In his book Primates and Philosophers. How Morality Evolved (Princeton, 2006), Frans de Waal (a famous Dutch ethologist, selected in 2007 as one of the 100 People Who Shape Our World by Time magazine) takes on the infamous phrase homo homini lupus (man is wolf to man), an ancient Roman proverb popularised by Hobbes in his Leviathan. According to de Waal, this claim contains at least two important mistakes (not bad for such a short sentence!). On the one hand, it overtly contradicts zoological facts: wolfs are canids, and thus among the most cooperative and gregarious animals on hearth. The second problem is more relevant for both lawyers and ethicists, since it seriously misrepresents human nature. It advances a position according to which morals are artificially created in order to subject the natural destructive tendencies of human beings. According to this vision, if left alone men would engage in a perennial fight, a vicious struggle for survival and mutual subjugation. This is the reason why we need rules (moral, social, and of course legal): to avoid falling into chaos.
De Waal believes this is plainly and simply wrong. Is he reopening the centuries-long debate about the nature of human beings (good or evil)? Strictly speaking he is not reopening that debate. He is doing something better: talking about facts. Scientific facts. Different experiments and observations on animals indicate that what we call morals is not a “human” artifact, but on the contrary the result of “natural” Darwinian evolution. After decades of working with apes (our closest animals), de Waal is able to conclude that they actually show empathy, and that they have an appreciation for reciprocity.
A striking and very simple illustration of empathy is offered by animal-consolation. For example, after a fight between two apes, other apes who are not involved in the fight tend to approach the loser to offer him consolation, doing things such as gently passing their arms around his neck. There is no self-interested reason that may account for this fact, that seems to be the result of apes being moved by the feelings of their fellows. This conclusion is even more convincing when we learn that the more serious the aggression, the sooner other apes go and console the loser.
De Waal also offers many illuminating descriptions of animal-reciprocity: for example, when two apes were asked to perform the same task in exchange for a reward, and the reward was different in value, the ape that received the less valuable object showed his discontent by rejecting his prize or not accepting it. When the other ape had not performed any task at all, his discontent was even more evident. Does this mean that apes have a certain sense of justice? Well, this is exactly what it seems to mean.
Empathy and reciprocity are the bulding blocks of morality, the hard-core of our normative systems as civilised human beings. The fact that they appear in evolution previous to civilisation (even previous to the dawn of men) opens a whole new perspective on the nature of morals, law and social life in general. A question remains unanswered: why is it so popular, in spite of that evidence, the idea that human beings are naturally evil and need culturally and socially created rules to bring their aggressive and selfish nature under control?