Are humans the only beings capable of morality? What might be a workable definition of morality, anyway?
Dale Peterson, author of The Moral Lives of Animals, posits that we consider morality an organ, similar to the way a nose can be defined as enabling the sense of smell. Thus, he writes, "The function of morality, or the moral organ, is to negotiate the inherent conflict between self and others."
Peterson discusses the perceptions of primatologist Susan Perry, who spent 15 years researching white-faced capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica. (No relation to this blogger.) She describes how most tourists and locals think they know all there is to know after five minutes of watching the monkeys, but there's so much more going on in this complex primate world.
From inside that unknown world, here are a few surprising facts to ponder:
- Rats like to be tickled. High-pitched chirping is how they laugh, and some rats prefer being tickled to eating.
- Elephants can smell water from a dozen miles away.
- Humans subdue (tame, train) elephants like slaves, including immobilizing them and depriving them of food and water for up to three weeks. Rarely, an elephant will commit suicide, shutting off its own air supply by stepping on its trunk and refusing to budge.
- Play is costly in terms of energy, but evolution has made it such fun that mammals spend between 1 and 10 per cent of their time at play.
- Bonobos do it missionary-style. About 30 percent of their heterosexual couplings are face-to-face, belly-to-belly.
- Bonobos are one of some 63 mammalian species known to engage in homosexual behavior. Among birds, make that 94 species.
- Most moral systems maintain the established heirarchy. That is, morality is not niceness, or necessarily egalitarianism.
And finally, Peterson expands on the view that as females gain the vote and take part in making the rules, those rules tend to give way to the significance of attachments. When men and women have equal power, he speculates, such a human society "may be, on the whole, somewhat less dogmatic in judgment and somewhat more empathetic in action" than what we're familiar with.
The Moral Life of Animals is a pleasure to read. Among numerous other books, Dale Peterson wrote an acclaimed biography of Jane Goodall and co-authored a book with Goodall. He lectures in English at Tufts University. Read his Psychology Today blog.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.