Tag Archives: Elizabeth Vander Meer

In Memory of Prof Robert Sussman

I was deeply saddened, and shocked, to read of the death of Prof Robert Sussman on 8 June.  Prof Sussman and I had been corresponding on and off since last year, my last email to him just at the end of February this year – I had initially been asking him if he (or other researchers) had been able to carry out any recent population studies of the long-tailed macaques in Mauritius, and later he would suggest people I should contact on the island to obtain information on conservation and breeding facility activities that impact the monkeys.  In our brief exchanges, I found Bob to be a very generous and invested person, taking time with someone who wrote to him completely out of the blue!  He was keen to encourage follow-up research of the macaques and wanted to know what I might discover, as I think he may have felt that the monkeys’ future on the island was becoming increasingly precarious.  In their chapter in Monkeys on the Edge (2011), Sussman, Shaffer and Guidi stated:

“this is a valuable, interesting, extremely social and intelligent animal from which we can learn a great deal.  This knowledge should not be restricted to our interest in our own health, but also to our understanding of non-human and human behaviour, ecology and evolution.  We realize that a solution to saving some ‘natural’ populations on this island will not be simple or easy but we hope that a solution to this problem will be attempted and achieved.” (Sussman et al, 2011:230)

I read all of Prof Sussman’s published research on the long-tailed macaques in Mauritius, and have only recently begun to read about his work in Madagascar and more generally on altruism and cooperation, where he and colleagues challenged primarily competitive and selfish notions of human and other primate (or social animal) behaviour based in evolutionary theory.

Washington University at St. Louis has provided a fitting tribute to a man who made huge contributions to anthropology and primatology, and I’ll conclude with an excerpt from their obituary:

“Bob Sussman achieved legendary status early in his career, with diverse and brilliant contributions that defied arbitrary boundaries between academic disciplines,” said close colleague and fellow primatologist Crickette Sanz. “He proposed the reigning theory of primate evolution, championed the role of cooperation in sociality, and educated a generation about the dangers of race — just to name a few of his many contributions.”

I am very sad that I won’t be able to continue a dialogue with him about the fate of macaques in Mauritius.



Legal Personhood: Steven Wise and the battle to free chimpanzees in the U.S.

In light of the court ruling in Argentina that appeared to grant an orangutan her freedom from captivity in a zoo (as much as she can be granted this), I thought I would post a bit more of the personhood research I’ve done for the anthrozoology course – introducing Steven Wise, who has been battling for the same rights for 4 chimpanzees in the States.

Recognising the personhood of other great apes (or other animals more generally), based on growing scientific evidence of continuity, could stop at acknowledgement of their moral rights, but advocates such as Gary L. Francione and Steven Wise believe that this stops short of truly ensuring their protection, since legally these animals in the American setting would still be considered property.   Francione (1993:251-252) argues that legal rights must be pursued:  “If the Declaration on Great Apes is to have any meaning as far as chimpanzees [bonobos], gorillas and orang-utans are concerned, then it is necessary that the concept of legal personhood be extended to them, and they must cease to be treated or viewed as the property of humans.”  Francione (2004:108) talks about a “moral schizophrenia” that human beings (in European-American cultures) display; while animals are seen to have “morally significant interests”, they are at the same time treated as if they have instrumental value only or primarily (they are used as means to an end, and are not seen as ends in themselves), as a result of their continued status as property.  Like Singer, Francione (2004:112-113) focuses on the importance of animal sentience:  “no other characteristic, such as humanlike rationality, reflective self-consciousness, or the ability to communicate in a human language, is necessary.”

Wise (2013, 1996) is in agreement with Francione regarding the importance of legal rights for nonhuman animals.  While he promotes expansion of legal personhood widely (to nonhuman animals), his recent court actions show a practical focus on chimpanzees, since these great apes are considered to be most genetically similar to human beings (our closest living relatives, along with bonobos); this could be an easier win than attempting a court action for an animal that appears to be significantly different to humans.  Wise filed three court actions in the United States on behalf of four captive chimpanzees, arguing for their personhood and thus their current neglect and mistreatment; two are living in a research lab and two are privately owned (Siebert, 2014).  One of these chimpanzees, 26-year-old Tommy, formerly a circus animal, has been kept in a small cage on the Circle L Trailer Sales premises (in New York) for more than 20 years.  Wise contends that these conditions can only cause suffering for an animal with Tommy’s cognitive and social capacities (Yuhas, 2014).  Leading primatologists (and scientists in other fields) have provided affidavits to support this claim.  The legal argument rests on the autonomy of chimpanzees (a limited legal personhood), and also focuses on the right of autonomous beings, or persons, to not be imprisoned against their will (a writ of habeas corpus); the goal is to have Tommy and the three other chimps removed from their confinement and relocated to a sanctuary that provides them with some amount of self-determination.  In court arguments, Wise has been careful not to characterise the issue as one of animal welfare, since this would lead back to animal cruelty legislation (it would frame the issue within existing laws and relationships, rather than pushing boundaries).  Garner acknowledges this problem in the British context:

