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The Moral Lives of Animals

Dale Peterson

Animal-rights campaigners have long sought to narrow the distance between humans and animals by showcasing appealing stories of humanlike behavior, emotions and mental processes in other species. People love apes that punch buttons on computer screens, elephants that paint pictures and parrots in possession of formidable vocabularies. These are staples not just of the animal-rights literature but of popular animal writing in general.

Nothing tugs at the anthropomorphic heartstrings, though, more strongly than accounts of compassion or altruism in the animal world. A spate of books by authors such as Steven M. Wise, Jeffrey Masson, Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff and Frans de Waal accordingly offer up examples of animals acting not just intelligently but virtuously. Dolphins lovingly tend sick comrades, elephants grieve over the death of relatives, and apes stage daring rescues of people, injured birds or other beings in distress.

In the last category, virtually certain to make an appearance is Binti, a gorilla at a zoo outside of Chicago who became a "bona fide hero" (according to newspaper accounts) by saving a 3-year-old boy who had fallen into the gorilla enclosure; Binti picked the boy up gently and carried him to a door where paramedics waited.

Yet as Mr. Peterson concedes, there is often less to such accounts than meets the eye. What appear on the surface to be instances of insight, reflection, empathy or higher purpose frequently turn out to be a fairly simple learned behavior, of a kind that every sentient species from humans to earthworms exhibits all the time.

In Binti's case, the gorilla did not (as her keepers have repeatedly pointed out, in vain) "rescue" the boy at all: He was in no immediate danger, and the other gorillas were quickly shooed out of the pen by zookeepers wielding high-pressure fire hoses. Moreover, it turns out that, prior to this incident, Binti had been systematically trained to carry a doll and bring it to her keepers. This was done because many zoo-reared gorillas fail to develop normal maternal instincts; the zookeepers wanted to be sure that her impending newborn would receive immediate care. Binti's feat was the equivalent of a dog playing fetch, and she might well have reacted very differently, even aggressively, had the boy not been knocked senseless by his fall.

The deeper problem, as Mr. Peterson more frankly acknowledges, is that it is the height of anthropomorphic absurdity to project human values and behaviors onto other species - and then to judge them by their similarity to us: "It's like dressing elephants in tutus," he writes. Nor is Mr. Peterson so enamored of the natural world that he is blind to the very disturbing things that animals can do. Along with a lot of too-familiar accounts of sexy bonobos, empathetic elephants and cooperative hyenas, he offers less often heard tales of the ugly truths that reign in the animal world. These include brutal infanticide in lions and horrific violence and cannibalism among chimpanzees. In one famous case, observed by Jane Goodall, a chimpanzee named Passion repeatedly kidnapped the babies of other mothers and, with the help of her own children, consumed them.

Mr. Peterson, who was Ms. Goodall's authorized biographer, nonetheless makes clear at the outset that he very much shares the fundamental ambition of the animal-rights movement to puncture the claim of human exceptionalism—the "error," he states, of believing that humans have a unique status in nature or "are disconnected from the limits, systems, structures, and truths of the rest of the natural world." Recognizing the difficulty of boosting animals, his approach is instead to deflate humans: in particular, to suggest that there is much less to even so vaunted a human trait as morality than we like to believe. Rather than a sophisticated system of language-based laws, philosophical arguments and abstract values that sets mankind apart, morality is, in his view, a set of largely primitive psycho logical instincts. This is a definition undemanding and broad enough to encompass much of the animal world, which is precisely his point.

A sense of fairness and reciprocity, for example, does not depend on formal rules or any "complicated intellectual" processes, he writes, just a gut check: Our sense of justice is really nothing but a "quick emotional" assessment. Empathy does not require a mind capable of imagining the feelings and thoughts of another mind, but arises from "mirror neurons" that are automatically triggered when an animal witnesses the actions of others, generating the same sensations experienced when it performs those same actions itself. In Mr. Peterson's view, human philosophizing about morality is little more than a smokescreen that obscures an instinctual and primitive essence. While language "allows us to discuss morality and to debate, endlessly, this or that obscure issue about it," in fact all this rhetorical hot air merely expresses "unspoken and unwritten universes of urge and inclination and inhibition," shared by a large number of animals, that surely evolved "long before the separate evolution of our own species."

Despite having begged the question of human exceptionalism at the start by dismissing the sense that we are different as mere "Darwinian narcissism"Mr. Peterson does develop a provocative case for the existence of a broadly shared evolutionary imperative that under pins human moral instincts. Among his better-chosen anecdotes are vivid illustrations of the social mechanisms by which primates and other group-dwellers mediate access to mates, food and other resources. Vampire bats, strikingly, remember which members of the group have shared a regurgitated blood meal in the past and know who to return the favor to. It is hard to argue with his propo sition that the powerful emotional saliency moral issues have for us, and their connection to serious matters of social organization and conflict:sex, territory, possessions, reciprocity, kinship point to a hard-wired evolutionary adaptation of group-dwelling animals.

The problem with leaving it there, however, is that the moral world of humans, to even the most casually reflective observer, reaches far beyond such primal urges. Humans of the 21st century, after all, have exactly the same instinctual emotional urges that humans of the 18th century did. Yet because of language, argument and an ability to weigh abstract notions and hold ourselves accountable to moral ideals, the intervening centuries have seen a transformation in attitudes about slavery, democracy and the rights of women. These hardly amount to "this or that obscure issue."

And Mr. Peterson simply ignores several decades worth of recent studies in cognitive science by researchers such as David Povinelli, Bruce Hood, Michael Tomasello and Elisabetta Visalberghi, which have elucidated very real differences between human and nonhuman minds in the realm of conceptual reasoning, particularly with respect to what has been termed "theory of mind." This is the uniquely human ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to perceive that other minds exist and that they can hold ideas and beliefs different from one's own. While human and animal minds share a broadly similar ability to learn from experience, formulate intentions and store memories, careful experiments have repeatedly come up empty when attempting to establish the existence of a theory of mind in nonhumans.

In fact, even highly intelligent species such as chimpanzees make jaw-dropping mistakes in this department. Chimpanzees in research colonies, for example, readily learn to beg for food from people by stretching out their hands or pointing to a box containing food. Yet they will make exactly the same gestures to a person whose eyes are covered with their hands or a blindfold or even a person who has a bucket over his head.

A "theory of mind" is what makes it even possible to formulate abstract notions, to imagine the future, to try out ideas before acting upon them, to reflect about our own conduct and to see things from another's viewpoint. Charles Darwin observed that such a capacity is indeed the sine qua non of moral thought: "A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives of approving some and disapproving of others," he wrote in "The Descent of Man." (And, he continued: "The fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals.")

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