Veneer Theory

In 1893, Thomas Henry Huxley publicly tried to reconcile his dim view of a nasty natural world with the kindness occasionally encountered in human society. Hux

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ley realized that the laws of the physical world are unalterable. He felt, however, that their impact on human existence could be softened and modified provided people kept nature under control. He compared us with a gardener who has a hard time keeping weeds out of his garden. Thus, he proposed ethics as a human cultural victory over the evolutionary process in the same way as the gardener conquers the weeds in his garden (Huxley 1894).

This position deliberately curbed the explanatory power of evolution. Since many consider morality the essence of our species, Huxley was in effect saying that what makes us human could not be handled within an evolutionary framework. It was an inexplicable retreat by someone who had gained a reputation as "Darwin's Bulldog," owing to his fierce advocacy of evolutionary theory. His solution was quintessentially Hobbesian in that it stated that people are fit for society only by education, not their nature (Hobbes 1651).

If we are indeed Hobbesian competitors who don't care one bit about the feelings of others (Homo homini lupus, or Man is wolf to man), how did we decide to transform ourselves into model citizens? Can people for generations maintain behavior that is out of character, like a shoal of piranhas that decide to become vegetarians? How deep does such a change go?

Darwin saw morality in a totally different light. As Huxley's biographer, Desmond (1994, p. 599), put it: "Huxley was forcing his ethical Ark against the Darwinian current which had brought him so far." Two decades earlier, in The Descent of Man, Darwin (1871) had unequivocally stressed continuity between human nature and morality. The reason for Huxley's departure has been sought in his suffering from the cruel hand of nature, which had taken the life of his daughter, as well as his need to make the ruthlessness of the Darwinian cosmos palatable to the general public. He could do so only, he felt, by dislodging human ethics, declaring it a cultural innovation (Desmond 1994).

Huxley's dualism was to get a respectability boost from Sigmund Freud's writings, which thrived on contrasts between the conscious and subconscious, the ego and super-ego, Love and Death, and so on. As with Huxley's gardener and garden, Freud was not just dividing the world in symmetrical halves: he saw struggle everywhere. He let civilization arise out of a renunciation of instinct, the gaining of control over the forces of nature, and the building of a cultural super-ego (Freud 1930).

That this remains a theme today is obvious from the statements by outspoken Huxleyans, who are still found among biologists. Declaring ethics a radical break with biology, George Williams has written extensively about the wretchedness of nature, culminating in his claim that human morality is an inexplicable accident of the evolutionary process: "I account for morality as an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability" (Williams 1988, p. 438).

Richard Dawkins (1996) suspects that we are nicer than is good for our "selfish genes," and has explicitly endorsed Huxley: "What I am saying, along with many other people, among them T. H. Huxley, is that in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don't want to live in a Darwinian world" (Roes 1997, p. 3).

Like Huxley, these authors generally believe that human behavior is an evolutionary product, except when it is unselfish. And like Freud, they propose dichotomies: we are part nature, part culture, rather than a well-integrated whole. The same position has been echoed by popularizers such as Robert Wright (1994), who, in The Moral Animal, went so far as to claim that virtue is absent from people's hearts and souls. He bluntly stated that our species is potentially but not naturally moral. But what if people occasionally experience in themselves and others a degree of sympathy, goodness, and generosity? Wright's answer is that the "moral animal" is a fake:

"... the pretense of selflessness is about as much part of human nature as is its frequent absence. We dress ourselves up in tony moral language, denying base motives and stressing our at least minimal consideration for the greater good; and we fiercely and self-righteously decry selfishness in others." (Wright 1994, p. 344).

This statement recalls the famous synopsis of Veneer Theory by Ghiselin (1974, p. 247): "Scratch an 'altruist,' and watch a 'hypocrite' bleed." To explain how we manage to live with ourselves despite this travesty, theorists have called upon self-deception (e.g. Badcock 1986). The problem is, of course, that self-deception is a most cognitively demanding process compared with the sentiments proposed by Hume (1739), Darwin (1871), Westermarck (1906,1908), and me (de Waal 1996a; Flack and de Waal 2000), which make morality flow naturally from inborn social tendencies. To illustrate these tendencies, I will review evidence for conflict resolution, empathy, reciprocity, and an aversion to unfairness in nonhuman primates.

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