“Where the interests of animals have been considered, in both the political and academic worlds, it is in terms of their welfare, rather than their rights.  That is, it is widely accepted that we owe some moral obligations to animals, but the interests of humans, it is commonly argued, must come first, and our right to exploit animals in order to further these interests remains sacrosanct.” (2010:123)

An animal welfare focus still allows animals to be used, but it improves the conditions under which they are used.  Such an approach can be dangerous as identified by Davis (2010:271) who describes the possibility of supposedly increasing welfare by engineering animals that could feel less or generally experience less; she provides the example of “creation of insentient, brain-dead animals to fit the procrustean systems of industrialized agriculture”.  Hearings for the three court actions took place in December 2013 and the outcome was unanimous across the Supreme Court Justices deciding the cases (although in Tommy’s case, the Justice expressed sympathy and noted the strength of the argument): habeas corpus could not apply to chimpanzees because chimpanzees were not persons (Grimm, 2013).  Wise and his team are in the process of appealing the decisions (which have so far been unsuccessful).  Despite these defeats, there have been successes and similar moves in other parts of the world that are worth noting.  Dolphins were given protection as nonhuman persons by the government of India in 2013 (Cetacean Rights, 2013).  Legislation has been proposed to give rights to great apes in Spain (however this has not become law), and the Balearic Islands passed legislation in 2007 to grant great apes personhood (Saner, 2013).

We can now possibly add Argentina to the list of countries acknowledging basic rights (to “freedom”) for some nonhuman animals and expanding definitions of personhood – there is some discussion over the actual content of the court’s decision (see Marc Bekoff quoting Steven Wise).  South American countries are definitely places to watch, if we also consider that Bolivia and Ecuador both have rights for nature written into their constitutions.

Considering Arluke – introduction to the animal cruelty webpages

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I will be adding content to the new animal cruelty webpages on the website over the coming weeks (if not months!).  I’ve begun the introduction to the sections:

My Anthrozoology course is meant to shift my career direction a bit, to look more closely at human-animal interactions rather than wide environmental policy issues relating to biodiversity conservation.  As part of the course, I read the book Just a Dog: Understanding Animal Cruelty and Ourselves (2006) by Arnold Arluke.  While I didn’t entirely agree with Arluke’s approach to the subject of animal cruelty, I found the book to be illuminating for several reasons. Arluke does the following:

  • Explores definitions of cruelty
  • Tries to present the perspectives of abusers, albeit (to me) from a flawed traditional symbolic interactionist approach

It was clear from Arluke’s interviews with humane officers and abusers in the States that people hold different definitions of cruelty when it comes to companion animals like dogs and cats.  The case of a dog tied up in a backyard, called in to a humane agency by someone like myself, would be considered a “bullshit complaint”, without the seriousness of a case that could actually be taken to court (laws in the U.S. protect companion animals, to some degree, against extreme cruelty although humane officers struggle to make prosecutions stick even in these more black and white cases).  (pp. 24-25)  And men (mostly men were interviewed by Arluke, as they were the ones to admit to abusing) in their twenties, recounting the “dirty play” (in part defined as delinquency) of their recent youth, looked back on episodes where they abused animals as part of their coming of age, or identity-building; Arluke frames these episodes in such a way and does not consider them examples of some kind of psycho- or socio-pathology (years later, some of these young men did experience guilt for doing what they did).   (p. 64, etc)  It is interesting to note that those interviewed put themselves forward as “abusers”, so on some level and in retrospect they did know that what they were doing was causing harm to individual animals.

It is important to remember that cruelty does not have a fixed definition, for two reasons.  The first involves the animals – cruelty must be defined in relation to the needs of species of animals and individuals within those species (are those needs not being met?).  The second involves the people who are companion to those animals, or are in some interaction with those animals – it is important to explore the perspectives of people who are being accused of animal cruelty, to understand motivations and whether they even see their acts as cruel (are they too focussed on meeting their own needs through the interaction), to refine definitions of cruelty (in this space where humans and animals relate) so that we can most crucially get at a means to stop abuse from occurring in the first place.

Sections on the website under the subject of animal cruelty will look at the issues in relation to primates (and also companion animals) considering the above – what are the needs of the animals in question, what are the perspectives of the so-called “abusers”?  As Arluke rightly points out, the ubiquity, at least in Western society, of what could be called animal cruelty (the more black and white cases) proves that it is not always a matter of individual psychopathology (the beginnings of a serial killer), but a collective, societally-induced pathology. (p. 84)  Arluke highlights the confusion that is wrought in children by the inconsistent treatment of animals that occurs in the adult world – the meat industry, hunting, etc.  It is important to also keep in mind the work of Frank Ascione in this area.  Ascione looks to individual circumstances that can lead to animal abuse, such as the experience of domestic violence in the home; this violence may then be perpetrated against companion animals. (see, for instance, Ascione (2001) ‘Animal Abuse and Youth Violence’.  Juvenile Justice Bulletin.  U.S. Department of Justice, September)

So, animal cruelty is a complex subject with multiple viewpoints, and competing definitions which make it difficult to enforce universal and strict laws to protect the animals in question.  Hopefully the pages we provide will help to inform readers regarding this complexity and lead to conclusions that might improve the welfare of primates, and companion (and other domestic) animals, at that interface of interaction; we will be focussed carefully on animal welfare and trying to move debates forward so that universal definitions of cruelty do favour the individual animals’ needs more than they do now.

