When I was a teenager, my family had a dog named Buddy, a German shepherd-beagle mix who was taught to stay off the living room couch. Except that more than once, my mother — usually the first one awake on any dark, sleepy morning — walking down the hall toward the living room, only thinking of turning on the heat, the lights, and the coffee, would see the dog slip off the couch to the floor, catching him at the tail end of his deception. He occasionally overslept in that soft couch, failing to move in time in response to her shuffling, slippered footsteps. And he’d get caught.
As a pet owner, I know that many animals — at least the larger mammals — experience emotion and live by some form of a moral code. I take that for granted. Buddy not only understood right from wrong, but that what also mattered was simply if he could get away with it. He engaged in deceptive practices, and we had many a laugh about his human-like assumptions. If I don’t get caught, it’s okay, right? Sometimes it was as if Buddy had two emotions: joy and guilt. But of course there were more: fear, excitement, curiosity, to name a few.
I approached Dale Peterson’s new book thusly: as a member of the choir, an animal fan, an environmentalist, someone who’s comfortable around strange dogs, who can put an animal at ease. Peterson, a dog owner himself — his dogs Smoke and Spike make frequent appearances — tells us this book originated from a dinner-party argument, and one can imagine it starting: “Clearly animals don’t have emotions or morality — they act on instinct. Neural reflexes only, dear chap.” The sort of statement that makes pet owners roll their eyes. Yet, the suggestion of the book’s origins belies the structure, and the way Peterson makes his case. I expected a lucid rebuttal with a resounding conclusion: hypothesis presented, points made, confirmed, concluded. Dinner party over. It’s not to be: The Moral Lives of Animals is more than that.
Peterson’s book is a thoughtful, semi-academic, and well-researched tome that examines the meaning of morality from many angles — linguistically, socially, behaviorally, emotionally — and across a number of animal species, including Homo sapiens. Domestic dogs, chimpanzees, and bonobos make an appearance. As do whales, bats, and kangaroos. Gerbils, penguins, and wolves. To clarify, what Peterson’s done is present specific, observed cases of animal behavior, illustrate the ways the identical behavior exists in humans, and use these examples to try to map out the complex geography of what we mean by morality. While attempting to hammer out the ways in which humans often attribute intelligence and value systems to themselves while minimizing the same for an animal species.
The backdrop for the overall arc of the book is Melville’s Moby Dick, the great novel that offers an animal’s tale (based in reality — the Essex sinking) while presenting a variety of human attitudes toward animals. With Melville’s backing, Peterson asks: Are we Ahab? Or are we Starbuck? Are we hunting the malevolent White Whale? Or are we rationally human-centered, recognizing the whale is just one beast in the sea, and that the lives of the crew take precedence.
Peterson’s answer is of a Buddhist nature, and we realize this more when he takes on human behavior and morality. Humans are stripping the world of its mineral and animal natural resources. They are polluting the elements that both humans and animals need to survive. They are warring and killing. Deforesting. Pursuing situations in the world — deep water drilling, nuclear energy — that can cause irreversible damage on a large scale when accidents occur. Peterson’s nutshell: in fact, animal populations may act in a way more balanced and more conducive to overall survival of a group than humans do.
Peace: the answer and the challenge. Respecting others. Forgoing speciesism, the narcissism of the human. Peterson closes with the image of a large whale lifting a dinghy and its two occupants clear out of the water on its large tail. Putting them down without hurting them. We’re close to the Buddhist mantra: do no harm. Hurt no living thing. Can humans learn to coexist with animals in the world before it’s too late? Can we learn to respect animal populations as not simply there for the sport? For whim? For abuse? For management? Peterson shows us the human race fails at this when we objectify animals. When we foreground pure economics. And his examples show us that animals are far from objects; in fact, they’re remarkably similar to humans, and perhaps more moral, more rational in their ability to allow their environment and species to persist, where human populations can seem so determined to annihilate themselves. We share the world with these creatures. One hopes that Peterson’s book will be read by more than people like me: the choir. The ones who are already on board. There’s a lot to learn here.
I’m a reader who loves to peruse footnotes, citations, references, bibliographies. That’s my quibble with the book’s set up. There’s a great notes section, and a thorough bibliography, attesting to Peterson’s hard work. But the notes section doesn’t have full references, only page numbers and author’s last names. The reader is forced to go first to the notes section, then carry the last name to the bibliography to learn a book’s title. Too much unnecessary work for the reader.
But that’s a formatting issue and in no way undermines the hard work of the author and the arguments. Peterson is examining morality in animals, but his point — my paraphrase — is striking and ironic: animals are not only moral, but perhaps more so than humans. The title of this book could be The Immoral Lives of Humans. We are Starbuck, not Ahab, Peterson shows us. That’s the danger: we’ll act rationally, turning from the white whale, resuming the voyage to kill 100 more whales in order to light our lamps. We’ll do always what’s best for us, now, in this moment. And in the long run, that may be the craziest, most amoral thing of all. Peterson purports to write a book about morality in animals, but in reality he holds up a mirror for humans. The reflection is uncomfortable.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook Halflives (New Michigan Press.)