Animals have morality and know right from wrong just as humans do, says biologist Marc Bekoff . For Bekoff it’s not a question whether animals have feelings or show morality, but what these traits mean in an evolutionary context.

Published in: EOS magazine 2, 2010 (in Dutch: Dieren kennen gevoelens en moraliteit – pdf)

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Bekoff derived many of his theories from his long term research on coyotes in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. He observed that coyotes that don’t play fair often have to leave their pack because they don’t form strong social bonds. According to Bekoff many animals are adept social beings that form intricate relationships and live by rules of conduct that maintain social balance.

Why is morality so important in animal play?

‘Play is for most animals very important for their social, physical and cognitive development. Just as with people, animals need to play fair, and that is a manifestation of morality. A lot of research on social play behaviour in animals shows that dogs, wolfs or coyotes invite an animal to play by using a play signal telling the other animal they want to play and not fight or mate. When they play, they don’t bite as hard as they can or they don’t slam into each other. If it does get too rough they apologize by crouching on their fore limbs. Only rarely does play in dogs escalate in fighting. In wild coyotes we observe it in maybe five or six out of 1000 observations. Of course moral behavior is not only present in play. We also observe it in grooming networks in baboons and other primates, and during food sharing.’

Do animals have the same kind of morality as humans?

‘There’s no reason to think that the moral behavior of a dog is the same as that of a human or even a wolf. It is also possible that there are different morals for different packs of animals. The main message is that moral behaviour is very subtle and can differ even among members of the same species. Humans also have different kinds of moralities.’

What is the importance of morality in animals?

‘It is especially important for the individual, less for the group. If individuals don’t play fair they often leave their group, and when they leave the group when they’re young, they have a higher possibility to die young. It pays off for an individual to be fair. Sometimes it can be disadvantageous for the group, for example if a pack of wolves loses an important individual because it was unfair, this can influence the survival of the group.’

Do you think that other animals than mammals – birds, fish, reptiles, or even invertebrates – also show some kind of morality

‘The best evidence is for mammals, but the biologist Bernd Heinrich mentioned moral behavior in birds during his observation of ravens that punished each other because they stole food. I don’t know about other animals, but I would not be surprised if for example fish would have a sense of fairness too.’

Is morality exclusive for social animals?

‘The more social, the more complex and subtle it’s moral behaviour. Among the canidae, wolves and maybe African wild dogs are highly social and they have to negotiate their social relationships a lot, and they have to be very subtle in that. But if you would take less social animals and put them in a group, they would still display moral behavior. They have the capacity for this, but they may not have to show it every day. If you put solitary animals in a zoo they have to work out their relationships and be fair in order to get along.’

Can animals show morality towards other species in a way humans show morality for non-human animals?

Moral behavior does happen between species, but I bet it happens less, and therefore there are few known cases. But there are examples such as the gorilla Binta Jua saving a three year old boy after he climbed into the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield zoo. Binta Jua protected the unconscious boy against the other gorillas and safely carried him towards employees of the zoo. There are also known cases of dolphins saving people from sharks.’

In animal documentaries they mostly show competition between animals and tooth and claw. Do most people have a biased view on animal social behavior?

‘I think that the media tend to look at attention getting behaviour, at what is sensational and people’s attention is easier attracted when talking about fighting instead of play. People are misled by the nature tooth and claw paradigm. Darwin wrote about competition, but he also wrote about cooperation in animals. There’s no way that behavior would evolve with only competition. An animal wolf that is too dominant will not survive. There needs to be a balance between competition and (wild) justice. What we learn from literature is that for most animals 90% of the behaviour is friendly or what we call pro-social.’

Is morality just a way to keep relationships with kin fine and enhance survival, or are underlining feelings of empathy present?

‘I think that the emotional basis of moral behavior is that animals feel for each other. They are nice and compassionate towards each other. It has been observed in lab experiments that rats wouldn’t feed if another rat was shock treated while they were eating. It is important to know that these animals are making a choice. If I am a mouse I don’t need to help you if you’re in pain neither do I have to stop what I’m doing to remove your pain, but I do because I feel for you. More scientific evidence is accumulating that a large number of mammals show empathy.’

Do animals care for each other or even feel love for each other like humans do?

‘There’s no doubt that animals care for each other and have love relationships. If you define love as an enduring bond then it is clear that animals show love. In many animal species couples share a lot of time together: they eat and sleep together, raise their young together, defend their territory, … Mammals have the same nerves in their limbic system of the brain and the same neurochemicals, so it would be odd if they wouldn’t have that feeling. Their love may not be the same as in humans, but humans don’t love one another in the same way either.’

What other emotions do animals experience?

