Animals don’t have morality, people do

On the dust jacket of Dale Peterson’s new book, The Moral Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs, is effusive in her praise: ‘There’s a special place in the hearts of many of us for books that express the “oneness” of life on Earth’, she says, ‘and this book tops them all’.

Yet reading The Moral Lives of Animals I was often left, like fellow reviewer Stephen Budiansky, ‘with the feeling of being stuck on a bar stool next to a bore’ – one intent on relaying to the reader, ‘utterly unremarkable facts about his two large mutts, Spike and Smoke’.

Peterson’s aim is to downplay what is unique about human morality. As Budiansky rightly points out: ‘Rather than a sophisticated system of language-based laws, philosophical arguments and abstract values that sets mankind apart, morality is, in [Peterson’s] view, a set of largely primitive psychological instincts.’ This is a definition broad enough to encompass much of the animal world.

Peterson argues that animals’ moral systems are not merely ‘analogous to our own’ – that is, superficially similar due to coincidental factors – but ‘homologous to our own’ – that is, similar due to a ‘common origin’. He asks us to view morality as a ‘moral organ’, ‘equivalent to the elephant’s nose: enormous, powerful, multifaceted’. Our ‘moral organ’ may have features that differ from that of other animals, Peterson tells us, but ultimately human morality is, like animal morality, an organ residing in the limbic system of the brain.

Petersen accuses of ‘Darwinian narcissism’ those who fail to recognise the existence of animal morality. If one defines morality as, for instance, ‘collectively shared norms’ one is guilty of ‘argument by definition’, he claims. But if anyone is guilty of ‘argument by definition’ it is Peterson himself: ‘The function of morality, or the moral organ, is to negotiate the inherent serious conflict between self and others.’ And, hey presto, there is ample evidence of other species – particularly group-dwelling species – managing potential conflicts between their members, so ‘animals have morality’.

This is wrong. Humans and animals negotiate ‘conflict’ by fundamentally different means. Peterson is presenting us with examples not of animal morality, but of Darwinian evolution selecting behaviours that minimise conflict and strengthen social ties among group-dwelling animals. Take his examples of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ in the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees, for instance, spend an inordinate amount of time grooming each other because grooming serves an important social function in maintaining group ties, and strong chimpanzee communities increase the chance of individual members surviving.

Human beings, however, negotiate conflict through socially created values and codes of conduct. We are able to behave morally because we are uniquely able to exert some self-control, reflect on our own behaviour, put ourselves in the shoes of other people and make judgements.

If one reduces everything to its simplest form then one can find parallels between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. But this kind of philistinism does not deepen our understanding of human beings and human society or indeed of animal behaviour.

For instance, Peterson’s approach strips a concept like empathy of any deeper meaning. ‘I would prefer to consider empathy as appearing in two different but related forms, contagious and cognitive’, he writes. Contagious empathy is ‘the process in which a single bird, startled by some sudden movement, takes off in alarm and is instantly joined by the entire flock’. Cognitive empathy ‘is contagious empathy pressed through a cognitive filter: a brain or mind’. In other words, these two types of empathy are just different forms of the same thing.

But there is a world of difference between an instinctual connection between organisms – including some of our instinctual responses, such as yawning when others yawn – and human empathy involving a Theory of Mind, that is, the ability to recognise that one’s own perspectives and beliefs can be different from someone else’s. Once children are able to think about thoughts in this way, their thinking is lifted to a different level.

Peterson, however, dismisses the ability to think about thoughts as a veneer covering basic primal urges: ‘It is extremely easy to define morality by identifying this or that manifestation of human morality that might indeed be uniquely ours – written codes, cultural elements, intellectual analysis, an elaborate conscience, a fine-tuned sense of guilt – and thereby fail to recognise morality as it appears elsewhere, in other species.’

The search for homologies – characteristics shared between species that were present in a common ancestor – is an entirely legitimate enterprise. It can shed some light on the evolutionary origins of particular physiological or behavioural traits. But Peterson takes the giant leap from stating the blatantly obvious – that many of our organs are homologous with those of other animals – to absurdly asking us to imagine morality as merely an instinctive emotional response.

He writes: ‘We tend to believe in the uniqueness of our own human organs… but the vast majority of such organs appear in similar form among many other species.’ It is true that other animals have eyes, ears, noses, hearts, brains and many other organs in common with us. It is neither novel nor contentious to point out that we are physiologically very similar to many other animals. We are the product of evolution after all.

But acknowledging our physiological similarity to many other animals does not necessarily lead to the acceptance of behavioural, cognitive, emotional or, indeed, moral continuities.

Human beings, unlike other animals, are not determined by instinctual drives. We are able to reflect on and make judgements about our own and others’ actions, and as a result we are able to make considered moral choices.

We are not born with this ability. As the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget showed, children progress from a very limited understanding of morality to a more sophisticated understanding – involving, for instance, the consideration of the motives and intentions behind particular acts. So, for pre-school children, a child who accidentally breaks several cups, when doing what he’d been asked to do by an adult, is ‘naughtier’ than one who breaks one cup while trying to steal some sweets. Young children judge actions by their outcomes or consequences rather than by their intentions. Claiming that our morality is merely based on ‘gut instincts’ ignores the transformations children go through in their moral understanding from infancy to adolescence.

While Peterson downplays human abilities, he exaggerates animal abilities. So he says monkeys and apes ‘can appreciate the connection between seeing and knowing, and thus possess an awareness of the awareness of others’. He uses an anecdote from primatologist Frans de Waal’s 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics to show that chimps are capable of deception: ‘Orr, an adolescent female […] would scream while she was having sex. During surreptitious copulation with younger males, however, her screams sometimes caught the attention of the alpha, who would do his mighty best to interrupt the couple. Eventually, Orr learned to suppress her vocalisations when mating with lower-ranking males, while she continued screaming whenever she mated with the alpha.’

But, as I argue in my book Just Another Ape?, anecdotal evidence can be highly deceptive. Even if there was consistent evidence that apes deceive their fellows, the question still remains whether they are aware of what they are doing. Deception itself does not necessarily imply intentionality. To be able to deceive intentionally, an animal would need to be able to think about the intentions, knowledge and beliefs of those they are deceiving. In other words, they would need to have a Theory of Mind.

There are many examples of deception in the wild that clearly do not involve a Theory of Mind. For instance, if threatened, the Eyed Hawk-moth flaps open its wings to reveal large eyespots. But as evolutionary psychologist Richard Byrne points out: ‘Moths [expose their “eyes”] to looming cardboard squares and to looming animals that could eat them, alike… So we have real reason to doubt that they understand about mental states of predators.’

Daniel Povinelli, who ran the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is adamant that no test to date has reliably demonstrated that even chimpanzees – the masters of deceit, according to Peterson – have an understanding of the mental life of others. For example, Povinelli tested whether chimps understood that their begging gestures would only be effective if the person they were begging from could actually see them. So in one experiment, one caretaker had a blindfold covering her mouth and the other had a blindfold covering her eyes. Povinelli found that the chimpanzees did not differentiate between the caretaker who could clearly see them (the one with the blindfold over her mouth) and the caretaker who could not see them (the one with the blindfold over her eyes) when making begging gestures.

So even if animals are found to deceive, that does not necessarily imply that they know that they are deceiving. The animal may just be very good at picking up useful routines that bring them food, sex or safety, without necessarily having any understanding or insight into what they are doing.

No doubt Peterson would accuse me of what he terms ‘false anthropo-exemptionalism’ – that is, ‘an exaggerated insistence on discontinuity’ between human beings and other species. His biological determinism prevents him from recognising that something new – something quite exceptional – emerged in the course of the evolution of humans.

Human beings have something that no other animal has: an ability to participate in a collective cognition. Because we, as individuals, are able to draw on the collective knowledge of humanity, in a way no animal can, our individual abilities go way beyond what evolution has endowed us with. Our species is no longer constrained by our biology.

Many scientists reject any notion that human beings have abilities that are profoundly different from other animals. To do so, they fear, will give ammunition to creationists and spiritualists. But we do not need spiritual or ‘magical’ explanations to grasp that the difference between human beings and other animals is fundamental rather than one of degrees. There are some fascinating theories put forward in the last decade that go quite far in explaining the emergence, through evolution, of uniquely powerful human abilities. We don’t know how or when, but there must have been some gene mutation or set of mutations tens of thousands of years ago that endowed us with the unique ability to participate in a collective cognition.

Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, persuasively argues in The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition that at some point after the ape and human line diverged – and possibly only a few hundred thousand years ago – the human lineage evolved a motivation to share emotional states with each other, leading to a unique ability to engage in ‘shared intentionality’. This motivation to engage with other humans emotionally is manifest in early infancy.

Tomasello writes: ‘Human understanding of others as intentional beings makes its initial appearance at around nine months of age, but its real power becomes apparent only gradually as children actively employ the cultural tools that this understanding enables them to master, most importantly language.’

A small difference in our innate abilities led to a unique connection between human minds – allowing us to learn through imitation and collaboration – leading to cumulative cultural evolution and the transformation of the human mind.

As I argue in Just Another Ape?: ‘It is this unique ability to copy complex actions and strategies (even those that the individual doing the copying would never have been able to come up with on their own), along with unique forms of cooperation and an ability to teach, that creates the uniquely powerful “ratchet effect” in human culture, whereby gains are consolidated and built on rather than having to be rediscovered.’

There are very many unanswered questions regarding how and why our human genetic make-up evolved. But even if we did have all the answers, we would not – as a result of these insights – be able to explain why we behave the way we do today, or the ethical codes by which we currently live. The evolution of the human genetic make-up is merely the precondition for the emergence of distinctly human cultural abilities. We need to look to cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution, to explain the vast gulf that exists between the capabilities and achievements of humans and those of other animals.

Human beings are capable of making judgements about our own and other people’s behaviour, and have the capacity consciously to change the way we behave and society as whole. We are not perfect and never will be, but we are special and unique among the animal kingdom. As sociologist Frank Furedi argues in Debating Humanism: ‘Most important of all we need to understand that whatever the mistakes that we have made we can extract from them lessons that can guide us to move forward’.

First published on spiked, 24 June 2011