Video – TED lecture: Empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity – caring about the well-being of others seems like a very human trait. But Frans de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioural tests, on primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share. (TED, Nov. 2011, link).

Evolutionary explanations are built around the principle that all that natural selection can work with are the effects of behaviour – not the motivation behind it. This means there is only one logical starting point for evolutionary accounts, as explained by Trivers (2002, p. 6): “You begin with the effect of behaviour on actors and recipients; you deal with the problem of internal motivation, which is a secondary problem, afterwards. . . . [I]f you start with motivation, you have given up the evolutionary analysis at the outset.” ~ Frans B.M. de Waal, 2008.

Do animals have morals? And above all, did morality evolved? The question is pertinent in a broad range of quite different areas, as in as well Computer Sciences and Norm Generation (e.g. link for an MSc thesis) in bio-inspired Computation and Artificial Life, but here new fresh answers come directly from Biology. Besides the striking video lecture above, what follows are 2 different excerpts (abstract and conclusions) from a 2008 paper by Frans B.M. de Waal (Living Links Center lab., Emory University, link): de Waal, F.B.M. (2008). Putting the altruism back in altruism: The evolution of empathy. Ann. Rev. Psychol. 59: 279-300 (full PDF link):

(…) Abstract: Evolutionary theory postulates that altruistic behaviour evolved for the return-benefits it bears the performer. For return-benefits to play a motivational role, however, they need to be experienced by the organism. Motivational analyses should restrict themselves, therefore, to the altruistic impulse and its knowable consequences. Empathy is an ideal candidate mechanism to underlie so-called directed altruism, i.e., altruism in response to another’s pain, need, or distress. Evidence is accumulating that this mechanism is phylogenetically ancient, probably as old as mammals and birds. Perception of the emotional state of another automatically activates shared representations causing a matching emotional state in the observer.With increasing cognition, state-matching evolved into more complex forms, including concern for the other and perspective-taking. Empathy-induced altruism derives its strength from the emotional stake it offers the self in the other’s welfare. The dynamics of the empathy mechanism agree with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory. (…)

(…) Conclusion: More than three decades ago, biologists deliberately removed the altruism from altruism.There is now increasing evidence that the brain is hardwired for social connection, and that the same empathy mechanism proposed to underlie human altruism (Batson 1991) may underlie the directed altruism of other animals. Empathy could well provide the main motivation making individuals who have exchanged benefits in the past to continue doing so in the future. Instead of assuming learned expectations or calculations about future benefits, this approach emphasizes a spontaneous altruistic impulse and a mediating role of the emotions. It is summarized in the five conclusions below: 1. An evolutionarily parsimonious account (cf. de Waal 1999) of directed altruism assumes similar motivational processes in humans and other animals. 2. Empathy, broadly defined, is a phylogenetically ancient capacity. 3. Without the emotional engagement brought about by empathy, it is unclear what could motivate the extremely costly helping behavior occasionally observed in social animals. 4. Consistent with kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory, empathy favours familiar individuals and previous cooperators, and is biased against previous defectors. 5. Combined with perspective-taking abilities, empathy’s motivational autonomy opens the door to intentionally altruistic altruism in a few large-brained species.(…) in, de Waal, F.B.M. (2008). Putting the altruism back in altruism: The evolution of empathy. Ann. Rev. Psychol. 59: 279-300 (full PDF link).

Frans de Waal research work does not end up here, of course. He is a ubiquitous influence and writer on many related areas such as: Cognition, Communication, Crowding/Conflict Resolution, Empathy and Altruism, Social Learning and Culture, Sharing and Cooperation and last but not least, Behavioural Economics. All of his papers are free on-line, in a web page I do vividly recommend a long visit.