Secret lives of animals

02 July 2011 - 23:44 By Tiara Walters
Green Life

Is the concept of morality in other species a wild notion? A new book explores the evidence

Laboratory rats rallying around their mates. Elephants mounting a daring rescue mission to save a herd of captive antelope. Apes that make love like humans ... for decades the scientific establishment has poured scorn on anyone who has dared to suggest that animals are just as moral as human beings. But is this really a ridiculous notion - or could it be that animals are truly moral creatures? We asked Dale Peterson, primatologist Jane Goodall's official biographer and author of The Moral Lives of Animals, a new book that hopes to change the way we look at the natural world.

Can we really look at animals through the eyes of human morality? Or are we venturing into wildly unscientific territory?

"Anthropomorphism" is certainly one error to make: in other words, the error of exaggerating the similarity between humans and animals. But there is another very serious, intellectual error we're guilty of far more often: exaggerating our disconnection from the animal kingdom. T here are a lot of good scientists, philosophers and psychologists who are talking about evolutionary psychology and morality and how this applies to animals. My basic argument is that the function of morality is to make the social group coherent - that in order to live in a social group, an animal must acquire through evolutionary means a set of behaviours that make group living possible.

Which are some of the most moral animals on the planet?

I should emphasise here that I'm talking mainly about mam-mals, many of which have systems for avoiding incest. Take female chimps, a significant number of which will leave the social group they have grown up with when they reach puberty. You'll also find in chimps that sons almost never mate with their mothers, and brothers and sisters very seldom mate with each other. Chimps also have a very refined sense of who they are, and a sense of where violence is appropriate. Sometimes they are violent with people and other chimps outside their community, in ways that they would never be violent with chimps inside their own community. That's comparable to human warfare, in which we're also an animal that insists that it has morality, but we kill very lustfully in circumstances of war.

Of course, you also write about less obvious examples, such as rats in laboratory situations.

Yes. This is in the chapter on kindness. In an experiment conducted in 1969, the experimenters designed a teeny rat-sized corset, whereby this corset-bound rat could be lifted off the ground and made to wriggle. Twenty other rats were allowed to watch this distressing situation, one by one, through glass, and were then each given the option of pressing on a bar and lowering the corset-bound rat. When the rats discovered this bar, they kept lowering the corset-bound rat, so they were clearly moved by its distress. Then, instead of having a distressed rat, the experimenters lifted a piece of corset-bound Styrofoam and found that, in this instance, the rats really didn't care.

Is there something animals can teach us about morality?

I'm sure there is. Elephants have an extraordinary level of empathy that is clearly higher than the level of empathy displayed by a lot of people. Moral feelings for other species is not something humans are born with, but elephants are extraordinary for the number of stories in which they have tried to help out individuals from other species. In 2003, workers at Thula Thula Private Game Reserve in Zululand had captured antelope as part of a breeding programme, and corralled them in an overnight boma to protect them from predators. But, when night came, the guards were amazed when a group of 11 elephants approached the boma and the matriarch actually undid the latch, pulling open the gate and releasing all the antelope. The elephants left as soon as all the antelope had run away.

  • The Moral Lives of Animals , Bloomsbury, available at, R203.

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