Making Daisy Chains with Gorillas: the difficulties of field studies in primatology


I recently read a journal article by Amanda Rees (University of York) called “Anthropomorphism, Anthropocentrism and Anecdote:  Primatologists on Primatology”, which appeared in the journal Science, Technology and Human Values in 2001 (Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 227-247).  While the study is now over ten years old, it introduced some of the difficulties faced by primatologists when they wrote up their field research, and the difficulties surrounding being called a primatologist in the first place.  Rees conducted interviews with primatologists who researched in the field (rather than in captive situations).  One researcher recounted a colleague’s reaction to his decision to focus on primates as study subjects:

“Oh God, [he’s] lost it; he’s off to make daisy chains with gorillas!” (p. 231)

Such was the influence of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, who were seen as “bunny huggers” or too close to their subjects, while there was no doubt of their significant contributions to the field.  Many of the primatologists that Rees interviewed wanted to distance themselves from that image of a primatologist, as it seemed to be associated with distorting anthropomorphism rather than “hard”, rigorous and clinical science.  In fact, a significant number of researchers went to lengths to explain that their subject of study was really irrelevant, because they were testing general principles in the field (and so any animal would do); thus they had no bond or special relationship with the primates they studied. (p. 231)  Due to the close proximity of alloprimates to humans, primatologists remained on guard against anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, since the field of behavioural primatology has been accused of exhibiting both.  At the same time, interviewees stressed that they found primates particularly fascinating due to their complex sociality.  This discussion began, however, to reveal a tension felt by most primatologists interviewed by Rees:

“A distinct line was drawn between what primatologists could see primates doing and what they could write about what they saw primates doing.” (p. 228)

Rees delved into this further during her interviews.  There appeared to be a gap between what researchers could intuit about the capacities of primates they studied through hours of direct observation and what they could scientifically prove.  (p. 238)  So a researcher’s write up for a scientific journal such as Animal Behaviour would not include, for instance, a word such as “consoling” or any anecdotal evidence, but instead would contain long, clinical descriptions and leave out behaviours that could not be evidenced in purely quantitative terms.  This meant that some primatologists would resort to popular writing in order to have a forum within which to explain and describe those behaviours that could not be quantified or easily categorised in scientific studies but that were still clearly apparent (there to be observed). (p. 239)  Rees concludes her article with a final discussion regarding the tension that is got round in popular writing:

“This tension is partially resolved for some primatological researchers through the production of popular, sometimes anecdotal accounts of primatological research.  In these accounts, they seem to feel more freedom to skirt closer to anthropomorphic and anthropocentric arguments, to use primate models to discuss human behavior, and to wonder explicitly about the nature of the primate mind.”  (p. 245)

I introduce this article to begin to locate the field study writings of Jane Goodall, Shirley Strum and Frans de Waal – it will be interesting to review their journal publications as well as their popular writing to see the difference.  There may well be less difference now than there was in 2001, since terms that once were seen as the domain of the human alone may be allowed legitimate use in reference to alloprimates. One recent study may prove this point, as it asserts that individuals within certain primate species can be considered to have personalities, and the researchers who conducted the study do not refer to anecdote.  Weiss, Inoue-Murayama, King, Adams and Matsuzawa in their 2012 journal article (Animal Behaviour 83, pp. 1355-65), titled “All too human?  Chimpanzee and orang-utan personalities are not anthropomorphic projectons”, explain how they reached their conclusions and what conclusions they reached, based on data analyses:

“We developed two forms of data reduction analysis to determine whether these dimensions [of personality similar to humans] can best be explained by the inherent tendencies of the animals (e.g. orang-utans that are curious are playful) or anthropomorphic projectons of raters (e.g. believing that orang-utans that are curious should be playful . . . These analyses confirmed that personality similarities between humans and great apes are best explained by genetic and phylogenetic affinity and not by anthropomorphic artefact.”  (p. 1355)

Such a careful and seemingly methodologically-sound study can serve to legitimate anecdotal evidence of personality in some alloprimates; both quantitative and qualitative methods are needed.  Future blog posts will consider how Goodall, Strum and de Waal managed the tension introduced and explored by Rees.

Does the chimpanzee deceive, does the dog show remorse?

In a previous blog post, I introduced Pamela Asquith and her journal article, “Of Bonds and Boundaries:  the modern role of anthropomorphism in primate studies” (2011)  Asquith first considers the importance of language in primate studies, the terminology used to describe alloprimates (nonhuman primates) – “anthropomorphism is ultimately about our use of words and what they can and cannot tell us about animals” (p. 239)  Researchers such as MacKinnon in the 1970s, describing orang-utans committing “rape”, and others using terms like “murder” and “monogamy” in relation to certain alloprimates seemed to be attempting to naturalise human behaviour, asserting continuity (shared basic natures). 

