Chimps, Yawning, Empathy and Morality

Posted by on April 8, 2011 in Quick Note, Thoughts | 1 comment

This is a great article which shows that recent studies have been able to correlate the contagious nature of yawning to empathy within chimpanzees. If you don’t know what I mean, which I’m sure you do, just try to go to this page and not yawn. Hell I’m feeling a yawn coming on just by writing about them.

You know how it works, someone yawns, you yawn too? The idea is that it’s linked to our empathic nature, our ability to empathise with others around us without actually having to actually experience the same thing as them. The study has shown that the contagion of yawning is more common among chimps within the same group, and less prevalent when the chimps watch an “outsider” yawn.

Image via Scienceblogs

Image via Scienceblogs


It made me think about a couple of things, both related to things pointed out in the article.

One is that, if this is true, that humans must be very empathic, not only toward each other and those within our own groups, but also to life in general. The gallery above shows a variety of animals yawning (admittedly they are mostly cats), but upon seeing the gallery, I feel the urge to yawn too. This is my empathic centre firing off, telling me that I can relate to these people and animals. The article sums up the potential uses and extensions of this study.

“Given the potential relationship between contagious yawning, empathy, and the in-group bias, it would be interesting to extend this research to bonobos, domestic dogs, and humans. If this line of research bears out, contagious yawning could serve as a method for better investigating the social and emotional bonds among individuals. Campbell and de Waal suggest that understanding how and why chimpanzees alternate between empathy and aggression can help us understand our own human social emotions. Indeed, humans could certainly stand to have a little more empathy towards social outsiders.”

The second thing I thought about was the link between our empathic nature and the role of mirror neurons in the brain, and how these relate to morality. While I still think we are a long way off from being able to show morality as an absolute science as Sam Harris has suggested, I still see this as a big step toward being able to show morality as a process of the brain, which when combined with our cultures, religions (or lack thereof), and our communities, creates a system which we all agree upon, even if we might not agree with the specifics of the said moral code.

This last point, not agreeing with the specifics of a moral code, is particularly of interest. I see the fact that we can agree on the morality of a given society as a compromise between what could be an “ultimate morality” (or one that suits everyone’s wants and needs) and a practical morality (one that serves the purpose of keeping people at least somewhat satisfied with the moral code presented). To say that an absolute morality exists is false, because as we have seen throughout history, people are different due to (as I said) cultures, communities and religions.

Many claim that religion is the basis of morality. The more we delve into the workings of the societal brain, the cooperative brain and the empathic brain, the more we will understand that this simply cannot be the case. If anything, the only morality that can come from within religion is one that is imposed by strict and rigid rules which help the religion itself, rather than a code that will help the people get along better.

So in any case, I find the chimpanzee yawning/empathy study fascinating. Hopefully this gives you a couple of things to think about, and hopefully you weren’t yawning throughout reading this (unless you are still yawning from the gallery of animals).

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1 Comment

  1. I was just earlier today (I’m on the East Coast of the U.S…) reading an article in Skeptic magazine discussing why religions tend to be controlling, even oppressive, when it comes to thought and behavior, to both members and non-members of a religion, even in some liberal societies.

    It noted, while presenting some possible explanations via evolutionary psychology, that while the are a few generalities common across cultures in morals, the majority of religions adopt idiosyncratic principles focused on minutia of life.

    As you mentioned above, these seem intended, or at least well-suited, to benefit the religion if not those within it, often when the behavior is without any harmful consequence or effect on those so restricting it.

    BTW, the gallery was kinda cute, though I confess I’m biased in favor of cats…

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