Fool at the Dinner Party

Some people will do anything to have the last word in an argument

Posted Aug 21, 2011

"Animals have morality, too!"

That was me, making a fool out of myself at a dinner party--but I was serious. The guy across from me, a distinguished academic from a venerable institution, responded directly: "Impossible!" And so began the argument, which, since the man seemed to think I had just said the stupidest thing he'd heard all day, quickly turned insistent and heated.

After the evening was over, our host graciously said that he thought my position on the subject was interesting. It could make a book, he said, one he promised to use in his philosophy classes. He repeated the idea just about every time I saw him after that.

But what was I thinking? And what did I know, having gone only far enough in my own education to receive a Ph.D. in English literature before dropping out?

* * *

First, I was thinking about my own two dogs, Smoke and Spike. Why is it that they will chase and if possible kill nervous little animals, such as squirrels, but when they see a nervous little dog, they just want to play? Isn't that a doggy version of the sixth commandment? This, incidentally, was a point made by the famed ethologist Konrad Lorenz in his 1963 book, On Aggression, when he declared that social animals possess "mechanisms" that inhibit lethal aggression against their own kind. Such systems, he wrote, were "behavioral analogies to morality."

Second, I was thinking about the evidence that chimpanzees have an incest taboo, expressed both through female emigrations (females predictably leave their birth communities) and through simpler acts of choice (males will usually try to mate with every female in the community except their mothers, sisters will powerfully resist any advances from their brothers). I knew about chimps partly from having co-authored a book about them with one of the world's great experts, Jane Goodall.

Third, I was thinking about some of the patterns of violence and non-violence among bonobos, hyenas, and lions, as well as chimps--which I learned about while co-authoring another book with another world-class expert, Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham. Wrangham had also introduced me to contemporary evolutionary theory, an extremely useful tool when considering animal behavior.

I was not yet thinking about elephants, since I hadn't begun to write my book on them. But these wonderful creatures, so I would learn, are remarkably sensitive and empathetic animals. Empathy, too, is an important part of human and non-human morality.

* * *

People like my dinner-party antagonist think that animal morality is "impossible" because, often, they believe it requires language or analytical intelligence of the sort only humans have. But if you couldn't speak, would you then not hear your moral voice? And if you were much less smart, would you really be much less moral?

I believe that morality evolved in response to the problem of naturally-competitive individuals living in social groups. Since social groups appeared relatively early in the evolutionary story, so would the behavioral systems that make those groups coherent. In other words, morality appeared early and must have spread broadly, although it might not be recognizable as such to many people until we focus on mammals. I also believe that the mode of transmission for moral systems is emotional, not intellectual. All that talk and worry and analysis about our own and other people's behaviors is the frosting, not the cake.

As Darwin wrote in 1871, "Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral." What did he mean by "in us would be called"? Did he mean that humanity's obviously high intelligence could transform a cruder impulse into something unique? Or was he simply, by 1871, tired of the dinner party arguments and not wishing to offend people more than he already had?

Darwin's theory means continuity. Eyes first emerged in rudimentary form during the Cambrian epoch, around 550 million years ago, and the extraordinary advantage offered by these new organs meant they would become part of the standard anatomical equipment for almost every sort of living creature above a certain size. What animal doesn't have eyes? That's evolutionary continuity. By the time of Darwin's death, almost all biologists accepted the principle. But it would take another generation or two before most biologists and many non-biologists began to appreciate fully what Darwin already knew: that there is no logical reason why evolutionary continuity should be limited to anatomy. We can find and talk about evolutionary continuity in behavior, in psychology, and, as I believe, in morality.

That's a bit of why and how I wrote The Moral Lives of Animals. Of course, some people will do anything to have the last word in a dinner-party argument.



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