Asquith then shifts her focus in the article to long-term primate field studies, considering the bonds that researchers develop with their study subjects and how such bonds can lead to legitimate insights based on familiarity and communication between researcher and alloprimate, rather than conclusions being distorted by anthropomorphism.  Asquith acknowledges the value of anecdotes, as they capture nuances and context, and the animals as “actors”, which indeed they are. (p.241)  She makes the following key point:

“Primatologists who have gotten to know their animal subjects over many years can predict behavior in some situations, as much as anyone can predict another’s behavior, and can respond appropriately in ‘‘baboon’’ or ‘‘gorilla’’ terms to incidents in which the animals have involved them. Other primate species’ abilities to learn, invent, have a social memory and strategize should not need to be defended just because humans also do them. At the same time, in providing us with such a full picture of their lives, we have enough of a context to understand the concepts in ‘‘baboon terms,’’ for instance, without fear of naıve anthropomorphism.” (pp. 241-2)

De Waal’s PAM theory can be referenced here, and could further strengthen the primatologist’s position, in being able to understand closely related social animals’ behaviours and mental states.  In my previous blog post, I introduced de Waal’s theory:

“The theory posits the following:  if a subject and object are very similar, it is easier for the subject’s perception to activate motor and autonomic responses that match the object’s.  He goes on to explain:

‘this activation allows the subject to get ‘under the skin’ of the object, sharing its feelings and needs, which embodiment in turn fosters sympathy, compassion and helping… This is not to say that higher cognitive levels of empathy are irrelevant, but they are built on top of this firm, hardwired basis without which we would be at a loss about what moves others.’ (p. 37, 39-40)”

Some researchers in the field of psychology, as noted in previous blogs, appear to want to separate humans from other animals in terms of a difference of kind rather than degree, despite evidence that piles up to support the latter.  Clive Wynne (2007), while not as extreme as Guldberg, argues against anthropomorphism, characterised as follows:

“What the true anthropomorphisms share is a belief that the imaginative projection of one’s mentalistic self into the life of a member of another species can lead to the production of hypotheses which may prompt the production of useful objective data.” (p. 132)

Of course he has a point – the age old question of how much we can know another being because we can only see through a particular human mentalistic lens and such projection is not an “objective” scientific undertaking.  But Wynne argues against de Waal and Bekoff, among others, who to me provide strong arguments (with evidence) for empathy and understanding (etc).  And how does one inhabit a purely objective position anyway, if we take into account the inevitable biases within and cultures of different science fields (and individual biases)?  Surely psychologists must imagine themselves into the mental lives of their human patients, many of whom have vastly different mental lives to their own.  Wynne goes on to use a canine example of what he considers to be the problem with anthropomorphism – a dog seems to show “remorse” after breaking an object in the house.  But Wynne argues that we cannot know that the dog’s reaction is actual remorse or Pavlovian conditioning (resulting from previous punishment for similar behaviour), (p. 133)   This is a pared down version of what he presents, so please do read his article for more detail.

Counters to Wynne’s position can be found, in Asquith as presented and beyond, as evidenced in some of my previous blog posts on this subject.  If you watch Laurel Braitman’s informative TED talk, you will hear her measured response to such positions – we are all individuals, and just as we may not be able to absolutely know (in some purely testable scientific manner) the mental state  or reasons for behaviours of our partners (or any other human being) we can and often do read behaviours based on our familiarity with these individuals, coming to accurate conclusions; this can be applied in the case of other animals we have observed closely over time. I would agree that we can never know even another human being’s perspective fully, due to the different genetic and environmental (familial, cultural, etc, etc) factors/experiences that have shaped each one of us; but we can imagine, empathise as much as is possible and gain insight through this “care-full” observation (it’s worth mentioning Einstein here, who made the assertion: “only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding, can lead to [discovery]…the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.” , in Keller, 1983, p. 201).  Braitman would also counter Wynne’s behaviourist description of the dog – she has gathered evidence of mental illness in other animals and the existence of rich emotional lives that influence behaviour (her own dog used as an example); if we acknowledge the existence of rich emotional lives in individuals of certain species, we must also acknowledge our moral responsibilities when it comes to our interactions with them.  So, while there may not be a position that is purely objective,  other beings, with their own agencies and motivations, can be observed more accurately or less accurately (I would argue that greater accuracy comes from having the counterpoint of a “feeling for the organism”, as described by Keller, 1983, etc). Wynne concludes his article by stating that anthropomorphism must be resisted and particularly in the growing field of animal cognition.  His view could well reject observed behaviours that are not ultimately being described anthropomorphically, but in the individuals’ terms (despite the terminology used) – and so he would not be gaining true insight into the lives of other animals (his account would be less accurate than an account that appeared to him to be anthropomorphic).

Of course, Asquith cautions us about use of terms such as “culture”, for example, which could be conceived of in modern human terms in relation to alloprimates – as de Waal has explained, the rudiments for such things as morality and culture can be found in other primates, and so baboon culture or chimpanzee culture (etc) is of course considerably different to manifestations of culture in humans; but one can still say that culture is apparent in animals other than humans.  I’ll conclude with a quote from Asquith’s article:

“However far along the line of permissible anthropomorphism that individual researchers may place their observations, there is no doubt that through discussions of anthropomorphism we have enhanced our views toward a far more nuanced, textured and empirical understanding of alloprimate (as well as human and other animal) lives.” (p. 243)

Asquith also explains that “we need to remain vigilant” when it comes to language used in scientific studies, which is true (feminist philosophy of science reveals the importance of this!), but this does not mean abandoning words as descriptors of other animals that used to only apply to humans, if they seem to be legitimately applied (and these should not be called cases of anthropomorphism).  The next blogs dealing with this subject will look at the “anthropomorphic” language of primatologists like Jane Goodall, Shirley Strum and Frans de Waal.

