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Saintly Elephants June 7, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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A new book, Wild Justice, by Professors Bekoff and Pierce, argues that animals have rich moral lives in many respects like that of humans.

Via The Telegraph

… Prof Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at University of Colorado, Boulder, believes that morals are “hard-wired” into the brains of all mammals and provide the “social glue” that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups.

He has compiled evidence from around the world that shows how different species of animals appear to have an innate sense of fairness, display empathy and help other animals that are in distress…

Elephants are intensely sociable and emotional animals. Research by Iain Douglas Hamilton, from the department of zoology at Oxford University, suggests elephants experience compassion and has found evidence of elephants helping injured or ill members of their herd.

In one case, a Matriarch known as Eleanor fell ill and a female in the herd gently tried to help Eleanor back to her feet, staying with her before she died.

In 2003, a herd of 11 elephants rescued antelope who were being held inside an enclosure in KwaZula-Natal, South Africa.

The matriarch unfastened all of the metal latches holding the gates closed and swung the entrance open allowing the antelope to escape.

This is thought to be a rare example of animals showing empathy for members of another species – a trait previously thought to be the exclusive preserve of mankind.

The authors accumulate evidence from coyotes, wolves, dogs, monkeys, chimps, rodents, bats, and whales as well.

There are, of course, many differences between human and animal moral behavior. I doubt that animals are reflectively aware that they are moral beings, for example. But the view that humans are not fundamentally animals is increasingly hard to credit.



 book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Paul J. Moloney - June 8, 2009

I’m wishing that there was more evidence that we had something more than other animals, namely understanding.

2. Nina Rosenstand - June 8, 2009

You beat me to it! Michael Mussachia told me about this book a few weeks back, and it is going to be one of my summer readings. The more I read on this subject, the more my brain is getting split between my willingness to believe that the social animals have a form of rudimentary moral sense, and my appreciation for the very human capacity for rational evaluation. But it probably doesn’t have to be a dichotomy!
Elephant stories have been circulating in India, I suppose for as long as there has been storytelling. And the stories keep coming: in 2008 three elephants were killed by an oncoming train. Two of them, males, were trying to rescue the third, a pregnant female, who was paralyzed with fear on the tracks seeing the oncoming train. A fourth female who survived refused to leave the scene afterwards…Another story is from 2004: a small herd of elephants were crossing the railroad tracks, and were hit by an oncoming train. 6 of them died. A herd of about 100 elephants showed up shortly after:

“The elephants are now sitting on the track, apparently mourning the death of the six pachyderms. Our staff are unable to go near the train for fear of being attacked,” the official said. A team of forest officials and security forces were sent to scare the elephants away. “It will be very difficult to chase the herd as elephants normally are very sensitive when pachyderms of the same group get killed,” a wildlife warden said.”

And of course we also know that elephants never forget…and they really don’t…it isn’t just anecdotal…they will remember a past hurt, and who did it to them, and given a chance, they will retaliate..
Saintly they’re not. Neither are we, with our refined sense of right and wrong.

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