Book Reviews - Spring 2011

Aping Us

Beasts behaving badly

By Clive D. L. Wynne | March 2, 2011


The Moral Lives of Animals, by Dale Peterson, Bloomsbury Press, 352 pp., $26

Over the last 20 years Dale Peterson has written half-a-dozen books on animal behavior. His skills as a chronicler of animal goings-on are highly developed: drawing quick vignettes of the diverse and surprising things animals do.

In The Moral Lives of Animals, he deftly sketches vampire bats palpating each other’s stomachs to detect who has had a good blood meal overnight, and who has gone hungry. A bat that misses out for two successive nights is in grave danger of not surviving a third, so it begs its companions to regurgitate a little of what they have collected. And the little begging vampire remembers who helped her so that she may repay the favor in the future.

Chimpanzees patrol the border of their territory, on the lookout for members of another troop that they can pounce on and destroy. The chimps are merciless as they descend on an isolated outsider and rip him limb from limb.

Or perhaps you prefer bonobo bands meeting for the first time in a forest clearing. After half an hour of gingerly watching each other, a female from one group crosses over and has sex with a female from the other. With that signature act, the bonobos skip into an all-out orgy.

Here’s one more chimpanzee example. Jane Goodall observed a female chimpanzee she dubbed “Passion”; it had a nasty habit of killing and eating other mother chimps’ babies.

An African elephant lay dying alongside a well-traveled trail. Researchers noted that 38 elephants made a total of 56 visits to the dying elephant—including six visits by her mother and sister. After the elephant died, 54 individuals made 73 visits to her corpse—none by her mother and sister. The visitors made many interesting responses to the dying and dead young elephant. Some looked fearful, others sniffed the air and poked the body. One, known as “Miss Lonelyheart,” stabbed the corpse with her tusks and tried to tear pieces from it.

It is easy to forget, buoyed along by these examples of animal behavior, that this claims to be a book about the moral lives of animals. What does any of this have to do with morality?

Peterson’s method is to present these examples and then analogize to the human case. People kill members of other groups, they exchange food, they care for the sick; occasionally people kill each other’s offspring. (I’m not aware of any case of humans greeting an unfamiliar group by engaging in an orgy of lesbian sex, but perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life.) When people do these things, we consider ourselves in a domain of morals; thus, when animals do them, these are their “moral lives.”

Is this anthropomorphic projection enough? Is similarity to humans all it takes to make animal behavior moral? Peterson knows that most people talk of rules when they speak of morality, and that animals, not having language, can’t have rules. But he sees this as human exceptionalism: what he calls “Darwinian narcissism”—“the powerful, evolved tendency of each species to locate itself at the center of the universe.” He goes on to argue that we shouldn’t expect other species to have the same moral codes we have, missing the point that what matters is not whether animals have a different moral code, but whether they have any code at all.

When we compare chimpanzees destroying their neighbors and bonobos fornicating with them, should we label one species moral and the other immoral? Was Passion’s habit of eating her neighbors’ offspring not just distressing to them, but a moral outrage as well?

Peterson believes that the rules of morality evolved before they could be uttered. He is also keen to accentuate those moral rules that are human universals. He refers repeatedly to the Ten Commandments—the moral common core of the Abrahamic faiths. But human morality, despite what Peterson thinks, is not all of one piece. Different people have distinctly different beliefs about the morality of different actions. Though travel makes this clearer, it is right on our doorsteps as well.

Here at home arguments rage over the moral status of abortion. Which moral principle has precedence here: a woman’s right to control her body or a fetus’s right to life? Homosexuality: do people have a right to engage in whatever sexual acts they please, or does society have a legitimate interest in ensuring the sanctity of all sexual relations? These are moral questions—questions about what is right and proper, not just about what people actually do. A woman may submit to an abortion even though doing so violates her own moral principles. A man may engage in sexual activities with other members of his sex, even though he may hate himself for breaking a moral taboo he earnestly believes in. Such is the human condition: we may espouse beliefs incompatible with our actions. Surely no other species can be confronted by these dilemmas.

Peterson claims that, if a species does not have language, we can uncover its morality by looking for rules that appear to govern its behavior. But this is to equivocate two senses of “rule.” The rules that a scientist may discover by noting the regularities in an animal’s behavior are purely descriptive. The rules of morality are proscriptive, and, since they may be transgressed as often as they are adhered to, may not even be detectable by an observer of overt behavior.

Peterson’s implicit philosophy of morality seems to be that what we say about what we do is unimportant: actions speak louder than words.  This philosophy brings humans closer to the nonspeaking actors with whom we share this planet. But it does not achieve that by making animals moral beings. Rather it is an argument that there is no such thing as morality—a resting place Peterson does not want to visit.

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