Monday, June 13, 2011

Love in the Jungle, Part Two

The previous post discussed a book, The Myth Of Monogamy by David Barash and Judith Lipton, that investigates the role of "monogamy" in the animal world, and what that might mean for human beings. That post also mentioned a book, The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson, and promised a discussion of this book, which is what this post intends to do.

The Moral Lives of Animals

             Peterson is a journalist who has written extensively on a wide range of subjects, from computer science to primatology. His world-travel in search of the twelve most endangered primates, along with close personal and professional relationships with Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal is the experience that most significantly informed this work.

              His goal in the book is to examine, well, the moral lives of animals. His argument is essentially that an overwhelming majority of the moral sensibilities that we think of as distinctly "human," can find analogies, perhaps simplified, among many of the social mammals. To make this case, he looks extensively at scientific studies, as well as drawing on his own experiences, of elephants, hyenas and wolves, mice and rats, whales and dolphins, and, of course, primates. In each of these species, he finds that there are rules governing their behaviors that can only be described as moral.

              Central to Peterson's thesis is an idea he calls "Darwinian narcissism." Before I elaborate on this idea, it might be helpful to share an anecdote from my own experience to make its simplicity and obviousness more apparent. I have a dog, Layla, who is a wonderful animal, 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time is when she is on-leash and in the presence of other dogs. She is a mix (we think) of husky and pit bull, and combines the strength and willfulness of both those breeds in her 50 lb. frame. When we walk, if there are no dogs in sight, she behaves, mostly. But if there is another dog in sight, even at the far end of the street, she will pull and strain with all of her might until she gets a chance to greet her fellow canine. 

             When my mom commented on this one afternoon, my response was, "Well, imagine if you lived your whole life surrounded by dogs, dogs everywhere, no people, for days at a time. And then, when you were out, you happened to see someone, a total stranger, across a field. Wouldn't you yell, 'Hey! How's it going?'" This, in a nutshell, is Peterson's idea of "Darwinian narcissism" which I am glad he has coined a term for, so now I know what to call it. For any species, humans, dogs, elephants, chimps, while we are all aware of the presence of members of other species, our most significant and meaningful interactions are always with members of our own.

             This is particularly true, Peterson argues, in the realm of morality. Among the social animals, there are rules governing the distribution of food, for instance, within a pride or pack. Animals that don't get their fair share of meat after a hunt show signs of frustration, anger and betrayal. The animals that are breaking the rules do so in a way that demonstrates they recognize that they are being unfair, because they act in a way that shows they expect their pack-mates to be angry, and so if they attempt to cheat, they do so in a way that they can minimize the retribution, perhaps by stealing an extra share in secret. And if caught, they may show remorse, and may give up their unjustly earned extra share. 

            But this would never happen if it was a pack of chimps that had brought down a rhesus monkey, and it was a scavenger of another species that was asking for a share. Animals (with some rare exceptions) show no recognition of moral duty to members of other species. There are rules among chimps or elephants governing how chimps treat chimps and how elephants treat elephants. But there are no rules governing how a chimps treat elephants or vice versa.

            So Peterson's focus is primarily on intra-species behavior. He breaks morality into two groups, what he calls The Rules and The Attachments. The Rules are generally top-down, maintained and enforced by the dominant creatures in a pack (or pride or clan) and they govern behavior in five major areas; authority, violence, sex, possession, communication. For a human analogy, he takes The Ten Commandments, as likely being the most widely known code of moral rules in the West. While using the Ten Commandments as a moral guide in real life is fraught with its own problems and contradictions, as I have explained before, it is useful here because it does very simply demonstrate the Rules that most human societies have been concerned with enough to have to codify; obedience to proper authority (human or "divine," i.e. the priestly class), pro- and anti-social violence (the distinction often made between war and murder), sexual rights and access, private property, and honest and dishonest communication.

            The other half of morality, what Peterson calls The Attachments, are the interactions that do not need to be maintained or enforced, but arise naturally among the social mammals, which Peterson fits into two broad areas; cooperation and kindness. These interactions can be witnessed in many creatures, and like their counterparts, The Rules, have very strong analogies in human behavior. The difference between these two areas of attachment morality is slight but meaningful; an act that is reciprocated, or at least expected to be, is a cooperative act, whereas an act in which no reciprocation is expected or possible is simple kindness. 

