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The Moral Lives of Animals

The Moral Lives of Animals

3.0 1
by Dale Peterson

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Wild elephants walking along a trail stop and spontaneously try to protect and assist a weak and dying fellow elephant. Laboratory rats, finding other rats caged nearby in distressing circumstances, proceed to rescue them. A chimpanzee in a zoo loses his own life trying to save an unrelated infant who has fallen into a watery moat.

The examples above and many


Wild elephants walking along a trail stop and spontaneously try to protect and assist a weak and dying fellow elephant. Laboratory rats, finding other rats caged nearby in distressing circumstances, proceed to rescue them. A chimpanzee in a zoo loses his own life trying to save an unrelated infant who has fallen into a watery moat.

The examples above and many others, argues Dale Peterson, show that our fellow creatures have powerful impulses toward cooperation, generosity, and fairness. Yet it is commonly held that we Homo sapiens are the only animals with a moral sense. This rigorous and stimulating book challenges that notion and shows the profound connections-the moral continuum-that link humans to many other species. Understanding the moral lives of animals offers new insight into our own.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Dale Peterson adds originality and astonishing clarity to a discussion that has engaged science and philosophy in sometimes heated debate. This book is a delight to read. The Moral Lives of Animals will change the way many think of animals, and it will vindicate what others have always known intuitively. It deserves to be an instant bestseller.” —Jane Goodall

“Instead of humanity having developed morality from scratch, by means of its superior intellect, things may well have started simpler. In our fellow primates, we already recognize many of the tendencies that gave rise to the moral emotions. Dale Peterson does an excellent and engaging job explaining how the one may have led to the other. In doing so, he places us closer to other animals than many a moral philosopher would ever admit.” —Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy

The Moral Lives of Animals is without question the most fascinating book I've read in many, many years--a marvelously written page-turner about an important subject which until now has received little if any attention. Well, all that has changed. I can think of no other work that so clearly depicts our place in the animal kingdom, showing as it does how the forces of society work on other species much as they do on ours. The large number of stories that make this point are riveting. Everything in the book is riveting. You will read it with your hair on end and your eyes wide, just like some of the animal subjects herein when faced with an intense situation. There's a special place in the hearts of many of us for books that express the ‘one-ness' of life on earth, and this book tops them all.” —Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs

The Moral Lives of Animals is a breathtaking tour-de-force of enormous scope and deep importance. Filled with vivid and compelling stories, backed by numerous scientific studies, these pages should change the way we look at the workings of the hearts and minds of other species--as well as our own. Every literate human on earth should read it.” —Sy Montgomery, author of The Good, Good Pig and Birdology

The Moral Lives of Animals is a most-welcomed discussion of a complex and controversial question--are nonhuman animals moral beings whose lives are regulated by social codes of conduct and who know right from wrong? Renowned author Dale Peterson takes us on a wide-ranging discussion of a wide variety of animals who clearly show that they know what's expected of them in various social situations and what they're supposed to do so that they're accepted into their society and their social groups can run smoothly. Packed with good stories and scientific data, and grounded in sound evolutionary theory, this book provides a convincing argument that animals have rich moral lives that remind of us of our own. It will change the way in which ‘mere animals' are viewed and open our eyes to who these beings truly are.” —Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado professor emeritus, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals; Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals; and The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding our Compassion Footprint

“This is a book that could actually change readers' assumptions, opinions and beliefs about the differences between Homo sapiens and other animals…Peterson traces an ambitious and exciting arc between gender relations, hierarchal authoritarian structures, ownership and displays of affiliation, and proposes that we have veered from Darwin's findings that we are not unique, and that our fellow creatures have much higher order of feelings then we might be comfortable with. Sharing fascinating anecdotes about elephants, whales and primates, Peterson highlights the unity rather than diversity of social structures around sharing food, intimacy, competition for resources, grooming, mourning and dominance. A thorough and sophisticated book, yet accessible and enjoyable even for those with little previous exposure to the topic.” —Kirkus

“As he breaks down moral issues of behavior into larger issues such as authority, possession, cooperation, flexibility and peace, Peterson gives examples from scientific studies of animal behavior that demonstrate the moral "rule" in question. Species range from fireflies to bonobos, but all illustrate moral behavior and all show us that we are not alone in possessing a moral code.” —Booklist

“For people who think that humans are the only species to live with any kind of morality, Peterson's book might be a game-changer. The Moral Lives of Animals is a thoroughly interesting read.” —Treehugger

“Cooperative hyenas, scorekeeping impalas, heroic rats--humans are not the only creatures with a code of ethics. Dale Peterson of Tufts University argues that animals across many species exhibit behaviors that reveal evolutionary continuity between us and them. The rules and values Homo sapiens shares with other species provide a basis for Peterson to speculate about the future of our relationship with our fellow fauna.” —Scientific American "Recommended Books" column

