Honor Among Beasts

Think altruism, empathy and a sense of fair play are traits only humans possess? Think again

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At Bowling Green State University in Ohio, psychologist Jaak Panksepp is similarly leery of using words like morality and ethics to describe animal behavior. He is sure that rats and other animals do experience joy, sadness, anger and fear--because the wiring of the brain is set up to generate those feelings. (Actually, Panksepp discovered a few years ago that rats chirp in laughter, albeit in response to tickling, and in a register too high for the human ear to detect.) Nobody has yet found the neurocircuits for ethics or morality, however, so Panksepp is reluctant to comment about those qualities. But he does accept that some animals have strict rules of behavior. "Cockroaches probably don't have a sense of justice," says Panksepp. But dogs and rats, which are social animals, clearly do.

So do birds, says Dan Blumstein, a former student of Bekoff's, now studying animal behavior at UCLA. While he hasn't addressed the question through formal research, Blumstein has seen hints of behavioral rules in songbirds. A given species tends to have similar songs but with local "dialects" that vary from one territory to another. If a bird sings with a nonlocal accent, he says, "everybody knows: 'Oh, my God, there's an invader.' Then they get upset and kick it out." The question, Blumstein says, is whether that's a sign of ethics or just instinct.

While some behaviors are obviously instinctive, Bekoff is convinced that others are not. "If you study animals in the complex social environments in which they live," he says, "it's impossible for everything they do to be hardwired, with no conscious thought. It really is." And once again, he cites play as perhaps the most obvious example. Play between dogs involves extremely complex, precise behavior, he says. "They're really close, they're mouthing, but they don't bite their own lips; they almost never bite the lip of the other animal hard, nor the eyes, nor the ears." And that requires communication and constant feedback. "Just think of basketball players faking left and going right," says Bekoff. "There's no way you could be doing that by pure instinct."

As for the play bow, his guess that it meant more than just "Let's play" turned out to be correct. "It says, 'I want to play with you' but also 'I'm sorry I bit you so hard' or 'I'm going to bite you hard, but don't take it seriously.'" It even works between species: Bekoff has seen wild coyotes bow to dogs--and vice versa--before they engage in something like play. "At least they don't fight," says Bekoff. "The play bow changes the whole mood."

Meanwhile, dishonesty is punished across all canid species. "I know coyotes best," says Bekoff. "Coyotes will signal play and then try to fight or mate with others, but if they do that enough, they can't get other animals to play." Does that behavior rise to the level of ethics or morality? If morality is simply living by the rules of a society, says hyena expert Christine Drea of Duke University, then yes, animals do that. But just because animals have rules and bad things can happen when those aren't followed, she says, "doesn't mean they're ethical creatures."

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