Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce's "Wild Justice"

Marc Bekoff has published numerous books, including The Emotional Lives of Animals, and has provided expert commentary for many media outlets, including the New York Times, CNN, and the BBC. Jessica Pierce has taught and written about philosophy for many years. She is the author of a number of books, including Morality Play: Case Studies in Ethics. Their new book is Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals.

Pierce applied the “Page 99 Test” to Wild Justice and reported the following:
When you think of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom—old time nature TV—you think of a cameraman hiding in the bushes simply catching a slice of real life in the wild: the animals we see are engaged in a constant and usually bloody struggle over food, mates, and territory. But think of a different kind of nature TV—more contemporary, more like a reality show: Meerkat Manor. This is essentially a soap opera—it is all about relationships. Who loves whom, and which relationships have gone sour; who has been loyal and who has betrayed trust; who are the social leaders and who is being ostracized for breaking the rules of the community. These animals are busy—and they are not busy eating each other. They are busy negotiating a very complex and nuanced social world. It is this social world of animals that sets the stage for Wild Justice.

Contrary to old stereotypes, the social lives of animals are strongly shaped by affiliative and cooperative behaviors. Animals spend a good deal of their time engaged in what biologists call “prosocial” behavior. Mammals living in tight social groups appear to live according to a set of social rules and expectations that foster a relatively harmonious and peaceful coexistence. They are naturally cooperative, they offer aid to their fellows, they build relationships of trust. They appear to feel for members of their community, often showing signs of empathy and fellow feeling. They care for the sick and infirm, and they grieve over lost family members. They tolerate and even get pleasure from being close—both physically and emotionally—to others. They seem even to have a sense of fairness. It is these social behaviors that are the focus of Wild Justice. We argue that this constellation of behaviors constitutes a kind of animal morality.

In Wild Justice, we begin with a definition of morality that is broad and encompassing: morality is a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate complex interactions within social groups. Morality is a kind of social glue, and is a broadly adaptive strategy for social living that has evolved in many animal societies other than our own. Morality is a term that encompasses human and nonhuman behavior. We then describe what we see as three central clusters of moral behaviors (a cluster is a group of related behaviors): the cooperation/altruism cluster, the empathy cluster, and the fairness cluster. Within each cluster is a range of closely related behaviors: for example, the cooperation cluster includes altruism, reciprocity, trust, punishment and revenge.

Page 99 finds us in the chapter about empathy, which I personally find the richest of the three clusters. After talking about what empathy is (the ability to perceive and feel the emotion of another), why empathy is adaptive for animals, and how empathy comes in many different shapes and sizes (from the relatively simple and behaviorally rigid forms of emotional contagion, to complex forms of cognitive empathy), we then begin reviewing the data on empathy in animals. We start with primates, because this is where we find the most robust body of research. At the top of page 99, we’re talking about a well-known primate study published in 1964 by Stanley Wechkin, Jules Masserman, and William Terris. The researchers reported on a laboratory study in which a hungry rhesus monkey refused to pull a chain to receive food, if it could see that pulling the chain also delivered an electric shock to another monkey. One monkey refused to pull the chain for twelve full days—that’s twelve days without food.

Page 99 continues:

Around the same time, University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow was setting forth on his famous wire-monkey experiments. Although Harlow was interested in humans, his controversial research on monkey love also revealed a great deal about the process of social attachment in primates, the very process that is thought to shape the neural connections that underlie empathic behavior. Working with infant rhesus monkeys who had been taken from their mothers, Harlow showed that the desire for affection was stronger than the desire for food. Given a choice between a cold wire monkey with food and a soft cloth monkey without food, the infants clung to the soft, foodless monkey. From other studies, Harlow concluded that baby monkeys raised without social contact with peers and without real mothers grow up to be socially incompetent. The development of social and moral intelligence is stunted when the appropriate developmental cues are not triggered. Harlow’s work led to later studies on attachment and on the important connection between the early nurturing of infants and children and the development of empathy.

In another study conducted in 1977 by Hal Markowitz, diana monkeys were trained to insert a token into a slot to obtain food. A male was observed helping the oldest female, who had failed to learn the task. On three occasions he picked up the tokens she had dropped, put them into the machine, and allowed her to have the food. His behavior seemed to have no benefits for him; there did not seem to be a hidden agenda.

Although many of these early studies involved monkeys, there is now a large body of research that spans the range of primate species. And having the opportunity to compare empathic capacities in monkeys and apes reveals important differences, and confirms the hypothesis that empathy is a broad range of behavioral tendencies and that species will vary, perhaps considerably, in how developed these capacities are. Frans de Waal asserts that empathy is more cognitively complex and more highly developed in great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans) than in monkeys.

I think page 99 is a good representation of the book as a whole. The page is rich with examples of pro-social behavior in animals and it suggests that empathy (and morality more broadly) is a richly nuanced and complex repertoire of behaviors, not a unitary capacity, and that we need to stay attuned to species and individual variation. Page 99 also points (as do many other pages) toward some the rich philosophical questions embedded in the book. In particular, the paragraph on Harry Harlow’s experiments brings home to me an aspect of the book that I found ethically challenging. Harlow’s work is both fascinating (for what it tells us about the empathic capacities of monkeys) and terrifying (for what we’re willing to do to animals in the pursuit of scientific knowledge).
Read an excerpt from Wild Justice, and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue