Moral Mammals

Elephant foetus

Mammals are excellent initial candidates for us to start looking for moral neighbours, as human moral capacities are built on mammalian physiological foundations, especially the close, oxytocin-fuelled, emotional and empathic ties between mammalian mothers and their breast-fed offspring.

Mammalomorphism vs Anthropomorphism

It is no surprise that animal documentaries which focus on mammals are appealing to human audiences. We can immediately and instinctively identify with these warm-blooded, fuzzy, animals, and their valiant attempts to nurture and protect their young. We find baby mammals, such as those pictured above, cute in a way we do not for baby fish, reptiles and amphibians. This wide appeal is often dismissed as anthropomorphic sentimentalism, but at its root the popularity of this television programming is based on mammalomorphism, i.e. our innate recognition of the emotional states of fellow mammals based on shared postures, movements and facial expressions, and on shared biochemistry and neuroanatomy. We require no training in ethology to interpret a wide array of behaviours in these creatures.

But is only the social mammals where we see the possibility of moral behaviour. While solitary mammals might display affection and concern for their parents, siblings or offspring, they tend to shed much or all of this once they reach adolescence and strike out on their own. Play behaviour seems to disappear at the same point as well.

Conscientious Carnivores

A remarkable proportion of the more socially complex mammals are carnivores (or at least omnivores), and indeed, co-operating in bringing down large or difficult game is wideley believed to be one of the evolutionary drivers of sociality and intelligence.

From the order Carnivora we find:

  • Caniforms (dog-like animals) have maintained complex sociality across all canines (dogs,wolves, jackals, coyotes), and also the pinipeds (seals, walruses).
  • Of the feliforms (cat-like animals) only lions and hyenas have complex social lives.

Ouside of Carnivora we find several families and genera of carnivorous or omnivorous social mammals:

  • Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are all carnivorous despite descending from largely herbivore anscestors (their closest land-dwelling relatives are hippopotamuses.)
  • Most species of bat are insectivores.
  • While human beings owe our colour vision to our fruit foraging of our primate anscestors, apes and monkeys are omnivorous.

Of all of the socially complex mammals, only elephants seem to remained resolutely herbivorous throughout their evoltionary lineage.

As non-human mammals belong to the same animal class as us, there is less distance for evolutionary convergence to travel to reach the same destination as it did in humans. This is most obvious in the great apes in which our own moral capacities have not evolved separately but are more or less continuous with theirs. When we observe humanlike expressions and behaviour in chimpanzees and bonobos, we are, more often than not, being hominoidomorphic rather than anthropomorphic. This is nicely illustrated by the photographic comparison of facial expressions put together by Paul Ekman, the psychologist behind the Facial Action Coding System, whose work on microexpressions and lie-detection have been made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink and the TV show Lie To Me.

Prototypical chimpanzee expressions and homologous expressions in a human (Ekman et al.2002)