‘Animals have the same array of emotions as humans: love, sadness, grieve, jealousy, resentment, disgust, … Grieve is very pronounced. Elephants will try to lift sick and dying young elephants and they will hold funeral rituals by mourning and touching the corpse. I’ve seen this in the wild and their whole behavior changes. I’ve seen grieve in magpies too that pecked and covered a corpse of a dead magpie. When this story was published in newspapers I received tons of emails of people telling me they had seen this before, meaning my observation is not standing alone.’

Some scientists remain skeptic and depict this kind of social behavior – couples caring for young or touching corpses – as instincts that serve the survival of the species only.

‘These may be instincts, but these animals are making a choice to interact with a particular individual different than with other individuals. To say these are instincts doesn’t mean underlying feelings are absent. For human behaviour one could also say that we follow our instincts for survival of our species, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t feel.’

‘It’s easy to say: we don’t know something about animals, so therefore it doesn’t exist. I think we should approach this subject differently: if we don’t know if something is there, assume it is there. If you accept Charles Darwin ideas about evolutionary continuity, where the differences are differences in degree rather than in kind, then it’s clear that if we have something so do other animals. So if we have grief they have it, if we have joy, pain or suffering they have it, but it doesn’t mean it is the same as in humans.’

‘It is strange to see that today many scientists and other people accept Darwin’s principle on evolutionary continuity for physical structures, but not for mental faculties. In The descent of man Darwin already stated that humans have many instincts (emotions, passions, …) in common with animals, and that yet many authors keep insisting that man is divided by an inseparable barrier from al the other animals in his mental faculties. The heart of a fish is also different from that of a human, but it remains a heart. That is no different for feelings.’

Scientists that attribute emotions to animals are often found guilty of anthropomorphism.

‘Indeed, and these same people say that an elephant is happy in a zoo; making themselves guilty of anthropomorphism. They can do that, we can’t. We see this especially in how people treat their companion animals. People talk on how happy or sad their dog or cat is, or that it experiences pain. They attribute emotions to their pet animals and are being anthropomorphic…and they are right, because the more time you share with an animal the more sensitive you become for its underlying emotions of social behaviour. These same people do not attribute emotions to cows or pigs because they don’t spend time with these animals. Skeptic scientists also say that the study of animal behavior in wild animals is a bunch of anecdotes and therefore not scientific. I say: sum all anecdotes and you have data.’

Intelligence has been more widely accepted in animals than emotions.

‘It is easier to test animals for intelligence in the lab by asking them to do different tasks. You can observe their behavior and watch them solve particular problems. Regarding emotions, people say you can’t ask an animal, because you can’t talk with them, but they have their own language. If you watch their ears, their tail, their eyes and behavior, you learn a lot. We need to learn how to communicate with them and read their body language.’

Recently it has been shown that some birds may be better at using tools than chimpanzees. Do you believe birds may be more intelligent than non-human primates?

‘When people ask me if birds are smarter than primates or dogs are smarter than cats, I always say that’s not a good question because animals do what they need to do to be a member of their species. It’s not because animals don’t show certain intelligent behavior that they aren’t capable of it; they just don’t need it to survive.’

A recent study by University of Buffalo scientists states that some animals share functional parallels with consciousness and cognitive self-awareness in humans. For example dolphins display uncertainty, and they are aware of their own state of uncertainty.

‘I think that most animals show some degree of self-awareness. The typical test is the mirror test where you have a mirror and you put a dot on the head of the animal and the animal points to the dot. But an animal pointing to a dot on its body doesn’t mean that it knows who it is. I believe scientist overrate the mirror test. I tried to do the same with wolves and wolves don’t point to anything, so I moved yellow snow around, urine packed snow, and found that they discriminate between their own urine and that of others. The important message is that we’re visual animals and when we design these tests we use visual tasks, but many animals know one another by odours or sounds so you need to tailor the study to the sensory world of the animal you are studying. So it’s not right to say elephants and dolphins and chimpanzees show self-awareness but wolves or dogs don’t. I think the more we study the more we’ll find out that animals have a sense of ‘self’, but this doesn’t mean they know who they are. It means they can discriminate their body from the body of another animal.’

If we look at how we treat animals, pain in animals is important in the debate. Do you think that for example lobsters feel pain when they are being cooked alive?

‘I think it is clear that lobsters don’t like being dropped in boiling water or fish don’t like getting a hook in their mouth. We know that fish respond to the drug morphine, a pain killer, the same way humans do. People thought for so long that fish didn’t feel pain, but they feel fish pain. This pain may be different from ours, but every human feels pain differently too and has another pain limit. Pain is pain. Pain has an important function in the survival of an animal. It’s a warning signal that something is wrong, so it would be silly to believe animals don’t feel pain. So Darwin’s evolutionary continuity argument applies here too, but my pain may be different from your pain.’

What can this knowledge on animal emotions and cognition learn us on how we should treat animals?

