The Moral Lives of Animals
by Dale Peterson. Bloomsbury Press, 2011
In the summer of 2000 scientists saw a young elephant collapse and die on a trail in the African forest. In the following hours, elephants passing by attempted to help and revive her by lifting her dead body off the ground.
In The Moral Lives of Animals, Tufts University lecturer Dale Peterson argues that this kind of behavior provides evidence that humans are not the only animals that developed a sense of morality—other mammals, among them elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees, also have strong impulses for cooperation, kindness and fairness. Peterson, a long-time collaborator of primatologist Jane Goodall, makes the case that the morality of animals, such as humans, requires obeying certain social rules and evolved as a means to mediate conflicts that inevitably arise within communities.
Peterson asserts that animals are capable of exhibiting moral behaviors because these behaviors do not require advanced intellectual capabilities—they only result from strong emotional responses: “A bully makes you angry. A cheater leaves you depressed.” Some of Peterson’s stories illustrate animal emotions vividly, such as accounts of elephants committing suicide. Peterson writes that loggers in Myanmar (Burma) capture and train elephants to help with timber extraction. The taming procedure can be so distressing to the animals that some cut off their own air supply by stepping on their trunks.
Peterson also presents evidence that mammals can distinguish right from wrong. For example, a primatologist at a Tanzanian research site once tried to distract a chimp by pretending he had seen something intriguing in the distance. The chimp fell for the deception and went to explore but soon returned and slapped the mischievous primatologist on the head. Peterson interprets the chimp’s reaction as evidence that he recognized the researcher’s deceit as immoral and punished him.
Although the underlying motivations for many of these behaviors are a matter of interpretation, Moral Lives is a thought-provoking read that glimpses into the minds and behaviors of mammals.