Keeping Monkeys as Pets – Animal Cruelty?

I noticed over the past few days that friends of mine were “liking” photos from a Facebook page created by Shontelle Porter for her new “pet”, a very young rhesus macaque monkey.  Porter does try to defend herself against what she sees as bad press, for instance an article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle which came to some negative conclusions.  Porter states on Facebook that “anything can turn, dogs, birds, cats, horses, etc”, in response to the following comments in the article:

“’They’re super cute, Bubbles is adorable,’ said Beth Schaefer, curator of carnivores and primates at Houston Zoo, ‘But once they hit sexual maturity they start to perceive that they need to increase their social status … scratches and bites from monkeys can be very serious.’”

Many of Porter’s fans, and fans of the little monkey called Bubbles, defend the keeping of monkeys as pets, believing that Porter is giving Bubbles a wonderful life (her surrogate child).  And those who are in opposition seem to be lumped together as “haters” (although there is no doubt that some peoples’ reactions to Porter must be quite harsh and needlessly cruel).  Porter does seem to show motherly love towards Bubbles.  How could you not – the unbelievable cuteness and vulnerability that the youngster exudes (and its resemblance to a human baby) will evoke a “parental” reaction in many (it is, after all, a natural reaction).  At the same time, however, Bubbles seems to be an indulgence that provides Porter with much needed attention (are the little monkey’s best interests being considered? If so, would Porter have bought Bubbles from a breeder in the first place, to be separated from her real monkey mother at such a young age?).

Many questions arise here.  Is having a monkey as a pet comparable to having a dog, cat or bird? If people are against monkeys as pets, should they (for consistency) be against humans having any pets, or is there a fundamental difference between a dog companion and  a monkey companion?  Is it ultimately cruel to keep another primate as a pet (especially since detrimental anthropomorphising will probably occur)?  I introduce this last question to introduce a new section of the website, which will replace Ethics and Welfare (since the whole site is really dedicated to ethics and welfare) – Exploitation. This section will focus on exploitation issues relevant to primates and so will cover the following topics:

  • Experimentation on alloprimates
  • Primates in zoos
  • Primates as pets
  • Primates in their “natural” habitats (the bush meat trade, etc)

But I do want to widen the scope to consider exploitation more broadly, to include domestic animals such as dogs and cats – in this case, I would want to delve into the reasons why abuse of domestic animals (with focus mainly on companion animals) is as prevalent as it is, and what measures can be taken to prevent animal cruelty (how to change attitudes and behaviours), while also asking what cruelty means (considering in part Arluke’s Just a Dog) – this question brings us back to Bubbles, as we try to define what cruelty is in relation to alloprimates (having a monkey as a pet, and so on).  Keep an eye on the website for the upcoming changes and new content!

PAM Theory: hard-wired empathy and the teachings of Mencius

I’ve begun to highlight, through reference to de Waal, different schools of thought when it comes to the development and existence of human morality.  Hobbes believed that humans were fundamentally asocial or even antisocial (deeply individualistic and selfish).  Some sociobiologists (along the lines of Dawkins) maintain a similar position and thus overemphasise or “overgeneralise from the established role of selfishness in the natural selection process.” (p. xii)  But human beings are the exception, from this perspective, in that they can defy their natural individualistic tendencies to develop moral goodness, which must involve thinking of others (and acting with others in mind).  Countering this position, de Waal stresses the fact that humans are social animals and as social animals, they possess an evolved sociality.  He believes that empathy must be present in order for morality to develop:

“People can reason and deliberate all they want, but as neuroscientists have found, if there are no emotions attached to the various options in front of them, they will never reach a decision or conviction.  Morality involves strong convictions.  These convictions do not come out of cool rationality but require caring about others and strong gut feelings about right and wrong. “(p. 18)

The theory of the perception action mechanism, or PAM (Preston and de Waal), seems to explain a biological basis for these strong feelings of empathy.  The theory posits the following:  if a subject and object are very similar, it is easier for the subject’s perception to activate motor and autonomic responses that match the object’s.  He goes on to explain:

“this activation allows the subject to get ‘under the skin’ of the object, sharing its feelings and needs, which embodiment in turn fosters sympathy, compassion and helping… This is not to say that higher cognitive levels of empathy are irrelevant, but they are built on top of this firm, hardwired basis without which we would be at a loss about what moves others.”  (p. 37, 39-40)

It is interesting that de Waal refers to Mencius after he introduces PAM theory; he thinks that Mencius got it right in pointing to the human impulse towards empathy.  I studied Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism at the start of my PhD, as I was thinking of researching China for my case study regions (but in the end, I decided on regions in Brazil and Mexico).  I did find significant resonance between Mencius’ philosophy and the philosophy I was trying to develop to guide certain conservation efforts.  Mencius’ Intuitive School had at its foundation the belief that human beings were fundamentally good at heart, sharing similar “intuitions” that would lead to compassionate acts; this was definitely not a Hobbesian view.  So, compassion or “human-heartedness” (jen) made human beings what they were (was a common characteristic among them), although this compassion could be warped (diminished, repressed) in individuals due to environmental factors (nurture and life experiences).  The “good life” for Mencius, then, had to involve cultivating this compassion, in order to be fully, or “successfully”, human (rather than opposing our nature).

