Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved

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Princeton University Press, 2006 - Psychology - 209 pages
19 Reviews

"It's the animal in us," we often hear when we've been bad. But why not when we're good? Primates and Philosophers tackles this question by exploring the biological foundations of one of humanity's most valued traits: morality.


In this provocative book, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that modern-day evolutionary biology takes far too dim a view of the natural world, emphasizing our "selfish" genes. Science has thus exacerbated our reciprocal habits of blaming nature when we act badly and labeling the good things we do as "humane." Seeking the origin of human morality not in evolution but in human culture, science insists that we are moral by choice, not by nature.


Citing remarkable evidence based on his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal attacks "Veneer Theory," which posits morality as a thin overlay on an otherwise nasty nature. He explains how we evolved from a long line of animals that care for the weak and build cooperation with reciprocal transactions. Drawing on both Darwin and recent scientific advances, de Waal demonstrates a strong continuity between human and animal behavior. In the process, he also probes issues such as anthropomorphism and human responsibilities toward animals.


Based on the Tanner Lectures de Waal delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 2004, Primates and Philosophers includes responses by the philosophers Peter Singer, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Philip Kitcher and the science writer Robert Wright. They press de Waal to clarify the differences between humans and other animals, yielding a lively debate that will fascinate all those who wonder about the origins and reach of human goodness.


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Review: Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved

User Review  - Garry Alexander - Goodreads

Primates and Philosophers is offering us to analyse the origins of morality, but focuses on one of the subject: whether human morality goes deep into our evolutionary past or is new with the arrival of our evolving brains and cultures. The answer depends on how morality is defined. Read full review

Review: Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved

User Review  - Goodreads

Primates and Philosophers is offering us to analyse the origins of morality, but focuses on one of the subject: whether human morality goes deep into our evolutionary past or is new with the arrival of our evolving brains and cultures. The answer depends on how morality is defined. Read full review

About the author (2006)

Josiah Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include "Democracy and Knowledge", "Political Dissent in Democratic Athens", "The Athenian Revolution", and "Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens" (all Princeton). He lives in Palo Alto, California.

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