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"Morality in Animals, Integrity in Science: Balcombe vs. Hauser."

Do Dogs Have the Same “Ah-Hah!” Moments as 2-Year-Olds? 

Originally published in slightly different form on August 31, 2010 at

As you probably know, Marc Hauser, an expert on comparative cognition, has gotten himself into hot water recently for fudging the facts on some of his research. Morality in animals is (perhaps ironically) one of his main fields of study. This article isn’t about Hauser, though, it’s about the flaws I see in the idea that we have to give animals a sense of morality in order to treat them with respect.

One of the ways scientists purvey the idea of animal morality is through framing their arguments by contrasting certain moral qualities (like altruism) with their opposites (like self-interest). While this is a valid form of reasoning (contrast and compare), it’s often used by animal moralists as what I would call a “straw dog argument,” where you set up a widely-accepted, yet illogical idea, so that any other idea, no matter how illogical, will be seen as true.

For example, if animals act in their own self interest, then, when a social animal puts its needs behind the needs of its group, that animal is automatically being altruistic, correct? Perhaps. But my question is, “What if it isn’t true that animals act in their own self-interest?” After all, without first having a clear sense of one’s-self as being separate from others, wouldn’t an animal be unable to act either selfishly or unselfishly?

Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins

The fact is, all things in nature cooperate in some way, even prey and predators. Konrad Lorenz wrote, “In nature [feedback] mechanisms tend towards a ‘stable state’ among the living beings of an ecology: These beings ... often constitute a community of interests. ... It is not uncommon that the prey derives specific benefits from its interaction with the predator.” ("Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins," 1974, p. 33).

Marc Bekoff apparently doesn’t see it that way either. In Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (2009), he and co-author Jessica Pierce impose a conditional morality on wolves. “Wolf morality reflects a code of conduct that guides the behavior of wolves within a given community of wolves. Wolves are moral agents only within this context. The predatory behavior of a wolf toward an elk is amoral.” (p. 144)

Wolves Target the Weakest Members

However, wolves tend to target the weakest member of a herd, and by doing so, increase the herd’s overall fitness by thinning out its ranks. This may not benefit the specific animal that’s been preyed upon, but it benefits the herd as a whole. It also benefits other organisms in the ecosystem, such as trees and insects.

One of the effects of “reintroducing” wolves to Yellowstone was a trophic cascade where less elk meant more aspen trees, more aspens meant more materials for beavers to build dams, which meant many of the streams and rivers in the park began to flow more slowly, which increased the numbers of fish and insects, etc., in the park’s waterways.

Imposing a Sense of Morality

If wolves are benefiting the elk, the aspens, the beavers, etc., by killing off the weakest members of an elk herd, but are also providing themselves with meat (behaviors that are controlled to some degree by the stress hormone cortisol and the hunger hormone ghrelin), is their behavior selfish or altruistic? Probably neither. So why is it any different when an individual wolf acts in his pack’s benefit, not his own (behaviors controlled in part by the trust hormone, oxytocin)? Why impose a sense of morality on changes in blood chemistry?

It seems to me that the simplest, most fundamental, bedrock component to having a sense of morality is the ability to know the difference between right and wrong. That’s it. If a dog or a wolf or a deer or a cow can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, then it can’t have a sense of morality and, therefore, can’t act in a truly altruistic manner. It’s that simple.

It’s also clear that most, though not all, human beings have a general sense of right and wrong, and that we don’t always act accordingly.

This brings us to Jonathan Balcombe, who has written a number of articles here at In his latest Balcombe writes: “Marc Hauser is quoted [in Time Magazine] as saying that ‘animals have a myopic intelligence; they never experience the a-ha moment that a 2-year-old child gets.’ While one can sympathize with Hauser for the turmoil currently surrounding his research methods, I can’t sympathize with a statement like that.”

Dr. Balcombe then cites an old a 6-year-old study at Cambridge, showing that when some cattle learned to press their nose against a panel in order to gain access to food, they showed “signs of excitement,” while, a second group—whose access to food was provided independently of their panel presses—showed no such emotions.

The researchers concluded (kind of stupidly that), “This experiment found some, albeit inconclusive, indication that cattle may react emotionally to their own learning improvement.”

‘Eureka’ Moments

Dr. Balcombe paraphrases their conclusion thusly: “This study suggests that cows—and probably many other animals—can have ‘eureka’ moments, taking pleasure in their own learning achievements.”

I would heartily agree that cattle can react emotionally to their experiences. The problem comes when their emotions are described as resulting from an awareness of their own “learning achievements,” or is said to be consonant with the “a-ha” moment found in children.

"An--Ha Moment?" Hardly!

To me this is a glaring magnification of a simple cognitive process: the animal is put in a situation where its desire for food is frustrated, then, when the animal finds a resolution, it responds in an apparently joyful manner. This kind of happiness, while quite real, is consistent with Freud’s definition: “What we call happiness comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.”

It seems to me that this normal kind of release-of-tension moment is not remotely connected to the kind of “a-ha” moments children get when they realize that objects, actions, and people have names, and that the words attached to those objects, actions, and beings can be used and manipulated in an infinite (to them) variety of ways, or when they realize that their parents, siblings, friends, and pets have different points of view, or when they discover that not only do they have their own emotions but they can express their feelings with words, etc., etc.

Do cattle have any of these abilities? Surely Dr. Balcombe knows they do not, but he seems to act as if he wants us to believe something different, mostly, I think, because he wants us to stop eating meat (like Dr. Bekoff, Dr. Balcombe is a devout vegan).

Obscuring the Truth

I see a bit of irony here. Dr. Balcombe and I share a similar agenda: to prevent animals from being mistreated. The difference is that he seems to believe it’s necessary to shade, misrepresent or obscure the truth to achieve that goal. I don’t.

There’s another, more general irony. We teach our children not to lie, then we lie to them every chance we get. We also teach them that it’s okay to tell a “white” lie if it will prevent someone from being harmed, or will keep their feelings from being hurt. Dr. Balcombe seems to share this belief. But in my experience, the more we tell people that dogs know right from wrong, or that they’resmarter than toddlers,” the more they’re liable to be abused and abandoned, left alone by the side of the road.

I wish Dr. Balcombe would recognize that these aren’t little white lies he’s telling. They can do some very serious harm to at least one species, the most faithful, devoted, and loving animal on earth, the domesticated dog.

Anyway, that’s how I see it.

“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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