Thursday, July 18, 2002


Virtuous nature
New Scientist vol 175 issue 2351 - 13July2002, page 34

Chimps show signs of embarrassment, whales and ravens fall in love. But can animals really have a sense of right and wrong? Marc Bekoff thinks they do

IF YOU think that we are the only creatures on Earth with a moral sense, then you're in good company. Most experts in behaviour believe that morality is a uniquely human trait, without which our complex social life would never have emerged. I disagree. Accuse me of anthropomorphising if you like, but I'm convinced that many animals can distinguish right from wrong. Decades spent watching wild and captive animals have persuaded me that species living in groups often have a sense of fair play built on moral codes of conduct that help cement their social relationships. Nature isn't always ruthlessly and selfishly competitive.

That's not all. I suspect that herein lies the origin of our own virtue. Biologists have had real problems trying to explain why humans are frequently inexplicably nice to each other. It just doesn't make sense in evolutionary terms, unless there are ulterior motives behind our seemingly altruistic actions. Perhaps we expect a payback somewhere down the line, or maybe our good deeds are directed only towards kin, with whom we share genes and hence a biological heritage. Nobody has really considered the possibility that being considerate to your neighbours might sometimes be the best way to survive. But I'm starting to find evidence that a well-developed sense of fair play helps non-human animals live longer, more successful lives. In other words, virtue is it's own reward-fairer is fitter.

It's an understatement to say that looking for the roots of morality in animals is very difficult, but at least we can start to break the problem down. The first question to answer is, are animals capable of the empathy and feelings that underlie morality? We know that in humans the neural basis for these feelings lie in the brain's amygdalae and hypothalamus, and they are mediated by neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. We also know that many animals, especially mammals, possess the same neurological structures and brain chemicals as we do. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean they share our feelings, but careful observation of animals in action suggests that at least some of them do.

Recent overviews of research by Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal from the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta and Stanley Kuczaj's group at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg show that empathy is more widespread among animals than science has so far been willing to recognise. They point to research that suggests non-human primates, dolphins, whales, elephants and hippopotamuses, and even some rodents, behave in ways that support the claim that empathy has deep evolutionary roots.

In one classic study published in 1964, Stanley Wechlin and his team at the Northwestern University Medical School in Illinois showed that a hungry rhesus monkey would not take food if doing so meant another monkey got an electric shock. In similar situations rats will also hold back when they know their actions would cause pain to another individual.

Then there's the study published two decades ago by Hal Markowitz from San Francisco State University. He reported that after training Diana monkeys to insert a token into a slot to get food, he observed a male helping the oldest female who had failed to learn the task. On three occasions the male picked up the tokens she had dropped, put them into the machine, and allowed her to have the food.

We'll probably never know whether these rats and monkeys were feeling empathy as we do. But what we can do is start comparing what's going on in animal brains with what happens in our own. Neuroimaging techniques such as PET scans and functional MRI are starting to shed new light on human emotions, and I hope that it won't be long before we start doing similar studies with non-human primates and other animals.

In the meantime, watching animals in action has convinced many researchers, myself included, that they possess the emotions upon which a moral sense is built. Chimps and monkeys, for example, seem to feel embarrassment, whales and ravens show signs of falling in love, and even iguanas register pleasure (New Scientist, 29 April 2000, p 32). In my own research I have taken this one step further-looking for evidence of fair behaviour. I'm particularly interested in social play-the joyful rough and tumble common to many mammals, especially youngsters-because it has its own special rules of engagement, allowing participants to reinterpret acts that might otherwise seem aggressive or sexual. The fact that play rarely escalates into all-out fighting is a strong indication that animals do indeed abide by the rules and that they expect others to do likewise.

My studies of infant dogs, wolves and coyotes based on careful observation and analysis of video playbacks reveal that they use a special signal to prevent misinterpretation of playful actions. They perform a "bow"-which entails crouching on the forelimbs while keeping the rear upright-when initiating play, or in association with aggressive actions such as biting, to modify their meaning. I've also found that players often use self-imposed handicaps to limit the force they use against a weaker playmate when body slamming or biting. And role reversal is common, so that during play a dominant animal will often allow a subordinate to have the upper hand. Such behaviours reduce inequalities in size, strength and dominance between playmates, fostering the cooperation and reciprocity that are essential for play to occur. Indeed, on the rare occasions when a canid says "let's play" and then beats up an unsuspecting animal, the cheat usually find itself ostracised by its erstwhile playmates.

