An approach towards ethics: primate sociality

Moral decision making is one of the major torrents in human behavior. It often overrides other ways of making judgments, it generates conflicting sets of cultural values and is reinforced by them. Such conflicts might even occur in the head of some unfortunate individual, which makes the process really creative. On the other hand ethical behavior is the necessary social glue and the way people prioritize prosocial practices.

In the comments to his G+ post about Michael Sandel’s Justice course, Artem Kaznatcheev invited me to have a take on moral judgment and social emotions based on what I gathered through my readings in the recent couple of years. I’m by no means an expert in any of the fields that I touch upon in the following considerations, but I’ve been purposefully struggling with the topic due to my interest in behavioral sciences trying to come up with a lucid framework to think about the subject. Not everything I write here is backed up very well by research, mainly because I step up a little and try to see what might come next, but I’ll definitely do my best to leave my general understanding distinct from concepts prevailing in the studies I have encountered. It is not an essay on ethics per se, but rather where I am now in understanding how moral sentiments work. A remark to make is that for the purposes of that text I understand behavior broadly, e.g. thinking is a behavior.

The broad framework: yet another behavior

Robert Sapolsky, in his Stanford course on Human Behavioural Biology, provides a way to understand any behavior in terms of what produced it. For a given person at a given point in time indulging in a certain behavior we would include in our analysis:

  • evolutionary science data and relevant primatology;
  • personal genomics data;
  • developmental and environmental data including very important prenatal environment;
  • effects of culture and social learning;
  • current physiological state – hormones, stress levels; and, finally
  • brain activity immediately preceding and during the execution of action.

This approach is, of course, applicable to ethical judgments. But the common sense operates while facing a severe lack of information on many of those influences necessary for scientific assessment. For instance, it is quite uncommon for a lay person to have access to sequenced genomes of their prospective significant others along with heritability data on major traits of interest. Of course, we could argue that evolution has equipped us (and other primates) with a personal genome sequencer in the form of a smell (Charpentier et al., 2008) or a kiss (Wlodarski & Dunbar, 2013), but it is still not exhaustive. I am very much interested in how scientific view of behavior might influence my own understanding of other people around me. Even if I can’t get my hands on a miracle gadget that acquires and analyses for me all relevant data on demand, the sheer knowledge of principles operating on each level is elucidating. In this and the following post I am going to cherry-pick some of the levels of analysis that proved to me the most productive in facilitating my understanding and leave the rest to future writing endeavors.  This first post is an attempt to sum up the features of primate behavior relevant to the study of morals. The second will describe the aspects of ethical behavior that arise in the course of human life. Both texts to a large extent avoid the cultural side of the question – I strongly believe that it deserves separate treatment, may be even in a series of posts, due to the astonishing multifariousness of our human culture. Artem’s post on cultural variation in fairness norms provides an anxious reader with a preliminary discussion of one of such issues.

Primate Sociality

There are several things to learn from the science of evolution relevant to the genesis of human ethics. There is the evolution of altruistic and prosocial behavior which some would argue started somewhere in the RNA-world. There is the whole field of evolutionary modelling concerning benefits of cooperation, danger of free-riders, selection for different kinds of altruism, etc. that is discussed heavily here on TheEGG. I chose to consider primate prosocial behavior here for obvious reasons of our genetic proximity and basic affinity of our social practices and life histories. Reading up on primates is always such a delight and it provides a notion of building blocks of all primate sociality, including human.

The same organizing principles are at work: kinship, sex, age, dominance style, dispersal patterns influenced by dispersal cost and foraging efficiency, reproduction rate and skew, group size, fission-fusion dynamics, etc. They all interplay to produce stunning diversity, for example, how much kin you have is influenced by dispersal and reproduction and the less kin you have the more inclusive you are going to be in terms of kin bias. In primates, overall, unilateral altruism is highly kin-biased. Human society is different from all other primates in complexity and scale, but similar in extensive maternal investment and strong nepotistic bias. Primate social encounters are fundamentally prosocial. Non-human primates on average devote only 10% of their time  to social practices (with chimps being the most social at 25%) and only 1% of these 10% are agonistic.

Another important aspect of primate prosocial behavior is personal differences. The usual misconception is to think of a primate species as uniform in terms of character and behavioral strategies.  “A Primate’s Memoir”, by the aforementioned Robert Sapolsky, describes a baboon who elicited the strongest sympathy in the author – the baboon took avoidant stance on conflict either for mates or for higher status and he was the same baboon who engaged in defending children not of his kin from a female lion, which is a much more rare occasion among baboons than infanticide or using someone else’s baby to protect oneself from an attack.

