Who’s in the menagerie? | The convergent evolution of moral intelligence

A harmony photo from the T.I.G.E.R.S. institute

This site investigates the evolutionary structures which make human morality, intelligence and sentience possible, and also explores those evolutionary convergences which have brought other animals to share similar structures and attributes with us.

Much human energy and ingenuity has been spent seeking sentient life on other planets. We suggest that planet Earth might be a better starting point! Following Darwin, we believe that sentient, moral organisms will exist wherever a complex social animal develops a level of intelligence that begins to approach human levels. Providentially, the complexity of social life itself appears to be one of the main evolutionary drivers of increased intelligence.

But a behaviour is not truly moral until it becomes an “ought”, an expected behaviour which can be violated by antisocial individuals within a species, for that reason our “moral menagerie” does not include organisms displaying biologically automated altruism or mutualism. In our Other Critters section we will devote some time to investigating creatures which display altruism without intelligence (such as slime moulds and social insects), or which are intelligent but fundamentally asocial (like octopuses and cuttlefish).

We can expect moral capacities to arise in animals like mammals and birds which:

  • Rear their young for protracted periods (i.e. are altricial and/or nidicolous)
  • Demonstrate play behaviour as adults
  • Are long-lived with long memories
  • Live in groups
  • Differentially treat individuals within those groups
  • Form longstanding attachments to specific individuals
  • Experience empathy for other individuals

Furthermore, the most intellectually sophisticated mammals and birds begin to show some truly remarkable behaviours hitherto thought unique to humans. Cultural transmission of information and behaviour has been observed in non-human primates (apes and monkeys), cetaceans (dolphins and whales), pachiderms (elephants), corvids (crows and ravens) and psittacines (parrots).

Many species within these categories have also spontaneously demonstrated Mirror Self Recognition under controlled conditions. A video playlist of MSR in a range of animals can be found here. An introductury clip is provided below:

In these sophisticated abilities we begin to see something which possibly surpasses moral capacities and begins to approximate non-human sentience and personhood. We dedicate specific pages to exploring the remarkable animals which display these advanced capacities.

[A version of this blog entry will appear in The Menagerie page of the site]

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