Primates and Philosophers is not a comprehensive analysis of the origins of morality, but focuses on one minutia of the subject: whether human morality goes deep into our evolutionary past or is new with the arrival of our bulbous brains and cultures. The answer depends on how morality is defined. If moral behavior falls under the definition of morality, it seems clear that other primates such as chimps share at least rudimentary moral behavior. But if morality is defined as abstract thinking about right and wrong and living by principles derived abstractly, then morality must be pretty recent in humans' evolutionary past.
De Waal quotes Richard Dawkins as saying "we, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" and "[we are] nicer than is good for our selfish genes." De Waal takes this as lending support of what he calls 'veneer theory', the position that morality is "a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature." Having read seven of Richard Dawkins' books, I feel like I understand his views pretty well, and I don't think he would agree with veneer theory at all. I think there is some ambiguity here between proper domain vs. actual domain. The proper domain is the conditions under which a behavior evolved, and the actual domain is the conditions under which the behavior is manifest. Sometimes they are the same, sometimes not. For example, the proper domain of a moth's light-sensitive navigation system is a light source in the dark that an ancient moth would have encountered, such as the moon. But today, the actual domain may be a light bulb, candle, or bug zapper. The navigation system doesn't work correctly when the source of light is nearby, and it causes moths to spiral into light sources, sometimes to their deaths. Our genes (and moth genes) provide rules-of-thumb that aren't necessarily survival-enhancing in every conceivable actual domain; it is only necessary that these rules were useful on average to our ancestors in our evolutionary past. So saying that we are "nicer than is good for our selfish genes" in the world we currently live in, which is much different than our evolutionary past, is not to imply some mysterious cause outside of nature accounts for this deviation. Similarly, every time we use contraception we are "rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" because the proper domain (in the technical sense) of sex is procreation, but the actual domain may be recreation. Having as many offspring as possible would be beneficial to our genes, but we can obviously choose not to do so.
In a table on page 22, de Waal compares veneer theory to his own theory of the evolution of ethics. Under veneer theory, he lists Richard Dawkins as an advocate and states that the empirical evidence in favor of that theory is "none." This is a textbook straw man, and I am confident that at least one of the alleged "advocates" is no advocate at all.
On the next page, de Waal hastily concludes that Steven Pinker's brilliant work on human language skills requires "postulating discontinuities" in evolution and thus is saltatory. Apparently he takes it as self-evident that a language module in the brain cannot possibly evolve by gradual degrees, although I'm baffled as to why he thinks that.
In Christine Korsgaard's section, she writes "it is absurd to think that nonhuman animals are motivated by self-interest...acting for the sake of your best interests requires the capacity to be motivated by the abstract conception of your overall long-term good." [p 102] Self interest, I think, can be pretty simply defined as the most effective way of spreading your genes. There is no need to have a conscious conception of what that consists of because the genes that program the best gene-spreading behavior are automatically propagated. I found Korsgaard's chapter to be lacking in scientific rigor. She seemed to make conclusions about empirical questions based on casual observation and reasoning. However, she did provide a clear definition of morality which was lacking from de Waal's part.
In Phillip Kitcher's section, he defines four dimensions of 'altruism space': intensity (the degree to which one meets the needs or desires of others), range (how high can the stakes get before one acts selfishly), extent (the set of individuals one acts altruistically toward), and skill (ability to discern the desires of the beneficiary). He agrees that non-human primate morality lies somewhere in the defined 'altruism space' away from pure selfishness, but until we have a clear definition of the ideal moral individual with respect to these four dimensions, "it's premature to claim that human morality is a 'direct outgrowth' of tendencies [non-human primates] share." [p 129] But if non-human primate morality differs by degree and not by kind (as implied here) is it not reasonable to conjecture that human morality is a direct outgrowth of the tendencies of primates?
Kitcher goes on to say that when chimpanzees are faced with an opportunity for altruism, their impulses for selfishness and altruism duke it out and they are ultimately "vulnerable to whichever impulse happens to be dominant at a particular moment." But I am far from convinced that humans are much different. Since when have we humans overcome our impulses? As Peter Singer argues later in the book, our emotional impulses constitute a large part of our morality. In those rare cases where abstract thinking overturns our gut reactions to moral questions, one could argue we are not acting on impulse but on reason. But those cases probably represent a vast minority of moral judgments. As de Waals mentioned, moralistic and altruistic intuitions come from deep in the evolutionarily ancient part of the brain, and conscious rationalization of those intuitions does not mean we've overcome them. Steven Pinker has revealed a world in which unconscious brain processes have profound impacts on our thoughts and decisions even though, by definition, we don't notice them. But we surely notice when they're gone, such as in people who have suffered damage to various parts of the brain, leaving certain parts of the intellect unscathed while some capacities are completely destroyed.
Peter Singer's section was the highlight of this book. I found his section better-argued than the others and his explanations more compelling. "Like the other social mammals, we have automatic, emotional responses to certain kinds of behavior, and these responses constitute a large part of our morality. Unlike the other social mammals, we can reflect on our emotional responses, and choose to reject them." [p 149] "Perhaps we do so only on the basis of other emotional responses, but the process involves reason and abstraction." Singer points out that this ability to reflect and abstract is evolved not just to make moral choices but is useful in many other parts of life as well.