Monday, February 16, 2009

Animal Morality

Andrew Sullivan notes that an article in yesterday's Telegraph reports on research indicating that "monkeys and apes can make judgements about fairness, offer sympathy and help and remember obligations," in other words, that "the findings may demonstrate morality developed through evolution, a view that is likely to antagonise the devoutly religious, who see it as God-given."
Professor Frans de Waal, who led the study at Emory University in Georgia, US, said: "I am not arguing that non-human primates are moral beings but there is enough evidence for the following of social rules to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals."
The Telegraph article opens by asserting that "morality has always been viewed as a human trait that sets us apart from the animals." Humans keep doing this, and science keeps dashing their hopes for being "set apart." It used to be tool use. And war. And culture. Turns out that chimpanzees have many traits we used to consider uniquely human.

News flash: Humans are animals. Humans are on an animal continuum. We are them; they are us.

In a narrowly religious way, some might consider this blasphemous. We are made in God's image. Just us. Not them. We are moral beings. They are not. Right? So when a gorilla rescues and protects a little human, what is that? Amoral? Anyone who has relationships with animals knows better.

Does this mean we are less unique than we thought? Perhaps. Less special? Not at all. Rather than it being a demotion, couldn't we view it as a promotion of the rest of the animal world? The human tendency toward species-centrism and hubris has created all kinds of havoc in this world. It's time for us to develop a new worldview.

Enough of the idea of human beings "set apart" from the rest of creation. It's time for us to embrace our identity as fellow creatures and learn to respect and care for the creation and our fellow creatures. It's time to dispense with the cursed hierarchy and enjoy a flatter and more compassionate worldview.

The animals with whom we share this planet are, in effect, our sisters and brothers. They are worthy of respect, and they have much to teach us, if only we will learn to listen.

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