There is, as already presented in several of my other blog posts, evidence that other apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos show empathy, apparent through observed (time and again) helping behaviour and consolation, along with reciprocal altruism and a sense of fairness.  These characteristics have been catalogued in other species such as capuchins, elephants and some cetaceans; new observations of marmosets may reveal consolation at the very least.  Here, de Waal confronts the challenge put forth by psychologists such as Guldberg:  “Psychologists look at the world through different eyes than biologists, putting human advanced traits on a pedestal and ignoring simpler antecedents.” (p. 23)   He goes on to note that psychologists may embrace the notion of saltatory change.  This is certainly true of Guldberg, who promotes human exceptionalism and proposes mutation as the means by which human beings came to possess moral goodness.  But de Waal makes a strong case for the evolution of morality in Primates and Philosophers; the foundations of morality can be seen in the empathic interactions of other social animals, particularly apparent (in more complex form) in the great apes most closely related to humans.

Primates and Philosophers

De Waal clearly sets out his position regarding morality in the volume, Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved (2009).   The position he presents is not one of moral relativism, as he believes that human beings have evolved with a sense of moral goodness (based on empathy, a sense of fairness, reciprocity).  Consideration of others, the hallmark of moral goodness, makes sense in evolutionary terms for species that live in social groups.  In the book’s introduction, de Waal gives the example of solitary confinement and how abhorrent it is to any human being, and this reaction reveals our deeply social nature; I would add to this example, however, that solitary confinement (such incarceration) involves more than a lack of human contact, but also the denial of freedom of movement and interaction with the wider world in its entirety (all stimulation).  Minor point, and I do completely support de Waal’s premise.

De Waal begins to build a case against sociobiologists like Dawkins who follow on from Descartes and Huxley with a dualistic view of human nature and human morality (again, this is what de Waal calls veneer theory).  Dawkins has made the following assertion:  “in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don’t want to live in a Darwinian world”.  (p. 9)   So all other animals are slaves to their genetics and act only in competitive and individualistic ways (selfishness ultimately underlies all action and “nature” is red in tooth and claw), but human beings can somehow cast off  (or reign in) their Hobbesian nature by choice and act with moral goodness.  De Waal challenges this view as non-evolutionary, and a “misreading” of Darwin.  I would definitely agree, and in my thesis I forefronted examples in The Origin of Species in which Darwin describes a different character and relationality apparent in other animals while also plotting continuity with humans (my aim was to off-set the mainstream over-emphasis on competitive individualism, derived from Darwin’s work); de Waal notes that Russian biologists argued against Huxley’s views, based on their experiences of  seeing animals struggling more against their environments than against each other.  You could go so far as to say that use of the word “competition” is actually an  example of anthropomorphising (in a bad way), as other animals  surely do not act with knowledge that they are “competing” (and certainly genes are not actually “selfish” since they don’t have intentionality!).

Darwin did describe competition (competitive individualism/relationality) through use of the metaphor, “the struggle for life”, but he qualified “struggle” in order to set up the term’s metaphorical nature, so that struggle for existence “includ[ed] dependence of one being on another, and… (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny.” (1859 [1968,1985], p. 116)  Darwin provided numerous examples of dependence and interrelation throughout The Origin of Species.   He explained that it would be more accurate to say that “a plant on the edge of the desert” depends on moisture rather than “struggles for life against drought.” (Ibid) He described the dependence of the “missletoe…on the apple tree and few other trees” (which can “only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees”). (Ibid)  Darwin displayed ecological sensibilities time and again as he detailed the “checks and relations between organic beings, which have to struggle together in the same country.” (Ibid, p. 123)  Frequently in his writings, Darwin abandoned a terminology of struggle in the combative sense, which could have been employed, for a more subtle vocabulary based on dependence.  In fact, the above examples are gleaned from the Origin chapter entitled “Struggle for Existence”; such examples should dampen tendencies to take the metaphor too literally (other examples include plants dependent on moths or bees for pollination, parasites dependent on prey (Ibid, pp. 125, 126)).  Within the metaphor, we do see a language of dependency and interdependency; so we can ask, what do particular organisms depend upon, rather than, what do they struggle against.   Kropotkin’s ideas in Mutual Aid (1902) seem to align with this perspectiveMany of these are inter-species examples but Darwin also, and most importantly in the context of morality discussions, provided evidence of dependence, cooperation and emotional connection amongst social animals (within their social group), as mentioned in more detail in a previous blog post.  De Waal states, insightfully (a favourite quote!):

“It is fine to describe animals (and humans) as the product of evolutionary forces that promote self interests so long as one realizes that this by no means precludes the evolution of altruistic and sympathetic tendencies…Darwin firmly believed his theory capable of accommodating the origins of morality and did not see any conflict between the harshness of the evolutionary process and the gentleness of some of its products. “ (p. 14)

I would love to continue, but I’ll save further discussion of de Waal’s book for the next blog post!


