Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Is It Like to Be a (Moral) Bat?

"Prof Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at University of Colorado, Boulder, believes that morals are "hard-wired" into the brains of all mammals and provide the "social glue" that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups." ( Animals can tell right from wrong: Animals possess a sense of morality that allows them to tell the difference between right and wrong, according to a controversial new book.")

Bekoff's new book is The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy - and Why They Matter. Bekoff "has compiled evidence from around the world that shows how different species of animals appear to have an innate sense of fairness, display empathy and help other animals that are in distress." Animals, like humans, have morality.

"Bekoff believes morals developed in animals to help regulate behaviour in social groups of animals such as wolves and primates. He claims that these rules help to control fighting within the group and encourage co-operative behaviour. Recent neurology work has also revealed that distantly related mammals such as whales and dolphins have the same structures in their brains that are thought to be responsible for empathy in humans. Other findings have also suggested that some animals may even be capable of showing empathy with the suffering of other species."

Bekoff's theory is controversial. Not all agree, such as Emory University's primate behaviorist Frans de Waal. De Waal says: "I don't believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species. Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality."

Consider bat behavior. "Vampire bats need to drink blood every night but it is common for some not to find any food. Those who are successful in foraging for blood will share their meal with bats who are not successful. They are more likely to share with bats who had previously shared with them. Prof Bekoff believes this reciprocity is a result of a sense of affiliation that binds groups of animals together.
Some studies have shown that animals experience hormonal changes that lead them to "crave" social interaction. Biologists have also observed a female Rodrigues fruit-eating bat in Gainesville, Florida, helping another female to give birth by showing the pregnant female the correct birthing position – with head up and feet down." Perhaps: beware of anthropomorphism here? See also Thomas Nagel's very famous "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Here Nagel suggests that the subjective aspect of the mind may not ever be sufficiently accounted for by the objective methods of objective science.

From a Christian-theistic POV the idea that animals have an innate sense of fairness and display empathy is not shocking, but fits in with the idea that all creation is groaning for the redemptive activity of God. But it seems unlikely that animals have libertarian free will; viz., the ability to choose right from wrong even when it goes against natural desires.