After the horrific tragedy in Newtown Connecticut, ecologist and animal advocate Marc Bekoff penned an essay in which he argued that “cruelty, violence and warlike behaviors in other animals are extremely rare” (Humanlike Violence is Not Seen in Other Animals). As evidence, Bekoff relies heavily on an essay by John Horgan critiquing the idea that “both male humans and chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives, are ‘natural warriors’ with an innate predisposition toward ‘coalitionary killing’ (the so-called demonic male theory).” Both Horgan and Bekoff cite Jane Goodall‘s work in Gombe with chimpanzees, arguing that in intraspecific killing in Gombe chimps is rare. Bekoff agrees with Horgan’s conclusion: “[t]he evidence for demonic-males theory, far from extraordinary, is flimsy.” However, not everyone agrees with this view, including Jane Goodall. In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, Goodall and colleagues directly challenge Bekoff’s claim, asserting “the idea that human aggression is qualitatively different from that of every other species is wrong.” As evidence for their view, they cite a recent (2006) paper that summarized violence in five chimpanzee populations in Africa:
The average “conservatively estimated risk of violent death” was 271 per 100,000 individuals per year. If that seems like a low rate, consider that a chimpanzee’s social circle is limited to about 50 friends and close acquaintances. This means that chimpanzees can expect a member of their circle to be murdered once every seven years. Such a rate of violence would be intolerable in human society.
Additionally, they point to other social animals in which intraspecific aggression is well-documented and common, including African lions, spotted hyenas and gray wolves. They note, for example, that “[a]mong wolves, up to 40% of adults die from attacks by other packs.” Goodall and colleagues point to two factors that they believe are crucial to account for “unusual violent behavior” including “variable group size and group-held territory.” They suggest these factors are important because lone individuals sometimes encounter larger groups along territorial boundaries. In such cases, killing the lone individual, they note, “makes evolutionary sense”, as such killing increases the probability that the group can expand into it’s neighbors territory. They conclude that while the capacity for violence is not unique to humans, our ability to engineer peace is:
What makes humans special is not our occasional propensity to kill strangers when we think we can do so safely. Our unique capacity is our skill at engineering peace…Under everyday conditions, humans are a delightfully peaceful and friendly species. But when tensions mount between groups of ordinary people or in the mind of an unstable individual, emotion can lead to deadly events. There but for the grace of fortune, circumstance and effective social institutions go you and I. Instead of constructing a feel-good fantasy about the innate goodness of most people and all animals, we should strive to better understand ourselves, the good parts along with the bad.
Not discussed in either essay–but extremely important to this debate–is whether the behavior of non-human animals should be judged by human standards of morality in the first place. Bekoff seems to believe it can, arguing that:
We all must work together for a science of peace and build a culture of empathy, and emphasize the positive and prosocial (voluntary behavior to benefit another) side of our and other animals’ character. It’s truly who we and other animals are and it’s about time we focus on the good side of human and animal nature (emphasis mine).
I disagree deeply with these statements. Not because Bekoff would have us “emphasize…positive and prosocial” behavior–indeed, on this point I very much agree! What I find objectionable is the application of human standards of morality to animal behavior. Human behavior is “good” or “bad” because we have deemed it to be so–because human animals are capable of complex moral reasoning, and human societies are capable of agreeing upon such standards. Even if one believes that animals have a “sense of morality”, as Bekoff does (see story), it does not follow that their sense of what is “moral” is the same as humans’, nor does it follow that such morality could be communicated among animals (which seemingly would be needed for animals to make and understand a moral choice). Rather, insomuch as it exists at all, it is likely a function of the species’ evolutionary past–i.e., at some point in the species evolution, acting prosocially was adaptive and therefore, selected for.
So what does it matter? Bekoff would have us emphasize “the good side of human and animal nature”, which works well for animals when their behavior is deemed “good” or moral by the standards of human societies; however, applying human notions of morality when judging animal behavior opens up animals to condemnation when their behavior is viewed as bad/immoral. What Goodall and colleagues point out is that such behaviors are much more common than Bekoff’s essay implies. Moreover, judging animals by human standards of morality hasn’t always worked out all that well for them in the past. For example, while Roman mythology recognized a positive aspect of wolf behavior in the myth of Romulus and Remus (i.e., these orphaned twins were raised by a female wolf), the originators of the Christian Bible and the subsequent fables’ of Aesop and Grimm emphasized different behavior when wolves were used as a metaphor for wantonness, evil and destruction. This cultural view of wolves and their behavior likely played a strong, determinative role in subsequent efforts to eradicate them in the U.S. If we accept the notion that the behavior of animals can be judged using human moral standards, we open (or expand) the door for cultural differences in perception to play a role in our judgement of animals and their behavior. It is better to set aside our own views about morality when examining animal behavior–at least to the extent that we can. This allows us to view animals and their behavior “scientifically” –that is, as a product of their evolutionary past, as opposed to a function of their ability (or inability) to make the “proper” moral choice. Viewing animal behavior as “amoral” can help facilitate a common understanding of animals–ultimately, this is the first step in achieving some agreement upon how they are to be treated, managed and conserved.