“This isn't another book about the splendor of the animal kingdom and how much we have to learn from the blessed beasts. Dredging through numerous studies and directly observing animal behavior, Peterson takes a more epistemological approach … Peterson's examples are often short stories in themselves, and it's not as though all this talk of morality means the animal kingdom is full of goodly souls. He uses fireflies to demonstrate how animals employ deceit, and the opening image of an elephant silently stalking her human prey makes Moby Dick seem as if he's having a bad day. Peterson's book also serves as a fine text on moral theory, why we ascribe moral value to a variety of actions. But because it's about elephants, foxes and especially bonobos, it's a lot more fun than that sounds.” —Time Out Chicago

“This book challenges readers to absorb new information in an area unfamiliar to most. It is definitely worth the effort and is highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Well written, well researched, and forward looking … The Moral Lives of Animals is eye opening, original, wide-ranging, and ambitious book … Peterson's book gives us a wealth of new and powerfully original ideas for future research and debate.” —Orion

“[Peterson's] skills as a chronicler of animal goings on are highly developed.” —American Scholar

“Mr. Peterson does develop a provocative case for the existence of a broadly shared evolutionary imperative that under pins human moral instincts … It is hard to argue with his proposition that the powerful emotional saliency moral issues have for us, and their connection to serious matters of social organization and conflict--sex, territory, possessions, reciprocity, kinship--point to a hard-wired evolutionary adaptation of group-dwelling animals.” —Wall Street Journal

“[Peterson's] arguments are lucid and his writing is compellingly based upon decades of research and observation. Told in a loose anecdotal style, with plenty of thought-provoking details, The Moral Lives of Animals is likely to have you reconsidering your relationship with Fido or Mouser … propelling the book is Peterson's gift for graceful, illustrative expression…This is a very serious book, one in which serious ideas are explored thoughtfully but also in a style accessible to the interested non-specialist. As for why anyone should be interested--well, many of us share our lives with animals every day. Even those of who do not, nonetheless share the planet with them.” —Popmatters.com

“A thought-provoking read that glimpses into the minds and behaviors of mammals.” —Scientific American Mind

Library Journal
This book gathers the knowledge Peterson (Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man) has gained from more than 30 years' experience in psychology and animal behavior. Through well-organized chapters and many examples, he clearly develops his thoughts on how morality evolved in mammals, including humans. He initially concentrates on where morality comes from, covering basic concepts, linguistic bias, definitions of morality, and a theory of morality's structure. Rules of morality follow with topics such as authority, violence, sex, possession, and communication. Coverage of cooperation and kindness, forming attachments, and altruism and selflessness round out the book, which is capped by a summary of Peterson's speculations on where morality is going. He concludes with controversial thoughts on how evolving human morality could lead to greater tolerance and empathy—and peace—among humans and nonhumans alike. VERDICT Although written for a general audience, this book challenges readers to absorb new information in an area unfamiliar to most. It is definitely worth the effort and is highly recommended for high school-age readers and up. Those engaged in human social relationships and concerns will also be interested.—Edell M. Schaefer, Brookfield P.L., WI

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Dale Peterson's biography Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and Boston Globe Best Book of 2006. His other publications include Visions of Caliban (with Jane Goodall) and Demonic Males (with Richard Wrangham). Peterson lectures in the English Department at Tufts University.

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The Moral Lives of Animals 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
nyauthoress More than 1 year ago
Do animals make moral choices that favor their own interests or the interests of others? Dale Peterson is the author of the award-winning Jane Goodall: the Woman Who Redefined Man, and is a lecturer in English at Tufts University. In the Acknowledgements of The Moral Lives of Animals, Peterson states that the idea for this book originated after a heated debate at a dinner party. In this era of sensitivity to animal rights, it is imperative that a book has been written arguing that animals have moral codes and intellectual capacities greater than previously thought. Wide in scope, The Moral Lives of Animals is chock full of references to scientific studies, personal travels to study animal behavior, philosophy and literature. Perceptions of whether animals think or feel pain the same as humans are examined thoroughly. The book is intellectual and esoteric. The Table of Contents contains no specific references to animals, but asks questions regarding morality applicable to humans as well. . Where Does Morality Come From? . What Is Morality? . Where Is Morality Going? Peterson states that animals have moral systems derived from a common origin to that of humans. Inherent in those systems are the ideas of conflict and choice. His writing seems disorienting. The author is obviously well-versed in his subject, but becomes lost in the quagmire of "making his point." He sets forth the structure of the book clearly at the beginning, but does not adhere to his own organizational system and flows from anecdote into intellectual dissertation. For example, Peterson plunges into an exploration of the medieval concept of "the mind" after stating that "executing an elephant for the crime of murder strikes us today as profoundly irrational." One wonders why the author used many depictions of animal cruelty to prove his points. Most disturbing to me were the descriptions of experiments where mice were injected with solutions causing pain in order to observe the sympathy of a non-injected partner mouse. How does the moral compass of the humans conducting the experiments compare to their animal subjects? The Moral Lives of Animals is a heavy read, but is an important contribution to the way we understand and perceive animals. Animal lovers beware. The book is not for the fainthearted. I thank Bloomsbury Press for supplying an advanced reader copy of this book. The opinions expressed in this review are unbiased and wholly my own. Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont