Are we animals?

Did you watch “Spy in the Wild” on BBC1 on 12 January? It was the most intriguing wild life programme I have ever seen. It was based on using animal robots which could be placed among different species – giving them, over time, plenty of opportunity to observe the most intimate moments. These were photographed through the robot’s eye.

The emphasis was on the relationships between the members of the pack – whether this was giraffes or elephants or monkeys (and several others). It became clear that each species had developed different social habits. But they all contributed to the welfare of their pack. You will have seen clips of elephant herds where all the members work as a team to protect the very young. We recognise the long term effects of evolution. Over perhaps millions of years those who behaved in a way which contributed to survival were more likely to live and breed so that their descendants inherited such desirable characteristics.

So far so obvious. But what came across most vividly was the strength of emotion. I only have to watch my cats (litter twins) meeting in each other’s territory to see strong, if hostile, emotions in action. But here what I was often watching was the emotion of care. We saw maternal love, self sacrifice and ritual mourning, to say nothing of adopting a pet from a different species. Had I not known that these were lower animals I would have thought that they were practising something essentially similar to loving one’s neighbour as oneself.

This interests me because it strongly suggested that a whole range of our virtuous actions are likely to be the outcome of our evolution rather then any spiritual goodness in us. Likewise our evil actions may largely come about in the same way. Just as the lower animals have their own natural law – to which they are wedded in order to flourish, so we have a natural law which, while being necessarily more complex, must be followed if we are to flourish.

Of course we have free will. Our advanced intelligence allows us to look at our natural law and then decide whether to follow it or whether to spurn it in order to get an immediate, apparent, advantage. I presume that the lower animals just go along with it. When they breach it we assume that it is not a moral fault but some other causal factor which we may not spot. My cats’ instinctive protection of their territory remains even though in their actual circumstances peaceful cooperation would be to their advantage.

It leaves me wondering just how much of what I think of as moral decisions are in fact the outcome of my evolution and my experiences. They may not be moral at all. Such virtues as others may (perhaps) spot in me may very well not be virtues at all but an instinctive gift from my ancestral line. My caring behaviour for my family (I have 21 descendants, and counting) may be no more than my acquired instinct to ensure that my genes are preserved for the future.

And, just as I finish this, I read an article in New Scientist which describes studies which show that even the experts are given to approving evidence which supports their existing opinion, and rejecting evidence which attacks it. So, for example, a debate on the inevitability of global warming will tell us more about the inclinations of the arguers than the strength of the evidence. And, if that is so for the soi disant experts, is it also so for us – not only for global warming but for all the issues on which we have firm opinions?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Are we animals?

  1. Martha says:

    The maternal instinct in animals is certainly very strong. I have just read a story about a straying greyhound in Spain with a broken leg, who led her rescuers two miles to her new born
    puppies trusting that they would help. We once had a rescue dog also a stray, who was found with three very young puppies which she had tucked into a burrow so safely that they had to be carefully dug out by her rescuers. It is always particularly hard to understand mothers who mistreat babies and young children, and to understand how our society has accepted abortion so widely, ending the lives of young babies who are developping in their mothers’ wombs where they should be safer than anywhere else.

    It is a God given instinct in animals and humans, maybe not particularly meritorious to follow it, but certainly the result of evil to flout it, often not personally willed by an individual mother, but brought about by such evils as ignorance, great poverty, drug addiction, materialism, bullying, which do not usually affect animals.

    • galerimo says:

      Martha – thank you so much for what you did for that rescue dog that once you had. I am no goody goody I can assure you but the older I get the less able I am to witness cruelty to animals. I see it on such a large scale it makes me physically ill.

      I have learnt to take hold of every good instance of care for them that I come across – like what you describe here. And then the next time I am a witness to cruelty that is shown in the media or elsewhere I recall the last good thing I heard about treating them well.

      I don’t think I am too far off the point you are making in this post but I didn’t want the opportunity to go by without acknowledging your kindness. May you be blessed a hundred fold in return. g

      • Martha says:

        Thank you, Galerimo. She was a terrier, and died last April. We do miss her, but she was quite difficult as she had obviously been attacked and could not be friendly with other dogs, sometimes wanting to take pre-emptive action, instinctively judging that the best form of defence is attack. This is often the reason for aggression in humans, and explains a lot of bad behaviour by some of our young people. Trying to resolve their problems must have a lot of similarity to the training and rehabilitation of animals, but there must be an extra dimension for human lives made in the image and likeness of God, which I do not know how to describe.

