Aping us: beasts behaving badly.

Author:Wynne, Clive D.L.
Position:The Moral Lives of Animals - Book review


By Dale Peterson, Bloomsbury Press, 352 pp., $26

OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS Dale Peterson has written half-a-dozen books on animal behavior. His skills as a chronicler of animal goings-on are highly developed: drawing quick vignettes of the diverse and surprising things animals do.

In The Moral Lives of Animals, he deftly sketches vampire bats palpating each other's stomachs to detect who has had a good blood meal overnight, and who has gone hungry. Abat that misses out for two successive nights is in grave danger of not surviving a third, so it begs its companions to regurgitate a little of what they have collected. And the little begging vampire remembers who helped her so that she may repay the favor in the future.

Chimpanzees patrol the border of their territory, on the lookout for members of another troop that they can pounce on and destroy. The chimps are merciless as they descend on an isolated outsider and rip him limb from limb.

Or perhaps you prefer bonobo bands meeting for the first time in a forest clearing. After half an hour of gingerly watching each other, a female from one group crosses over and has sex with a female from the other. With that signature act, the bonobos skip into an all-out orgy.

Here's one more chimpanzee example. Jane Goodall observed a female chimpanzee she dubbed "Passion"; it had a nasty habit of killing and eating other mother chimps' babies.

An African elephant lay dying alongside a well-traveled trail. Researchers noted that 38 elephants made a total of 56 visits to the dying elephant--including six visits by her mother and sister. After the elephant died, 54 individuals made 73 visits to her corpse--none by her mother and sister. The visitors made many interesting responses to the dying and dead young elephant. Some looked fearful, others sniffed the air and poked the body. One, known as "Miss Lonelyheart," stabbed the corpse with her tusks and tried to tear pieces from it.

It is easy to forget, buoyed along by these examples of animal behavior, that this claims to be a book about the moral lives of animals. What does any of this have to do with morality?

Peterson's method is to present these examples and then analogize to the human case. People kill members of other groups, they exchange food, they care for the sick; occasionally people kill each other's offspring. (I'm not aware of any case of humans greeting an unfamiliar group by engaging in an orgy of lesbian sex, but...

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