The Moral Lives of Animals

wp-24_reviews_01The Moral Lives of Animals

Apes, Rules, and Natural Law

Presenting academic knowledge to a not-necessarily-academic audience can be difficult for even the best writers. Zoology is not as obscure as, let’s say, quantum physics, but still presents challenges. Dale Peterson is a fine writer for such a job.

He understands the science very well, partly through his own research as well as through his personal friendship with Jane Goodall. He also has a doctorate in English, which means he understands storytelling, narrative, and words. Indeed the very first chapter in the text is about words: especially words which describe moral ideas, and assign moral standing to one thing and not to another. But the same opening chapter is also about stories. He opens with a personal story about being chased by an angry elephant through a thicket in western Africa. He also explores his thesis through other, better-known stories. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, probably the finest love story about a man and a whale ever written, features prominently here. Melville’s story is about human characters with radically different attitudes about what that whale might be thinking, or even whether it is thinking at all. It’s a very good choice for a story through which to explore Peterson’s topic. So if you don’t have much of a background in biology or anthropology, have no fear.

Peterson also explores animal morality through the template of Biblical morality. But this is not a religious book. This is a scientific book. When Peterson argues that animals behave in ways that deserve to be called “moral”, he’s not saying that animals follow the Ten Commandments. He’s saying, rather, that Biblical rules can be explained with evolutionary biology, and that human morality emerged from a natural, instinctual understanding which we can observe in the animal world. Using the Ten Commandments as his template for more than half of his text, he shows how animals acknowledge hierarchies and authorities (as in the first four Commandments); contain or limit their use of violence (“thou shall not kill”); regulate sexual activity (“thou shall not commit adultery”); respect private property (“thou shall not steal”); and understand the difference between truth and lies (“thou shall not bear false witness”). The examples he uses in these chapters are at once illuminating and entertaining: Peterson’s own storytelling talent blooms best here.

Peterson also makes various observations about how animal moral behavior diverges from its Biblical analogues: for example, he writes: “Many people believe that sex done for purposes other than reproduction is one more decisive mark of the exceptional status of our own species. Bonobos demonstrate the falseness of that belief. Many people argue that human homosexuality is immoral because it’s unnatural. Bonobos show the weakness of that argument…” (pg. 137) Thus even as he uses Biblical morality as his template, so he also occasionally turns that template upside-down. There’s a subtle argument in statements like these; as Peterson presents the evidence that animals behave in moral ways, he implicitly presents the argument that people don’t need God to be moral. We can explain morality, even Biblical morality, with evolutionary biology. I think most Pagan readers will find this idea most welcome.

Reading this book from a modern Pagan perspective might initially produce some discomfort, but not because of the Biblical references. Pagans tend to be allergic to moral claims in general: think of how many Pagans recoil at the word “should”, or how they associate moral rules with oppression, judgmental authority, and conformity. Peterson defines morality in a functional way, saying not what it is, but rather what it does: “the function of morality, or the moral organ, is to negotiate the inherent serious conflict between self and others.” (pg. 51.) If you can accept that rules have a role to play in that function, then you will find a very enjoyable, very illuminating thesis indeed.

I noted that in Peterson’s text, rules constitute morality only half the time. The other half the time, morality is constituted by relationships — or in Peterson’s words, attachments. In two swift and rich chapters, Peterson tells stories of animals acting with spontaneous kindness and compassion. They act that way to strangers in their own species, and to animals of other species, including humans. There’s an intriguing account of an elephant who wounded a man who was harassing it, but then protected him from predators until human help could arrive. And, in a bold continuation of his subtle thesis about the irrelevance of God, he compares this behavior to the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule.

Peterson’s last words are about peace, not just between animals and humans, but between humans and other humans. Peace, he says, “comes as the steady accumulation of particularized moments: the moment you looked and wondered but did not take, the moment you feared but did not destroy.” (pg. 289) I think Peterson hopes that if we understand our rules and attachments as ways to produce those kinds of moments, we will eventually have a more peaceful planet to live on.

I’ve a short critical comment concerning the book’s originality. Sometimes Peterson writes as if altruism and co-operation were discovered in the animal world only yesterday. But anyone with even a passing interest in animal science has probably known about it for decades. The notion that evolution isn’t about competition or “survival of the fittest” is simply not news. Scientists like Lynn Margulis and philosophers like Michael Ruse have been studying the role of co-operation in evolutionary biology since the early 1980’s and David Attenborough brought it to television for the rest of us. But to be fair, social Darwinism is not Peterson’s target here.

Overall, I found his surface argument very informative and entertaining, and his more subtle arguments very well presented, too. Those who don’t have much of a background in science might want a few companion volumes to go with it: Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape, for instance, or Marvin Harris’ Our Kind. But regardless of whether you know your science or not, bring your copy of Moby Dick.


Brendan Myers, Ph.D, is a professor of philosophy and the author of several books including The Other Side of Virtue, A Pagan Testament, and Loneliness and Revelation. See his site at .

Witches&Pagans #24 - Heathen & Northern Traditions


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