      • Vincent says:

        Marta, I think your terrier provides an interesting example. She may have been badly behaved because of her history but you would not judge her in terms of good and evil. We do not see animals as having a moral sense. But it does remind us that when we see parallel behaviour in humans we may be too quick to make moral judgments when, for all we know, the behaviour is caused rather than chosen. I have a young nephew who very quickly loses his temper if he is in anyway challenged. It’s quite a problem — at school for instance. His psychologist thinks that he has something like a short circuit in his brain. It means that he has less time than most of us to check his reaction, as we can usually do.

  2. John Thomas says:

    “debate on the inevitability of global warming will tell us more about the inclinations of the arguers than the strength of the evidence. ” – and there really are people out there who did not realise this …?

  3. John Thomas says:

    We are often told that some particular animal shares 90 …(whatever it is) % of DNA with humans, with the implication that they’re just like us, really, almost … Oh yeah? Does anybody ask the extent of the difference between humans and these (whatever they are) …?

  4. Horace says:

    How do we tell the difference between ‘natural law’ and ‘conscience’?

  5. St.Joseph says:

    Horace
    My.mother used to say to.me and my older brother when we fought ,animals would,nt behave like you (I used to take the tyres off his Dinkie toys and pretend to chew them)
    It seemed natural to argue with my brother.
    My conscience matured as I got older and I learned what was right and wrong.From looking at Spy in the Wild tells us about the natural law and Christianity teaches us about our soul.
    I don’t know if that is what you mean.
    )

  6. Martin says:

    Spy in the Wild was thought-provoking and raised questions as to the extent to which our behaviour is down to our human moral compass as opposed to inherited survival traits.
    It seems clear that the more our knowledge increases, the more we realise we don’t yet know. We have a very long way to go before we really understand ourselves, the world around us and our place in it. In the meantime, a sense of humility would not come amiss.
    (Donald Rumsfeldt’s “known/unknown unknowns” dictum begins to make sense in this context.)

  7. Iona says:

    ” it strongly suggested that a whole range of our virtuous actions are likely to be the outcome of our evolution rather then any spiritual goodness in us”

    Or that God has directed the evolution of vertebrates, and then birds and mammals including us, so that it tends progressively towards care for those around us and nurturing of our young, culminating in what we can recognise as love.

    Evolution doesn’t have to go that way. Many insects, frogs and fish lay eggs and then go off and leave their offspring to fend for themselves.
    I think I’m saying that “spiritual goodness” doesn’t have to be seen as something that contrasts with evolutionary processes, but that evolutionary processes make spiritual goodness possible.

    • tim says:

      Yes. People like Dawkins have convinced themselves that evolution either falsifies God or at least n renders Him unnecessary., The second point is arguable (I think) but the first is a false dilemma – like “Is London lit by Man – or by electricity?”.

    • Alan says:

      Tim

      Hopefully Dawkins and most others think the latter. I would never have dreamed he considered the former true.

  8. galerimo says:

    Really good topic – thanks Quentin.

    The relationships between animals of the same species is hardly even the beginning of the story of interconnectedness and deep relationship with ALL that makes up our world. Aboriginal ( which is like saying European, because there are so many different nationalities, languages, beliefs cultures, as well as skin colours within that title) people could find water and food in the deserts like we could find a tea towel to do the wash up in our homes. They know where these things are kept. We have lost that living connection.

    It should not come as any surprise to us that animals can be far more morally advanced than we are. I like to think God prefers ducks. And humanity is not number one on God’s list of delights -despite our soil disant.

    Spy in the Wild is amazing. Peter Wohlleban in his “Secret Life of Trees”, takes the intrigue of observing the natural world of plants and animals to an even further depth of wonder.

    I think Jesus offers some light when we are confronted with these natural wonders challenging our own sense of autonomy. You say “My moral decisions….may not be moral at all”.

    When the perceived deficiencies of our nature are pointed out to Him and He is asked whether we are naturally deficient or is it acquired from the social/natural environment He points to something even more wonderful than any documentary could record.

    God did it. And God did it for a reason. And the reason is to manifest the environment of grace and love of which we are an essential part. (Jn 9).

    • St.Joseph says:

      Valerie.
      I don’t understand what you say ,’I like to think God prefers ducks.And humanity is not number one on God’s list of delights.

      God loved the world so much. That He gave His only Son as a Sacrifice for our sins and died a most horrific death on.the Cross.

      I don’t think He would do that for an animal.
      I may be wrong!

  9. galerimo says:

    Ooops I meant soi distant but spell checker improved on it for me.

  10. galerimo says:

    ok computer – you are amazing!

    • galerimo says:

      Thank you St Joseph and a Happy New Year to you. I am glad you persevered with the computer – I try not to let it defeat me either – just remember how impossible this would be if we were still using pen and paper!

      Posed with Quentin’s question “Are we animals?” I am very blessed to be able to answer “yes”. And that puts me among millions and millions of species that have or will inhabit the earth.

      Only one of those is human kind. And like the sparrows whom God numbers every day as they fall from the sky, God loves me.

      The way I speak about myself (soi distant) in terms of conscious awareness I can easily conclude that I am more important than the others because I have a more complex brain etc. We once thought our world was the centre of the solar system but the truth was even more amazing.

      Solomon is a fine iteration of our humanity but even in all his glory Jesus could point to the lilies of the field for a comparison.

      I am grateful to the spy cams that can help to point out in “Spy in the Wild” the amazing characteristics of the world of which we are are a part (not a most important part our soi disant makes us out to be at times).

      I take my hat off to Martha who recalls how she was was a saviour to a stray dog who in turn saved three abandoned puppies. They were all saviours like Jesus even if the salvation they brought was done in different ways.

      Ducks amaze me because they can walk and swim and fly. I can barely do two of these. And exalting them in no way diminishes my species as far as God’s love goes.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Galerimo
        Thank you. .
        Yes God’s love for beauty, even the ugliest looking animals, as He is Love
        I would’nt kill an insect I would throw them out the window in a tumbler.
        I would not consider humans as animals,although they may act like some who defend their own territory with violance.
        Animals may have a place in heaven, however how would God judge their conscience?
        Jesus did say ( if it was He who said)’ the Lion will lay down with the Lamb’.!

        Quentin I saw the 19th January ‘Spy in the Wild’ it was very interesting to see the oragutan using a saw, I was wondering if they would evolve into making something out of it or use the technology to fly into space?
        Birds make their nests and I suppose God’s given natural intelligence they must be able to survive in the Wild.also protect their young!!
        I have been watching Martin Clunes travelling Australia and it is amazing too!..

  11. Quentin says:

    Just a reminder that ‘Spy in the Wild’ continues on BBC 1. The programme on 19 January was exploring intelligence. You may be interested to see an orangutan using a saw to cut a branch, or pinching soap for washing.

  12. Alan says:

    “And, if that is so for the soi disant experts, is it also so for us – not only for global warming but for all the issues on which we have firm opinions?”

    Does anyone think that they are immune? Perhaps there are many that are unaware of the problem and so don’t take account of it? Given the lengths that experts go to in order to minimise the problem, even though these measures are not watertight, I think the question should probably be “how much worse is it for everyone else?”.

  13. John Candido says:

    We are all subject to what is known as ‘confirmation bias’. Because of confirmation bias and a host of other matters; to be a human being can be fraught with difficulty. Determining what is the truth in any scientific matter must begin and end through the rigorous employment of the scientific method.

    The methodology employed in any discipline is everything; objectivity in science is de rigueur.
    With regards to the so-called controversy of climate change; follow the science again and again on any matter and don’t listen to vested interests external to academia. Even any controversy between scientists are welcome but even in this context, we must respect whatever are the boundaries of such a debate at that level. Never drag yourself down to the level of desperate idiots and charlatans. There is only so much pollution that a human being can take, both literally and figuratively.

  14. cloverload says:

    Sorry for the late contribution to this topic, and the long absence; I have been ill and am in recovery at the moment.

    I feel that evolved patterns of altruistic behaviour which serve survival of a species is one example of opportunity for the exposure and expression of inherent kindness which exists between all beings. There is so much that opposes the necessary exposing contact between beings, let alone what opposes subsequent free expression (whether it be between one human and another or an elephant and an ant) in the world as we have it — yet I propose that kindness is a hidden and truly powerful opportunist and conspirator.

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