Friday, July 08, 2005

Morality in the Animal Kingdom

An interesting article in this week's Time examines the moral code of some animals. Researchers studying the behavior of dogs, primates and dolphins have discovered unmistakable instances in which the animals show true altruism, fairness and empathy.

Michael Lemonick reports that such conclusions are revelatory, considering that it wasn't so very long ago that scientists discounted the notion that creatures even had emotions:

"Ethologists are also starting to accept the once radical idea that some animals -- primarily the social ones such as dogs, chimps, hyenas, monkeys, dolphins, birds and even rats -- possess not just raw emotions but also subtler and more sophisticated mental states, including envy, empathy, altruism and a sense of fairness. 'They have the ingredients we use for morality,' says Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, referring to the monkeys and chimps he studies."

The article follows some of the findings of University of Colorado ethologist Marc Bekoff, who has discovered how the "play bow" is only one of many social signals that canines use to convey feelings of camaraderie and good will.

Read on:

"Play between dogs involves extremely complex, precise behavior, he (Bekoff) says. 'They're really close, they're mouthing, but they don't bite their own lips; they almost never bite the lip of the other animal hard, nor the eyes, nor the ears.' And that requires communication and constant feedback. 'Just think of basketball players faking left and going right,' says Bekoff. 'There's no way you could be doing that by pure instinct.'

"As for the play bow, his guess that it meant more than just 'Let's play' turned out to be correct. 'It says, "I want to play with you" but also "I'm sorry I bit you so hard" or "I'm going to bite you hard, but don't take it seriously." ' It even works between species: Bekoff has seen wild coyotes bow to dogs -- and vice versa -- before they engage in something like play. 'At least they don't fight,' says Bekoff. 'The play bow changes the whole mood.'

"Meanwhile, dishonesty is punished across all canid species. 'I know coyotes best,' says Bekoff. 'Coyotes will signal play and then try to fight or mate with others, but if they do that enough, they can't get other animals to play.' "

Wow. So wild animals are capable of justice and fair play.

Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for this guy ...

Then again ... probably not.


At 3:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm... rats in the same category as dogs, dolphins and chimps...

At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This BBC article also shows that chimpanzees show rudimentary signs of human level altruism, thereby refuting the old dogma that only humans would help others when they themselves had nothing to benefit.


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