Do primates believe in God? They seem to have morals!

I had a conversation with a colleague over lunch a few years back, really nice guy and good friend, very religious. Somehow, the topic of my religion came up and I happened to mention that I was not much of a believer in any kind of supreme being. He was silent for a little while, trying to digest the fact that someone he liked and respected (me!) had just outed himself as the spawn of satan. He then asked me where I got my values from if I did not believe in God. I explained to him that just like him, I got mine from my parents, from school, society, friends, etc., in fact, one source less than he got his from! (a slight variant on the “I believe in one god less than you do” schtick!) I also explained to him that I thought a lot about my value system, I made ethical and moral judgements all the time just by thinking, reading and listening to other people. He seemed unconvinced, thanked me for my honesty, and we proceeded to talk basketball after that (Go Heels!).

Long ramble notwithstanding, I had known a little bit about this primate research previously, but happened to read a well written NY Times article about primates and “morality” (don’t like that word, but can’t seem to find a better one).

Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior – New York Times

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.

Hmm, they must believe God, because without religion, there is no morality, right?

I am not convinced that this “morality” was a naturally selected behavior rather than a by-product of evolution (the article references a critic as making this point too), nevertheless, it is fascinating.

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