Similar cooperative behaviour has been found in many animals at play. For example, Sergio Pellis from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta found that rats will constantly monitor and fine-tune their behaviour to keep play going. But while there has been much talk about animal cooperation, no one has considered the role that social play may have had in the evolution of morality. Yet what could be a better atmosphere in which to learn the rights and wrongs of social interaction-the moral norms that can then be extended to other situations such as sharing food, defending resources, grooming and giving care?

My belief is that a sense of fairness is common to many animals, because there could be no social play without it, and without social play individual animals and entire groups would be at a disadvantage. If I'm right, morality evolved because it is adaptive. It helps many animals, including humans, to survive and flourish in their particular social environment. This may sound like a radical idea, particularly if you view morality as uniquely human and a sort of mystical quality that sets us apart from other animals. But if you accept my argument that play and fairness are inextricably linked, you're half way there. The challenge then is to show that individual animals benefit from these behaviours.

It's hardly radical these days to suggest that play is essential food for the brain. Recent research shows that the more animals play, the bigger their brains grow (New Scientist, 9 June 2001, p 28). Social play seems to rewire the brain, increasing connections between neurones in the cortex. It hones an individual's cognitive skills, including logical reasoning, learning and behavioural flexibility. And it helps perfect survival skills such as hunting and mating, which will be essential in later life. Quantifying these benefits of play is extraordinarily difficult, but the more we learn about the way play affects the brain the more apparent it becomes that the activity is far from idle time-wasting.

My own fieldwork has uncovered one of the penalties paid by animals that fail to engage fully in play. I've found that coyote pups who don't play much are less tightly bonded to other members of their group and are more likely to strike out on their own. And life outside the group is much more risky than within it. In my seven-year study of coyotes living in the Grand Teton National Park outside Moose, Wyoming, I found that about 60 per cent of the yearlings who drifted away from their social group died, whereas fewer than 20 per cent of their stay-at-home peers did. I'm sure that close scrutiny of other social animals will reveal more evidence that having a sense of fairness benefits individuals.

More controversially, I also believe that a moral sense may benefit groups as a whole. That's because group members learn rules of engagement during social play that influence their decisions about what is acceptable behaviour when dealing with each other. Recent research by Kyoko Okamoto and Shuichi Matsumura at Kyoto University suggests that we are not the only primates to use punishment and apology to help reinforce the rules of social engagement. And sticking to the rules is essential if individuals are to work in harmony to create a successful group that can outcompete other groups. My observations of coyotes confirm that members of a pack who work together are more successful at driving off intruders than are single individuals, and I'm sure that if other researchers looked they would find similar evidence for the benefits of group living in other animals.

I'm not arguing that there is a gene for fair or moral behaviour. As with any behavioural trait, the underlying genetics is bound to be complex, and environmental influences may be large. No matter. Provided there is variation in levels of morality among individuals, and provided virtue is rewarded by a greater number of offspring, then any genes associated with good behaviour are likely to accumulate in subsequent generations. And the observation that play is rarely unfair or uncooperative is surely an indication that natural selection acts to weed out those who don't play by the rules.

What does all this tell us about human morality? First, we didn't invent virtue- its origins are much more ancient than our own. Secondly, we should stop seeing ourselves as morally superior to other animals. True, our big brains endow us with a highly sophisticated sense of what's right and wrong, but they also give us much greater scope for manipulating others-to cheat and deceive and try to benefit from immoral behaviour. In that sense, animal morality might be "purer" than our own.

We should accept our moral responsibility towards other animals, and that means developing and enforcing more restrictive regulations governing animal use. There is growing evidence that while animal minds vary from one species to another, they are not so different from our own, and only when we accept this can we be truly moral in our relations with other creatures and with nature as a whole.

Marc Bekoff


Marc Bekoff teaches biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He and Jane Goodall recently founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. His latest book, Minding Animals (Oxford University Press), was published in Britain this month.

"The evolution of punishment and apology" by Kyoko Okamoto and Shuichi Matsumura, Evolutionary Ecology, vol 14, p 703 (2001) "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases" by Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press)