Arguments for morality as uniquely human…

I should not only review the perspectives of proponents of a wider, or deeper, view of morality.  We must also consider the arguments set out by critics of such assertions, so that we can have a balanced understanding and know the detracting arguments in order to counter them if we think they are wrong.

Psychologists and historians alike have presented arguments against a position that sees the existence of a “rudimentary” morality in nonhuman primates (and perhaps in other species).  For example, psychologist Helene Guldberg promotes the notion that only humans “have” morality.  (Psychology Today, 2011)  While she is not directly addressing de Waal, she is critiquing similar views expressed by Dale Peterson in his book, The Moral Lives of Animals. Peterson’s background as a writer may make readers more sceptical of the  conclusions he reaches in his book (mainly through anecdote) than they would be if he had been a  scientist (a primatologist or ethologist), but he has collaborated with Jane Goodall on other works and this gives him credibility.  Guldberg should have referenced de Waal in the same breadth (to be fair), as de Waal advances an argument for a wider morality based on years of observation of primates and experimental evidence.  Guldberg’s position consists of the following assertions:

  • The argument for morality in other animals simplifies to the point of meaninglessness ideas of empathy and reciprocity (to argue for similarities, when in fact the differences in the details prove that morality is only found in humans)
  • Animals act on instinct – emotional contagion is an example of this, and not anything more (there is no theory of mind here)
  • Human beings engage in collective cognition (collective knowledge of humanity), so that we have escaped evolutionary constraints, or the constraints of our biology.  Thus the difference between humans and other animals is one of kind and not one of degree – she states the following:  “there must have been some gene mutation or set of mutations tens of thousands of years ago that endowed us with the unique ability to participate in a collective cognition.”

First we should locate Guldberg’s article on morality within the body of her work, to understand her biases.  She is an unapologetic proponent of animal experimentation and her views are deeply anthropocentric (not that any of us can escape a human-centred view, but hers is definitely based on human exceptionalism and hierarchy, with humans on top).  Physiological similarities are certainly accepted by scientists experimenting on animals, animals that are quite far from humans in evolutionary terms.  Mitchell engages with the idea of anthropomorphism and makes this statement, which has relevance here:  “Humans and mice are pretty different – and yet we are comfortable using the results of drug tests on mice to infer the consequences of those drugs on our biochemistry.” (p. 7, Mitchell, 2001) So why not acknowledge mental and emotional continuity, especially with other apes?  In her online article, “Animals are useless unless humans make use of them”, Guldberg makes specious assertions about culture being solely human, when ethologists and anthrozoologists have clearly discovered culture in other animals (although Guldberg would probably argue that what is seen is too simple to class as culture – but the key is in transmission of behaviours through learning within social groups over generations, which is definitely occurring, for example  resulting in traditions of tool use); Here we should remind ourselves of what de Waal and Ferrari have said about products versus the underlying processes:

“Outcomes are important from an evolutionary perspective in that they determine an organism’s success at dealing with its environment, but from a cognitive perspective they are mere surface phenomena. Unique outcomes do not always reflect unique processes. Even if humans produce cathedrals and symphonies, the underlying processes include social learning, tool use, musical appreciation, a sense of rhythm, and large-scale synchronization and cooperation, all of which we share with other animals.” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 202)

Guldberg has not engaged (in either article) with the arguments put forth by primatologists, where she could have countered claims about evidenced similarities with solid evidence from her side (if she has it –  her argument appears to rest on opinion more than anything). (see http://www.heleneguldberg.co.uk/index.php/site/archives/C15/)  She must uphold the notion that animals are less valuable than humans (and less like humans than claimed by Peterson, etc) to justify continued experimentation on animals.  At the same time, I should add that her book, Just Another Ape (2010), is meant to be a comprehensive rebuttal to primatologists like de Waal.

