Thursday, February 1, 2007

Animals, fairness, and basic decency

Fingers still aching, but here's a short bit I found of interest; it's a book review in the December issue of Scientific American. The book is called Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal. In it, apparently, he posits (and demonstrates) the concept that morality, fairness and altruism -- doing the right thing -- are not merely human traits, but are in fact an evolutionary advantage. Do read the review; there are others available at

I've seen altruistic behaviour among animals, even those as 'low' on the evolutionary scale as rats. When I got Reinhart, he was a baby, hardly bigger than a mouse, and Siegfried was pretty big. They wrestled; it's part of rats' social behaviour, it's the way they play. Siegfried, of course, won. A lot. And when he won, he washed Reinhart, who HATED IT HATED IT.

But one day Reinhart won. Now, this isn't some heartwarming tale of the small guy growing up to beat the big guy. (That came later, when Reinhart actually got big.) No, this was a plain-and-simple case of Siegfried letting Reinhart win. I watched it; Siegfried fell right over and let Reinhart wash him. I read, a little later, that this isn't at all unusual among rats; the bigger rat will let the smaller one win every once in a while, even if he's just plain big and strong and wily enough that he'd always win if he wanted to. Because it's only fair.

For those (all, what, two of you) who read this, have you ever seen fair or altruistic behaviour among animals? Strong ones taking care of the weaker, one letting another have his fair share? I'm interested to see. I also look forward to reading the book itself; I'm sure I'll find it interesting.


Plain Foolish said...

I've seen an animal mourn. I mean just with everything he had. That dog sat over another dog's grave and howled for weeks. He tore the hair out of his tail. Just miserable, poor dear.

I've seen a dog put off dying until she could see *her* person first.

I've seen an older dog stop one puppy from bullying another.

Mine was a dog family. Can you tell?

seeking chivalry said...

I've seen both dogs and cats mourn. I've watched Chocolate mourn Fuzzy Butt, who he misses very much - and I wish I could tell him Fuzzy Butt is fine, just very far away.

I grew up with dog, but not dogs. I think I missed out some, not being able to see that interaction.

Plain Foolish said...

When both front yard and back yard are measured in acreage, well, you've got room for more than one dog. Especially when neither really takes into account the meadow and woodlot that stretch on down the hill. Our veggie patch was huge. I can still remember harvesting 3 grocery bags of green beans in one day. Yeah, that was a great year for green beans, but no child should have to face that, knowing that there will be more bags tomorrow, and all of 'em needing processing, except those that will be lunch, dinner... today, tomorrow, day after that... I am not the world's biggest green bean fan. Especially not boiled with new potatoes, which we also had a huge crop of that year.

But yeah, dogs that are with other dogs a lot behave differently from dogs that are just around people.