‘I would hope that, as we learn more from animals and accept that they have emotions and feel pain, that we would adjust our behavior.  From a functional point of view, we need to use this information to make the lives of animals better and treat them well. I think the world needs more empathy between people and animals and I am convinced that these feed each other.’

Marc Bekoff (1945) is professor emeritus Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is specialized in the behavior and emotions of animals. In 2000, he received the Exemplar award by the Animal Behavior Society for his long time research on the behavior of animals. He is a member of the ethical committee of the Jane Goodall Institute. He wrote more than 200 scientific articles on animal behavior in wild animals and has written 22 books.


Below follows the rest of the interview that was not published.

More compassion for animals feeds into more compassion for people: interview with dr. Mark Bekoff – part 2

Most people attribute emotions to their pets, but not to chickens, pigs, cows or other non-companion animals. We treat the animals we eat different than our pets. Biologist Dr. Marc Bekoff is hopeful and makes a call for a more compassionate world where people treat one another and animals better.

Full story:

What do you believe is the underlying reason for the separation most people create between themselves and non human-animals?

‘The reason that people separate humans and non-human animals, and always put humans above is for some part religious motivated. Humans are the only animal created in the image of God and for long time it was thought that humans were the only rational animals, but we know that this is not true. The other reason is related to how animals have been used. People do horrible things to animals and they want to believe that these animals don’t feel or that their pain doesn’t matter, but this is a distancing mechanism that enables people to continue doing these horrible things.’

People attribute emotions to their dog or cat, but not to pigs or cows?

Yes. The animals we don’t see, we don’t attribute emotions to, or better said; those who we eat or those who we wear. It is easy for people to make this separation. Young kids do not realize that a hamburger was a cow or that bacon was a pig. I always tell kids you’re not eating a bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich, you’re eating a Babe lettuce and tomato sandwich. A lot of kids get upset when they hear that, because they didn’t know the bacon was a pig. And yes, our companion animals have emotions, but people don’t like to give that same attribution to the animals who they eat, because they don’t see them, they only see a hamburger. However, this is changing: people come to me after a talk and say: I want to become vegetarian, I never thought of a cow as a who, but I did think of a dog as a who.’

Do you believe one day humans will treat animals as equal?

‘I’m very hopeful. I’m not a blind optimist. I know there are a lot of bad things happening, but I think we’re working to the point where animals will be treated as who they are. I would like to think ultimately maybe as equals. Even if we don’t get to the point where animals are treated as equals, anything will count, because we’re so mean and cruel to them that any positive change makes a difference. The choices we can make are really simple. It’s easy to choose a non-animal diet and non-animal clothes. It’s also easy to cut down from for example four hamburgers a week to two. So it’s small daily decisions that will make a difference. In my book The animal manifesto I call it the compassion footprint. I’m asking people to expand their compassion. It has to be in the hearts of people, not in their heads, that this is the most ethical way to behave. If everyone does it the compassion footprint on earth will be huge and that can happen fast if half the world participates.’

Do you believe the human population will one day have turned vegetarian or even vegan?

‘I think there are a number of things here. First, there are too many people, so we have overpopulation and overconsumption. And we’re very self-centered and arrogant. If we want to control that we do have to make humane choices. I would love the world to be vegetarian or vegan, but it won’t happen and I accept that. Also, poor people don’t have suitable nutritional alternatives. I always say when you go to a restaurant ask the source of the meat and when they can’t answer that question choose the vegetarian alternative. Also, free range chicken is better than cage chicken. So it’s all about a slow progress towards more ethical and compassionate choices. When people start doing that I think after a while we will see more love and compassion in the world. And that’s where my hope comes from. I have seen change so I’m optimistic.’

What should happen so that people are not only conscious of the moral and emotional lives of animals, but also change their attitude towards how we treat them?

‘We should always put the information out there and let people know what we know. People don’t like being told what to do, but they do appreciate to be informed. Scientists are also responsible for putting out information. A lot of my university colleagues like to stay behind closed doors but I think it’s socially irresponsible to do that. I believe scientists have an obligation to go public.’

What do you believe is the biggest change the world needs right now?

‘I think that is more compassion among people and between people and animals and I think they feed each other. More compassion for animals feeds into more compassion for people. I like to call it an umbrella of compassion. Also we need less cultural barriers. Today the world needs more compassion, more empathy and more feeling for the pain of other people and animals.’

What has to happen to make this come true?

First, people need to feel better about themselves. Happy people do better work. I don’t mean happy in a self indulging way like having ten cars, but I mean internally happy. A lot of people don’t have that capacity because they are poor or sick, but if you can do something to make the world a more compassionate place and you don’t, there’s something wrong, because you have to help those who can’t.’

What do you think the World will look like in hundred years?

‘I hope it will be a more compassionate world where people will treat each other and animals better. I hope people will stop exploiting each other and will stop using animals in horrific ways.’


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