Now we can return to Guldberg’s points above and begin to pick them apart, but remembering that I come at the issue(s) from an evolutionary ecology perspective (and one that promotes “a feeling for the organism”). The first point, that Peterson’s argument for nonhuman morality simplifies to a distorting degree, can be countered – de Waal and others are attempting to expose the biological roots  or foundations of morality, the basis upon which it has developed in complex fashion in human beings and their societies (again see the above de Waal and Ferrari quote).  De Waal at no point brushes aside human uniqueness, any more than he brushes aside chimpanzee uniqueness (or even the uniqueness of individuals within each species).  He merely points to fundamental similarities that he has identified after decades of study and observation of primates (which Guldberg has not had as part of her experience).  If one has had any close exposure to animals (let’s focus on certain birds and mammals), one can see that they are not mere automatons, acting on instinct alone (seems almost absurd to state this).  They make choices, innovate, show fear or other emotions based on experience – consider the intelligence of corvids to solve problems, as well as chimpanzees and other (nonhuman) apes and monkeys (capuchins, for instance) – examples in scientific literature abound (see the Journal of Animal Cognition). Consider also the domestic dog and cat – if you have lived with either, you have surely seen behaviour that is not just automatic, and you have experienced a connection with these animals that involves human and animal emotions (a two-way exchange).   If there are so many anecdotes, even outside of more controlled experimental research, how can we deny the agency of these nonhuman beings?  In terms of humans engaging in collective cognition, or the development of cultures, we cannot rule out the existence of culture in other animal communities, as already noted – it has been evidenced (see Goodall, de Waal, etc, on tool use by chimps, some monkeys and corvids, as well as cultural transmission in elephants).  Again, we must return to the idea that differences are in degree not kind, and this is not to deny that humans have an ability to create elaborate cultures like no other animal.  This also leads into counter to the final point made by Guldberg, who speaks from outwith an evolutionary perspective (and how can one speak with legitimacy from such a place?).   Are human beings the result of mutations that separate us in kind from other animals?  It’s unlikely, considering current evidence regarding the evolutionary process.    I would highlight de Waal and Ferrari again:

“Some have gone so far as to label the fascination with uniquely human capacities as non-evolutionary, together with a warning against ‘hopeful monsters’, that is, the belief that a brief evolutionary time interval could have produced a well integrated set of novel capacities [21].” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 202)

And have we escaped the constraints of our biology?  De Waal and others presenting a similar view to Peterson on morality and shared characteristics between humans and other apes do not preach the biological determinism that Guldberg seems to fear and rail against.  They do recognise a biological inheritance, which provided individuals with a range of behavioural possibilities and certain behaviours have suited us and other social animals better when living in groups – individuals with the ability to express empathy and act reciprocally avoid (or provoke less) conflict in group situations.  We are to some degree constrained by our biology, in the sense that we have a certain physical form and physiology as human beings, and other animals have their own unique forms, etc.  Surely we are still a part of the evolutionary process and have significant impact on this process when it comes to other animals.

A potentially more legitimate argument countering morality claims relating to nonhumans  is voiced by Peter Boomgaard, from within the field of environmental history, presented in the Current Anthropology book review article, “Perspectives on de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved”. (2008)  Boomgaard considers evidence that a historian would require in order to substantiate de Waal’s claim(s).  He makes the following points:

  • Humans branched off from a common ancestor (shared by chimps and bonobos) 5.5 million years ago – it would be impossible to gather evidence regarding the behaviour(s) of the common ancestor.
  • During that 5.5 million years, humans and our nearest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, surely have evolved

The next few blog posts will consider the argument for the existence of a rudimentary morality in other primates (etc) more closely, while also returning to Boomgaard’s critique and the arguments of other critics of morality claims like de Waal’s.


Is Morality Uniquely Human? De Waal’s Primate Studies

In the late 1970’s, Stephen Jay Gould challenged Richard Dawkins’ accounts of human and animal behaviour by presenting what could be considered a more nuanced perspective, which reflected evolutionary continuity and the range of potential behaviours that can be expressed by humans, and equally by other animals.  Gould explained that, “violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological because they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors.  But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological—and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.”  (Gould 1977, p. 257)  He refuted the idea that our “nature” was merely violent and competitive so that we had by necessity developed societal rules to keep such natural urges in check (a Hobbesian view of human and other natures).  Frans de Waal has also focussed on this complexity, particularly in the case of nonhuman primates, conducting research that seems to substantiate Gould’s earlier claims.  De Waal highlights the fact that morality has been seen, historically, as the antithesis of human nature (1996, p. 2); at the same time, it has been considered solely a human product/endeavour (“veneer theory”).  If one takes an evolutionary perspective, however, one cannot deny continuity, and de Waal notes that “we are facing the profound paradox that genetic self-advancement at the expense of others- which is the basic thrust of evolution – has given rise to remarkable capacities for caring and sympathy” (Ibid, p. 3)

It has been perfectly reasonable for scientists to portray nonhuman animals as competitive and violent (seemingly in step with evolutionary theory), but not as reasonable – anthropomorphising – to consider those same animals capable of expressing emotions that could be considered the building blocks of morality (or that they exhibit the beginnings of morality), feelings of empathy for fellow beings (usually within their social group), expressed through reciprocity, altruistic acts, caring acts, self-sacrifice, etc (particularly evident in social animals, and this will be explored in a future blog post).  De Waal relates Barbara Smuts struggle to accurately describe the relationships she observed in baboon troops; Smuts was discouraged from describing intimate relationships between male and female baboons as “friendships”, but she could describe the competitive relationships across ranks as “rivalries”. (Ibid, p. 19)   And in his own research on chimpanzee behaviour, de Waal has felt constrained to a particular vocabulary, which excludes words like “reconciliation”, etc.  De Waal makes the following point: “Semantic distinctions between (other) animal and human behaviour often obscure fundamental similarities; a discussion of morality will be pointless if we allow our language to be distorted by a denial of benign motives and emotions in animals”. (Ibid) Use of language is everything here, capturing characteristics and relationships in a way that is more true than not or distorting them as a result of a bias towards the human (to preserve the perception that humans are the only animal that can be good, moral).