by Greg Mayer
One of the curious things in Francis Collins’ The Language of God is his claim that there are no, or scarcely any, antecedents of moral behavior in animals. He writes (p. 23):
As best I can tell, this law [the “Moral Law” or “‘the law of right behavior'”] appears to apply peculiarly to human beings. Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.
Quite aside from the all too frequent times when human beings’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness (see any newspaper), a point made by, among others, Sam Harris, the statement is jarring to anyone at all acquainted with the behavior of vertebrate animals, especially a phylogenetically diverse group of them. The incipient stages of the development of the moral sense, and the gradations in the complexity of familial and social behavior in animals, have long been known and documented (see, e.g. Darwin’s accounts in Expression of the Emotions and Descent of Man), but they’re also pretty evident to anyone who’s owned a dog. Indeed, among my earliest contributions to the WEIT blog was an application of Steve Pinker’s “rudimentary moral sentiments” to my cat, Peyton.
Classic Christian theologians might also be surprised by Collins’ claim. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his account of natural law, wrote
Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances… Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, “which nature has taught to all animals…” [emphases added]
And, just to make it clear, St. Thomas views these shared inclinations as good things.
I bring this up because while in Costa Rica earlier this summer, I read Frans de Waal‘s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. In the book, de Waal makes a convincing case for a wide assortment of moral and pre-moral sentiments in non-human animals, especially primates. There is in fact every indication of a wide range of such sentiments in animals, ranging from tender parental care in crocodilians and birds, to a sense of fairness in chimps. Jerry earlier posted about some of de Waal’s work, and a quote from him (i.e. de Waal) in an article in the Telegraph, states it nicely:
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.