Ryan Mishap's Reviews > The Moral Lives of Animals

The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson
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's review
Dec 02, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: science-natural-history, philosophy
Read in January, 2012

An idea that hadn't occurred to me was presented early in this book and it was one of those "seems so obvious" types once you hear it: morality has an evolutionary history. I'm so conditioned to think of evolution in anatomical terms that, even though I've read a few books on evolutionary aspects of the mind, I'd rarely considered it. While I believe that animals think, plan, feel pain and pleasure--are sentient beings, in short--it was a revelation to think about our common evolutionary history and not only what morality is and where it comes from, but how non-human mammals show signs of it.

That's Peterson's main task in this collection of stories, science studies, and speculation and he succeeds fairly well. He likes to place ideas in a dyad, then suggest a third way of thinking about something. As a rhetorical trick, it gets old, fast, while still being effective. The examples of animal behavior from around the world and gamut of mammalian species are fascinating and he does a credible job of explaining how these behaviors are moral without conflating them with human actions and beliefs. Indeed, he is usually quick with the distinctions and doesn't anthropomorphize animals: just compare and contrast.

I can recommend this to anyone interested, but I do have a couple complaints after I praise him for using Moby Dick and the Ten Commandments story as a framework--I didn't think that could be done interestingly. Complaint 1) Falls into the trap of saying evolution "selected" or "chose" as if evolution were a supreme intelligence, and not a process. 2) Doesn't quite get the complete idea on why sex differences and gender differences aren't the same thing--he agrees somewhat but is also dismissive.

3.5 stars.
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