             But here we need a warning. Much of Peterson's work is to remind us that while we can speak and write about animal morality in our own languages, give their actions and behaviors words like "kindness" and "dishonest communication," we are always going to be slightly off the mark, because we are trying to impose the linguistic terms of one species on a species for whom these terms are meaningless. Humans have debated, discussed, and codified morality for thousands of years. It was one of the earliest purposes of written language. We have developed highly nuanced terms for moral behavior among members of our own species. So while the moral behavior of other social mammals may often resemble our own, even in meaningful ways, we are always going to be using a language that was never intended to define their behavior, only ours.

             What Peterson achieves, through a mountain of examples, anecdotes, observations and similar evidence, is to build a case that morality exists, among social mammals anyway, to a degree that is not all that far from our own. Animals recognize and submit to proper authority within their own social structures. They are horrified by anti-social violence, such as the wanton killing of a pack-mate by another, but at the same time, congratulate one another for pro-social violence, such as the murder of a member of a rival clan over food or territory, in a very similar way to how (many) humans draw a distinction between murder and war. They recognize sexual pair-bonds, and generally respect them. (Except when they don't. See the previous post.) They recognize the claims of others to a found object of value, such as food, and are furious at others who do not recognize their claim. They are angered by dishonest communication from another, but will use it opportunistically to get what they want.

             And he demonstrates that animals form genuine attachments. Animals (again, he is focused on social mammals) show all the patterns of cooperation and unreciprocated kindness, both to members of their own species and, occasionally, to others. 

            What does this mean for us? Well, for starters, it reminds us that the Ten Commandments weren't the beginning of morality. (Or even Hammurabi's Code, or the Egyptian laws, both of which the Isrealites appropriated from.) Human beings have a sense of right and wrong without having to be instructed from on high. It derives in us from the same place it derives from for all of the social animals- from natural evolution. Because from an evolutionary perspective, for some species, the benefits of group life far outweigh the sacrifice of autonomy that must be made. And group life requires rules, and it is made even more fluid by cooperation and kindness.  Individuals that recognize these facts thrive in a group setting. Those that don't likely perish. Over thousands of generations, a "moral" sense- what is acceptable behavior within the group, and what is not- has become finely tuned. With the invention of language, this process has merely accelerated.

             The scientific process could be looked at as the systematic humbling of our vain and conceited species. The universe does not revolve around our little rock. It was not created simply for our enjoyment. We are not magical spirits who will live forever in song and joy. We are not the only species capable of communicating with our kind. And we are not the only ones who can distinguish right from wrong. 

             Yet, of all of humanity's achievements, there is perhaps none greater than our ability to crowd millions upon millions of us together in relatively small areas. The existence of Tokyo, New York, London and Mexico City are a testament to just how finely tuned is our moral sense, now codified in law. For all of our tragic moral failings, and they are immeasurable, we are perhaps unique in our ability to expand our moral sense outside of our own pack or clan, outside our family unit, and extend it to members of other packs, other clans, and recognize that the same rules ought apply to them.

              Yet there are many who believe that they have, in a particular book or vision, been handed the only "true" means of distinguishing right from wrong. They believe that any other means of distinguishing right from wrong is inherently false because the supposed "Authority" is different from their own. The error of this is enormous. For not only do the subscribers of this peculiar notion miss the painfully obvious fact that the moral codes of another clan are always astonishingly similar to their own, but their own atavistic narcissism, their dogmatic insistence that theirs be the One and True, is itself the greatest moral failing of all. 

               Even rats and hyenas can be decent to their own pack. I should hope we can expect more from ourselves.



  1. As usual, I am slow to respond- and may have to read through again! I do believe that it is imperative that we begin by being decent to those within our own pack, and move outward from there. Respect for eachother, as a species, is damaged when this doesn't happen- and what comes from that?
    Anyway, I commend you on your efforts. I am realizing that possibly MOST of the depression I experience in daily life may be caused by not just my dissapointment in humanity, but also my own deminished efforts to think in abstract...
    No need to stop exploring now.

  2. Hmm... "Anonomymous?" Might this be someone I know? Just curious. It was written like it was.