it comes to the friends of the alpha male and decide to have sex with the chimp distributing food, only if she receives a bigger share. Other male chimps that aren’t part of the alphas close circuit have sex with females behind the alphas back.

De Waal once observed a limping male whose limp instantly vanished as soon as the other males left for hunting. The chimp then started making passes at the females in the group. If another male is caught trying such antics, they are given a good beating. Thus male chimps avoid such strategies and prefer to try and stay within favor of the alpha male, or support the winning male during a shift of power.

Physical Differences

The differences in the physicality of apes show connections between the evolutionary patterns of humans. For example, gorilla males are about thrice the weight of females. Chimpanzee males, though only a few inches taller than females, have stronger muscles and can weigh about 1.5 times more than females. The difference between the two is that level of dominance between male and female chimps is lesser than that of gorillas, where the females have no power at all.

In bonobos, males are slightly larger and heavier than females. Even though today, males are smaller in size, and physical strength no longer determines sexual activity among bonobos, it can be assumed that earlier, the male bonobos were dominant. Strength and physicality did not yield evolutionary benefits and thus the dominance dynamic must have changed over time.

The dynamics of being dominant among the species also determine life expectancy. Fighting for power leads to earlier deaths. This can be seen in the drastic differences between male and female lions. While female lions live up to an average of 30 years, males live only till seven. Similarly, chimps, as well as human females live longer than males. Apart from surviving conflicts (and wars), the stress of constantly maintaining power positions leads to elevated levels of cortisol among males, leading to shorter life spans.

Bonobos, on the contrary, live healthier lives and live as long as females. Unfortunately, humans, being more like chimps in this respect, evolved with males dominating. If humans were a matriarchal species, human bodies would have evolved in a manner similar to bonobos.

Reproduction Competition

Considering the physicality and size of testicles of various apes, it is observed that despite the size of the gorilla, it has small testicles, as compared to chimpanzee males. This can be attributed to the level of competition they face. Among gorillas, other males do not dare mess around with alphas females and their friends. Thus facing no competition, gorillas need very little sperm for impregnation (and thus have smaller testicles).

Chimpanzee alphas, on the other hand, play a political role in the chimp group and need to grant favors to loyalty. Additionally, the males in the lower order will try to have sex with females behind the alphas back. Therefore, while there is no dispute about the position of the alpha male, his sperm still has competition, thus resulting in the evolution of larger testes.

Bonobos, being the ‘happy hippies’ have a lot of sex with multiple partners. Therefore in their case, the male with the most sperm wins the reproduction competition.

Humans in comparison to chimps and gorillas rank in between with respect to testicle size. The reason could be that humans, like bonobos and chimps, are a multi-male society. Additionally, considering women don’t have sex constantly with multiple partners made stable heterosexuality the dominant system.

Promiscuity, Fidelity, and Infanticide

It observed in many animals such as lions, bears, dolphins, rats, and all primates – except in bonobos – where males indulge in infanticide, to make a female ready for mating faster.

In bonobos, infanticide is not only pointless, but they are the only primate species where infanticide does not happen. This happen for four reasons – 

  • The females’ interests are often up against those of the male bonobos
  • It is the genes that compete, and not the primate itself
  • Females also protect the lives of their children and thus their own genes, and,
  • Since females have sex with all the males, there is no way of telling who the father of the young ones is.

This, evolutionarily, has led to no infanticide among bonobos.

Humans work in the other way. Women guarantee men paternity and get the men to protect their young. Yet, there are still traces of the ancestral urge to partner with attractive others that can still be seen.

The Human ‘Sense Of fairness’ And Solidarity

Till before de Waal’s documentation, the characteristic of ‘fairness’ was only considered a human trait. De Waal conducted an experiment with two capuchin monkeys. He taught the two monkeys to give pebbles from their cage to the scientist. Both the monkeys were rewarded with a slice of cucumber on success.

After about 25 repetitions, one monkey was given a sweet grape instead of the regular slice. De Waal saw the second monkey cried out loud and checked if his pebble was the problem before handing it in the next time. When he received a slice of cucumber again, the monkey threw it back and refused to play the unfair game.

De Waal found this behaviour so incredulous that he had to repeat the experiment a number of times. He deduced that an aversion to unfairness is embedded into the genetic makeup of primates. He conducted the same experiment with chimps. He found the same result. He also saw that the chimps that were favoured rejected their special treat out of solidarity towards their unfairly treated friends. While this behaviour differed from personality to personality, every unfairly treated chimp refused to play the unfair game.

Such behavior can be attributed to the hunt. If a primate would not get his fair share of the hunt, there would be no point sticking around. The sense of fairness is genetically ingrained in primates, where all, even the sick and old get something from the hunt, even if the best parts go to the alphas.

Higher Level Thinking Order

We can establish so far that there is more to primates than we believed earlier. Primates are not only able to understand the feelings of others in their own species and of other species; they are able to imagine how others feel too. 