The video below provides another example of diversity – not on the level of personal differences but on the level of a troop, i.e. cultural variety. In the beginning of the video, we see individual differences in behavioral strategies based on the animal’s place in a hierarchy. In the later part of the video, we see that this hierarchy is indeed cultural and not imposed purely by biology – the same troop going through a terrible crisis that bottlenecks the most aggressive baboons returns to normal life with completely different, more affiliative behavioral patterns, which persist till the next generation is born and raised. The troop is transformed.

Of course, the conclusion Sapolsky makes – that if baboons are prone to such cultural shifts, we have no excuse of prolonging our misery by not changing the society – largely ignores the inertia of human culture which has much more robust ways of being inherited.

The transition from non-human primates to contemporary human includes the period that is most probably formative to human morals – about 1.8 million years of living as nomadic foragers, which renders last 10000 years of civilization rather short in terms of evolution. However, it is important to note that — regardless of what Sir David Attenborough believes — we are still evolving, it is just not clear that the current changes are as important to our ethical instincts. The hunter gatherers of that period are often seen as living in egalitarian societies that were not clearly segmented and almost free of dominance. This is of course radically different from the contemporary societies, which creates certain tensions. The foragers’ groups were not very large, relatively stable, while living in lone families is not registered.  It is worth mentioning that the division of labour during that period is what facilitated the significance and differentiation of social roles – a mechanism which frames ethical norms today.

Thinking about our evolutionary roots also demonstrates limits of human morals. Besides enabling critique of exploitation of moral sensitivities by various ideologies, it has an aspect that I find especially intriguing. I suppose there is a certain group size, in the manner of Dunbar’s Number, which is optimal for prosocial mechanisms built into us by evolution, but our moral faculties often get engaged by problems concerning gigantic human societies, organizations or institutions that are just beyond threshold.  This, again, creates a certain tension which seems to be in play in some of the discussions that philosophers of Ethics like Sandel or political scientists specialize in. It also, as I see it, contributes to phenomena like the anthropomorphic metaphor of international relations and abstract ethnocentrism and xenophobia.

The main thing I take from this, is that there are laws of societal dynamics fundamental to all primate species, that should be seen realistically and that will always lie as hidden torrents always at work inside various cultural phenomena. This should restrict our often idealistic, although not necessarily naive, and sometimes overly skeptical notions. When building up a discourse on human ethics it is usually impossible to have a clear distinction between cultural and biological, but the network of correlations between behavioral and other phenotypic features in primates contributes to explanation of forces at play in human morality.


Campbell, C. J., Fuentes, A., MacKinnon, K. C., Panger, M., & Bearder, S. K. (2010). Primates in perspective. Oxford University Press; 2nd edition

Charpentier, M. J., Boulet, M., & Drea, C. M. (2008). Smelling right: the scent of male lemurs advertises genetic quality and relatedness. Molecular Ecology, 17(14): 3225-3233.

Mitani, J. C., Call, J., Kappeler, P. M., Palombit, R. A., & Silk, J. B. (Eds.). (2012). The evolution of primate societies. University of Chicago Press.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2007). A primate’s memoir: a neuroscientist’s unconventional life among the baboons. Simon and Schuster.

Wlodarski, R., & Dunbar, R.I. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42 (8), 1415-23 PMID: 24114390


About Alexander Yartsev
I am currently not involved with any institution, working as a freelance translator. I have a diploma in Economics, but my real interest is Neuroscience, especially Social Neuroscience and Cultural Neuroscience, and how it affects everyday life and the field of humanities.

6 Responses to An approach towards ethics: primate sociality

  1. Pingback: Space and stochasticity in evolutionary games | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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  3. Marco Bitran says:

    Right here is the right website for anyone who would like
    to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost tough
    to argue with you (not that I really will need to…HaHa).
    You definitely put a new spin on a topic that has been discussed for ages.
    Great stuff, just excellent!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Marco! Have you read the second part of the post?

      Stay tuned for the third part that I’m planning to write at some point closer to Summer! It deals with cultural differences in human ethics, and with how legal systems, political systems, public debate/press reflect and continuously transform them. At the end the plan is to outline the methods of thinking about society that integrate as much structural levels as possible.

  4. Pingback: An update | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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