Saturday, 22 August 2009
In spite of all this...
Tempting though it is to look at animal behaviour and make it human, the comparison may not always be accurate. The problem is, for example, how can we really know what’s going on behind those big dark eyes of man’s best friend?
Having said that some examples nicely illustrate how human morality is so different to anything else in the animal kingdom. A recent study of Chimpanzees highlights this.
The idea of ‘punishment’ is important in social groups because it is an aid to cooperation. If bad behaviour is punished then good behaviour, that helps the group, is encouraged. This might look like morality but at root it’s just a sophisticated form of selfish protectionism.
‘Spite’ is something different. Spite is just punishment for the sake of it i.e. without any positive outcome attached to it.
In this study one chimpanzee was given access to food whilst another chimpanzee had no access to it but instead was able to reach a rope that knocked over the table of food and took it away from both of them. After setting up some suitable controls the researchers found that the chimps didn’t knock the food over out of spite. They then did a second study where the second chimp was allowed to have some of the food before it was given to the first. When the chimp perceived there being a theft they were quick to pull the rope and punish the bad behaviour.
The conclusion? Whilst chimps can be vengeful and punish anti-social behaviour they are not spiteful. This is a peculiarly human behaviour.
Humans are alone in having the freedom to think about and choose our behaviours. We use this freedom for better and for worse, for good and for evil. We are quite willing to act spitefully – even at a cost to ourselves – but thankfully we are also willing to give at a cost too. The choice is ours. The inspiration is Christ.