This could be seen from an experiment conducted, wherein one chimp is blindfolded and the second chimp is watching him. The researchers then hid food from the blindfolded chimp. The second chimp watched the event. Once the blindfold was taken off, the researchers observed the behavior of the chimps. It was evident from the behavior of the second chimp that he expected the blindfolded chimp to not have knowledge of the hidden food.

Another proof of higher-level thinking among animals is the fact that along with humans, elephants, primates, magpies, and dolphins can recognize themselves in the mirror.

Observation of primate behavior shows that they are able to help others consciously because they are able to deduce what the others could be thinking and out themselves the shoes of the other.

This was seen when an injured bird flew into the glass enclosure of a bonobo female. At first, she tried to help it fly. When I couldn’t, she nursed it and cared for it until it was well. The bonobo then climbed to the top of a tree, gently spread the wings of the bird, and threw it high up. She had sensed what the bird had wanted to do.

Opposing Forces Of Empathy And Cruelty

Hostility is an inherent trait among all primates. This was seen by Jane Goodall, the British ethologist in 1970. She observed behavior among a group of chimps, which she called murdering.

The group, during patrolling one night, caught an enemy male chimp at the border of their territory, dragged him into the bushes, and beat him to death. Over a few months, they did this to most of the males in the enemy group. The alarming behavior was different from the fights they had with those in their group. This murdering was almost like that of prey.

Next, they raided the enemy territory, killed all the young, raped the females, and took over. Among chimpanzees, such wars are not uncommon. Bonobos are different in this respect too.

While fights do break out among bonobos with strangers, the fights are broken by the females with the prospect of sex. However, tension still exists. Though no one is killed, there is no sharing of food or grooming within the two groups.

While it seems the xenophobia comes from evolutionary factors, and there is no ignoring it, ethologists should target studies towards the opposing force of xenophobia: empathy. They need to address the fact that why are chimpanzees (and humans) unable to exercise empathy towards strangers of their own species?

Morality And Its Ties To Our Ape Ancestors

Humans have been under the misconception that morality is based on one’s free will and rational thinking. However, if one studies the brain during moral decisions, one can see that rather than the cerebral cortex (that deals with rational thinking), deeper parts of the brain are activated. This phenomenon is common among primates.

This was studied when 2 scenarios were presented to test subjects.

Scenario 1: What would you do if you are in a trolley on a rail track that is about to collide with five rail workers?

  • Option 1: Throw the track switch sending the trolley on another collision course with another trolley with only one person.
  • Option 2: Stay on track.

Scenario 2: What would you do if you are on abridge with a heavy-set man, and you see that a trolley beneath is out of control heading for five workers?

  • Option: Push the heavy man down, so that his body obstructs the trolley, saving the men.

Note: Sacrificing oneself is pointless as you are too light to stop the trolley.

The working of the brains of the test subjects differed in the two scenarios. While contemplating the solution to the first scenario, it was seen that the cerebral cortex was activated, with about 90% choosing to throw the switch of the trolley.

However, in the second scenario, it was observed that deeper sections of the brain were activated. Very few subjects chose to push the man. This was because the prospect of killing someone brought up morality roots that reside deep within our brains, and that deeper than mere rational thinking.

Humans And The Apes Within

All the comparisons between the primates and humans help deduce that humans have 2 types of apes within – the competitive ape and the collaborative ape.

  • The Competitive Ape: Competitive aggressive behaviour is the inherent trait that enables all primates and humans to survive and multiply. It the base of evolution. It is the reason why especially the males of all species have an inherent urge to conquer and prevail.
  • The Collaborative Ape: The collaborative ape represents the inner traits of showing empathy, maintaining social instincts, needing fairness, and having a natural impulse to help others. This collaborative inner ape has developed much later, with empathy at the forefront.

It is however noted that one inner ape does not suppress the other. Both the inner apes become more complex as the inherent apes and social lives become more contradictory, making cohabitation increasingly difficult, yet more substantial.

Reactions to friend or foe are natural and ancestral. They determine which impulse (empathetic or competitive) prevails in situations of conflict.

Humanity is a falsification that has become the basis for many social theories like communism. It assumes that competition can disappear if there is no exploitation. Contrarily, believers of a free-market economy think that people act of their own free will and then find incredulity in the irrational manner in which people behave. Humans too, like other primates have a willingness to help and a sense of fairness that trump egoism.

It is not possible to get to the root of all behaviors and feelings, however, it is possible that these feelings are inherited via evolution. One can however rationally determine which feelings and behaviors are anchored in one’s genetic makeup, how one will tend to impulsive act in any given situation. That doesn’t mean that we can’t change it. Considering we have strong evolutionary and ancestral impulses, to change these impulses will need equally strong countering efforts.


Humans have a deep-seated morality, just as they have aggression and competitiveness. These inner conflicts make humans, humans. It is the gift of intelligence that enables humans to see and understand these conflicts in themselves and others. These abilities to understand the difference between free will and the impulses of the inner apes are the keys to understanding and improving society.