The Kindness of ‘Beasts’

August 26, 2017

When I became a father for the first time, at the ripe old age of 44, various historical contingencies saw to it that my nascent son would be sharing his home with two senescent canines.

There was Nina, an endearing though occasionally ferocious German shepherd/Malamute cross. And there was Tess, a wolf-dog mix who, though gentle, had some rather highly developed predatory instincts. So, I was a little concerned about how the co-sharing arrangements were going to work. As things turned out, I needn’t have worried.

During the year or so that their old lives overlapped with that of my son, I was alternately touched, shocked, amazed, and dumbfounded by the kindness and patience they exhibited towards him. They would follow him from room to room, everywhere he went in the house, and lie down next to him while he slept. Crawled on, dribbled on, kicked, elbowed and kneed: these occurrences were all treated with a resigned fatalism.

The fingers in the eye they received on a daily basis would be shrugged off with an almost Zen-like calm. In many respects, they were better parents than me. If my son so much as squeaked during the night, I would instantly feel two cold noses pressed in my face: get up, you negligent father — your son needs you.

Kindness and patience seem to have a clear moral dimension. They are forms of what we might call ‘concern’ — emotional states that have as their focus the wellbeing of another — and concern for the welfare of others lies at the heart of morality. If Nina and Tess were concerned for the welfare of my son then, perhaps, they were acting morally: their behaviour had, at least in part, a moral motivation. And so, in those foggy, sleepless nights of early fatherhood, a puzzle was born inside of me, one that has been gnawing away at me ever since.

If there is one thing on which most philosophers and scientists have always been in agreement it is the subject of human moral exceptionalism: humans, and humans alone, are capable of acting morally. Yet, this didn’t seem to tally with the way I came to think of Nina and Tess.

Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close

The first question is whether I was correct to describe the behaviour of Nina and Tess in this way, as moral behaviour. ‘Anthropomorphism’ is the misguided attribution of human-like qualities to animals. Perhaps describing Nina and Tess’s behaviour in moral terms was simply an anthropomorphic delusion. Of course, if I’m guilty of anthropomorphism, then so too are myriad other animal owners. Such an owner might describe their dog as ‘friendly’, ‘playful’, ‘gentle’, ‘trustworthy’, or ‘loyal’ — a ‘good’ dog.

On the other hand, the ‘bad’ dog — the one they try to avoid at the park — is bad because he is ‘mean’, ‘aggressive’, ‘vicious’, ‘unpredictable’, a ‘bully’, and so on. Nor are these seemingly moral descriptions entirely useless. On the contrary, it is a valuable skill to be able to assess these descriptions when an unfamiliar dog is bearing down on you in the street. If I’m guilty of anthropomorphism, so too, it seems, are many others.

Many scientists (and more than a few philosophers) would have no hesitation in accusing perhaps several billion people of such delusional anthropomorphism. A growing number of animal scientists, however, are going over to the dark side, and at least flirting with the idea that animals can act morally. In his book Primates and Philosophers (2006), the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal has argued that animals are at least capable of proto-moral behaviour: they possess the rudiments of morality even if they are not moral beings in precisely the way that we are.

This was, in fact, Charles Darwin’s view, as developed in The Descent of Man. In a similar vein, the American biologist Marc Bekoff has being arguing for years that animals can act morally, and his book Wild Justice (2009) provides a useful summary of the evidence for this claim. Perhaps scientists such as Darwin, de Waal and Bekoff are also guilty of anthropomorphism? The evidence, however, would suggest otherwise.

Eleanor, the matriarch of her family, is dying. She is unable to stand, so Grace attempts to help her, lifting and pushing her back to her feet. She tries to get Eleanor to walk, nudging her along gently. But Eleanor stumbles, and falls again. Grace appears very distressed, and shrieks loudly. She persists in trying to get Eleanor back to her feet, to no avail. Grace stays by the fallen figure of Eleanor for another hour, while night falls.

If the figures that played out this grim tableau were human, we might have little hesitation in explaining what was going on in moral terms. Grace, we might say, was motivated by her sympathy for Eleanor’s plight. However, neither Grace nor Eleanor is human. Eleanor is the matriarch of a family of elephants, one that the British zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his colleagues have come to call the ‘First Ladies’ family. Grace is a younger, unrelated, member of another family, the ‘Virtues Family’.

Grace is not unusual among elephants. Take another series of events: a young female elephant suffered from a withered leg, and could put little weight upon it. A young male from another herd charged the crippled female. A large female elephant chased him away and then, revealingly, returned to the young female and gently touched her withered leg with her trunk. Joyce Poole, the ethologist and elephant conservationist who described this event, concluded that the adult female was showing empathy.

Binti Jua, a gorilla residing at Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, had her 15 minutes of fame in 1996 when she came to the aid of a three-year-old boy who had climbed on to the wall of the gorilla enclosure and fallen five metres onto the concrete floor below. Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate.

De Waal relates a similar story of Kuni, a female bonobo chimpanzee at Twycross Zoo in England. One day, Kuni encountered a starling that had been stunned during some misadventure. Fearing that she might injure the bird, Kuni’s keeper urged her to let it go. Kuni, however, picked up the starling with one hand, and climbed to the top of the highest tree in her enclosure, wrapping her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide open.

She threw the bird as hard as she could towards the barrier of the enclosure. Unfortunately, it didn’t wake up, and landed on the bank of the enclosure’s moat. While her rescue attempt didn’t succeed, Kuni certainly seemed to act with good intentions, and tried to make amends by guarding the vulnerable, unconscious bird from a curious juvenile for quite some time.

These examples merely scratch the surface of the evidence for apparently moral behaviour in animals. Much of it has been around for a long time but it has languished unrecognised. As long ago as 1959, the experimental psychologist Russell Church, now professor at Brown University, Rhode Island, demonstrated that rats wouldn’t push a lever that delivered food if doing so caused other rats to receive an electric shock.

Likewise, in 1964, Stanley Wechkin and colleagues at the Northwestern University in Chicago demonstrated that hungry rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered them food if doing so gave a painful shock to another monkey. One monkey persisted in this refusal for 12 days.

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