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The Moral Lives of Animals    by Dale Peterson order for
Moral Lives of Animals
by Dale Peterson
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Science writer Dale Peterson brings us, in The Moral Lives of Animals, a seminal, wide-ranging analysis of moral behavior - and our perceptions of it - in the animal kingdom. He uses Ahab and Starbuck from Melville's Moby-Dick throughout to contrast differing human views of animals' instincts and motivations. Early in the book, Peterson reminds us that 'we are left, so often, looking at animals and what they do through a dark glass', with what we do know 'powerfully obscured by long-standing habits of thought.' Animals are spoken of as it, rather than he or she, and 'Words project thought.' The author dubs this orientation Darwinian narcissism.

Peterson tells us that 'The function of morality, or the moral organ, is to negotiate the inherent serious conflict between self and others.' His volume is divided into four parts. First is Where Does Morality Come From?, 'promoting the understanding of morality, both human and nonhuman as a gift of biological evolution.'. Part 2, What is Morality?, addresses rules that evolved in realms of 'authority, violence, sex, possession, and communication.' Part 3 covers 'attachments morality, which includes the mechanisms promoting cooperation ... and kindness'). Last, Where is Morality Going? digs into the 'dual nature of human and animal morality'. It also discusses a dynamic flexibility among species that 'show average gender differences in how the rules and attachments are experienced and expressed'. And it looks optimistically at the potential for 'an expanded role for attachments morality' in the future.

Peterson reminds us that his book does not address animal intelligence but rather is an 'attempt to trace evolutionary continuity in the area of moral psychology.' Part 1 of the book takes us all over the (physical and mental) map. Peterson describes encounters with wild animals; medieval jurisprudence that considered animals to 'possess sentience enough to be responsible for their actions'; Darwin's argument 'for the existence of an emotional and psychological continuity among animals and humans' as well as an anatomical one; a Third Way of thinking about animal minds as impermeable and part alien; and the evolution of human morality 'as an evolutionary response to group living' (I particularly enjoyed his comparison of Pleistocene socialization to high school).

There is so much food for continued thought here that it's impossible to do the book justice in a brief review. Peterson addresses the duality of violence amongst chimpanzees and lion prides; sex 'for purposes other than reproduction' amongst bonobos, in particular female pair-bonding; possession versus ownership amongst dolphins; intentional deceit in dogs and baboons; reciprocity in the kiss of life amongst vampire bats; kindness in rhesus monkeys; and so much more. His description of the effects of the elephant holocaust on survivors in Africa and southern Asia is very disturbing. But there's room for hope in the fact that bonobo evolution resulted in 'a remarkable kind of ape, quick and bright and matriarchal, whose lifestyle can be characterized as one of significantly more sex and distinctly less violence.'

Looking ahead, Peterson feels that increased societal power for women 'may also bring a somewhat increased significance for attachments - particularly those associated with empathy - at the expense of rules'. He also hopes for humanity 'that, given time, we can achieve a greater wisdom about ourselves and our relationship with the rest of the animal world down here, on this planet.' My personal hope is that his future happens. If you have any interest in, or concern for, our fellow creatures, then The Moral Lives of Animals is an absolute must read. And if you don't, then it's even more important that you absorb and consider this book.

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