Veneer Theory

Veneer Theory is popularised by Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist, emphasising that humans are inherently selfish. He says that the evolution of morality is not possible due to the fact that humans will not prioritise caring for others as a need for survival.


In layman's terms, de Waal states that the human goodness is just a façade, an extremely thin veneer, that can be cracked with the slighted push to reveal the ugliness of humankind.


He discusses Darwin's theory of 'Any animal endowed with well-marked social instincts . . . would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.' against the contradicting theory of 19th-century philosopher Thomas Henry Huxley 'that humans are selfish and competitive, and human morality is nothing more than a facade.'


According to de Waal, 'Veneer Theory' suggest that human morality has gone off the path from nature's instincts so far that certain traits that define morality such as empathy, reciprocity, reconciliation and consolation are now more seen in animals than in humans.


'Human morality is a deep-seated, natural trait grown from the social nature that natural selection has produced, said de Waal.'


This is the idea that I would like to explore in my interventions as I would like to believe that humans are innately kind, and while there are incidents that when the 'veneer' is given slight pressure, it'll expose an ugly side, that when it really matters, when the pressure is too high, humans will display empathy, reciprocity, reconciliation, and consolation.


This is also emphasised in Rutger Bregman's Human Kind: A Hopeful History. From the beginning, he uses the examples of Britain after the Second World War, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the inspiration story for the Lord of the Flies. In all three instances, the media distorted the true mood of the people after the disasters. References:


Thoma, M., 2011. Economist's view. Economist's View: "Veneer Theory". Available at: https://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2011/02/veneer-theory.html [Accessed August 06, 2022].


Rios, E., 2007. De Waal sides with Darwin: Morality is instinctual, evolved. Available at: https://www.emory.edu/EMORY_REPORT/erarchive/2007/April/April%2016/DeWaal.htm [Accessed August 06, 2022].


Berger, J., 1972. Ways of seeing, BBC and Penguin.





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