Pen and Paper Revolutionaries: The Monkey Business of Human Morality

Marc D. Hauser, Professor of Psychology

Laura C. Settlemyer

Professor of Psychology Marc D. Hauser may be the only psychologist who studies monkeys in order to understand humans.

That, says research assistant Fiery A. Cushman ’03, is what makes him “revolutionary” in his field. “What’s so unique about Marc’s approach,” says Cushman, “is that he combines human behavioral research with nonhuman research.”

Hauser studies the human mind—its evolution, its processes, its judgments, its nuances—with the eyes and tools of a scientist. It is an integrative approach to an age-old question. If we share 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, thinkers have long wondered, what is it about humans that makes us truly different? In particular, Hauser asks, what about humans makes them moral?

“I saw that in these fields there was a lot of speculation, but little data,” Hauser says. “As a scientist, I believe that theory is only as good as it can be tested.”

In order to turn that story around, Hauser is now gathering some of the first empirical data ever collected about the processes of human thought, much of which comes straight from Harvard’s monkey lab. He’s found that morality may be hard-wired into the human brain—and missing from the minds of animals.

“The conclusion we are reaching is that [monkeys] lack the part of the brain that allows combinational ability,” says Hauser. While humans are able to string together words and thoughts, monkeys cannot. And that linguistic ability may be the key to moral decision-making skills as well.

“By studying animals that lack our ability to combine and create language, we can learn what it is about this ability that is so important,” Hauser says.

Hauser’s research integrates not only psychology and biological science, but philosophy, evolutionary biology and linguistics. “One of the exciting things about the lab is that the empirical work we do has a great deal of importance for domains of the academic world that are very rich in theory,” says Cushman.

They may not have that combinational ability, but it seems like the monkeys are at least offering a lot to science.