Friday, April 29, 2011

Moral Lives of Animals

The Moral Lives of Animals / Dale Peterson
New York: Bloomsbury, c2011.
342 p.

I received this from the publisher, but haven't quite finished reading it yet. However, since I received it, promising to post about this week, it is now my moral obligation to do so!

It's a serious look at how we both define morality, and see (or expect to see) it in other species, focusing on mammals. Peterson discusses our human tendency to see the world from the viewpoint of our being the central species, the obviously superior one. I've only read just about half of the book so far and already have five or six excerpts marked; he is an engaging writer who has a casual though serious, scientific style, which is very readable and very absorbing -- so much so that I haven't been able to skim any of it...I want to read slowly and absorb all the facets of his argument.

Here is something he says early on, which sets the tone for the rest of the discussion:

Words project thought. The structure and habits of our language are flags, reasonable indicators of the structure and habits of our thinking, including our ordinarily invisible presumptions and prejudices: the distorted lens of our own mind. And in the case of our usual thinking about animals, the common habit of creating one thought island for people, the island of who and whom, and a second thought island, that of it and that, to contain that vast world made up of all animals and all things, suggests an astonishing conceptual divide that simply fails to reflect reality. The reality is this: We are far, far more closely related to any animal than we are to any object. And to mammals, that special group of animals who are primarily the focus of this book, we are a good deal more closely related than we ordinarily admit.
The book is divided up into four sections, looking at where morality comes from; what it is, exactly (broken up into Rules & Attachments); and where it is going. So far, his discussion of where it comes from and how to define and describe what it is, has provided much food for thought. Peterson uses great examples and analogies to explain his points, and there are tons of fun details. He has studied primates worldwide, and is a good friend of Jane Goodall. There are wonderful stories of his observations of varied groups of primates, as well as mention of the environmental destruction which threatens their habitats -- another example of how human desires always 'win' over the needs of non-human animals. Each chapter begins with a quote from Moby Dick, as the author uses that book to illustrate the varied attitudes that humans hold toward the animal world.

I am really enjoying this book; it is thoughtful yet not at all dry. The writing is lively and friendly, welcoming the reader in without trying to prove that the writer is far more clever or righteous than you are. There are chapters to come on the topics of communication, sex, compassion and kindness, and more... and I am sure I will find much to consider. I'll have to post again with my final thoughts on this book once I have finished and digested all the points he is making. At this stage in my reading, I would recommend this to any thoughtful reader who is interested in thinking about how morality may not be simply a human attribute, but one that other living beings share and experience.


  1. I had this one on my plate the past week, too. It was very interesting! Gave me a lot to think about.

  2. There are so many different books about animals lately. I like reading most of them, and this one sounds like one that could work for me.

  3. This sounds like a perfect follow up to Dinski's What I Don't Know About Animals, which I read recently and really enjoyed.

  4. Jeane - I agree, lots to ponder. I'd love to discuss this one in a book club setting...many things to chat about

    Diane - yes, this is a good one. I've found reading a chapter at a time is good; gives me time to think, and I haven't lost the thread at all. Very well written.

    Nymeth - I haven't read that one (yet) but do recommend this one ;)


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