Veneer theory is a term coined by Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal to label a view of human morality that he criticizes in his book "Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved". He uses the term to denote a concept that he rejects, namely that human morality is "a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature". The idea of the veneer theory goes back to Thomas Henry Huxley and has more recently been advocated by biologists like George C. Williams.
Proponents of the theory
Thomas Henry Huxley developed the idea that moral tendencies are not part of the human nature, and so our ancestors became moral by choice, not by evolution. Thus it represents a discrepancy in Huxley's Darwinian conviction. Social behavior is explained by this theory as a veneer of morality. This dualistic point of view separates humans from animals by rejecting every connection between human morality and animal social tendencies. George C. Williams, as another advocate of the veneer theory, sees 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".
Psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that humans no longer have instincts because we have the ability to override them in certain situations. He felt that what is called instinct is often imprecisely defined, and really amounts to strong drives. For Maslow, an instinct is something which cannot be overridden, and therefore while the term may have applied to humans in the past, it no longer does.
Critics of the theory
De Waal criticizes the veneer theory and sees our morality as a direct outgrowth of the social instincts human beings share with other animals. He argues that the advocates of the veneer theory don't have any indications or empirical evidence which support the theory, and that it is highly unlikely that humans can deny their genes and improve morality merely by choice. As an example he compares Huxley's theory with a school of piranhas deciding to become vegetarian. De Waal bases his argument against the veneer theory on observations of behavior of humanity's relatives in his long work as primatologist. "Building blocks of morality“ can be already observed in other primates, and by the principle of parsimony, it is quite possible that some sort of morality is evolutionarily ancient and shared with our ancestors. De Waal assumes that the evolutionary origins lie in emotions we share with other animals, e.g. empathy. Human morality is according to him a product of social evolution, and instead of Huxley's theory, this point of view — a continuity between human morality and animal social tendencies— is unitary and thus more compatible to the evolutionary theory. Other critics of the veneer theory are Edward Westermarck and E. O. Wilson.
- de Waal, Frans; Robert Wright; Christine M. Korsgaard; Philip Kitcher; Peter Singer (2009). Macedo, Stephen; Ober, Josiah, eds. Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-691-14129-9.
- Williams, George C. (1988). "Reply to comments on "Huxley's Evolution and Ethics in Sociobiological Perspective."". Zygon 23 (4): 437–438. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.1988.tb00857.x.
- Maslow, Abraham H. (1954). "Instinct Theory Reexamined". Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row.
- de Waal, Frans (2008). "Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy". Annual Review of Psychology 59: 279–300. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093625. PMID 17550343.