Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology- 10 ideas

I have a chapter coming out on animal ethics and evolutionary psychology for the third volume of the SAGE Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology edited by Todd Shackelford. This volume on applications of evolutionary psychology will cover a wide range of topics that are rarely tackled from this perspective, like artificial intelligence, climate change, dangerous driving behavior, incarceration, meditation and cyberwarfare.

Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology (read the whole chapter here) attempts to untangle some of the evolutionary reasons why have such inconsistent attitudes towards animals. Below I quote parts of the chapter- for full references, check out the original.

1- Wolf moms think dog puppies are cuter than wolf pups

Dogs parasitize our parental caretaking mechanisms. People talk to dogs in a way similar to ‘motherese’ (the sing-song way in which parents talk to their infants), and motherese for dogs has been termed ‘doggerel’. Dogs are also neotenous: they retain puppylike features throughout their lives. Furthermore, dogs who have more paedomorphic (i.e. cute) facial musculature are more likely to be adopted from shelters.  Dogs in childless homes are much more likely to be groomed, given presents, and taken on vacation. Dogs have been bred to retain neotenous puppylike features and to be cuter than their wolfy ancestors.

Dogs aren’t just cuter to us; they’re also cuter to wolves themselves!

In one study a wolf mother was given two different litters to foster, one with wolf puppies and one with dog puppies:

The foster-mother wolf was… more nurturant with the Malamute pups than with the wolf pups. She washed them earlier and more frequently, spent 2–3 times as many hours in the den-box with them as she did with the wolf pups, was more defensive toward intruders, showed far more distress when one was missing (e.g. during supplemental feedings), played with them and continues to play with them for longer periods of time (Frank & Frank 1982)

Screenshot 2020-06-15 at 08.16.23
A Malamute Puppy on the left (source) versus a Wolf Pup on the right (source)


2- Women are more willing than men to let a foreign stranger die for their dog

A British woman with a dog (source)

Unsurprisingly, given women’s sensitivity to cuteness and their greater nurturing response (on average), women show stronger moral concerns for animals than men do. For example, 45% of women would let a foreign tourist die before their cat or dog, compared to 30% of men, and 33% of women would kill a person to save 1,000 dogs, compared with 23% of men. However, men and women were similarly likely to say they would save a close relative over a pet. Women are much more likely to be involved in animal protection and animal advocacy, much more likely to be vegetarian, more likely to hoard animals, and much less likely to hunt or engage in direct animal abuse. Women are less speciesist than men as measured through questionnaire . Women are more likely than men to believe that animals experience complex emotions like grief and anxiety.

There are also substantial sex differences in moral views on animals. In a 2015 poll, 42% of women compared to 22% of men said that animals deserve the same rights as people. In a 2011 Gallup poll on moral issues, the largest sex differences were on issues related to animals: ‘Majorities of men, but less than half of women, consider the use of animal fur for clothing, and medical testing on animals to be morally acceptable’. Women are also much more opposed to ‘unnatural’ technologies, including food additives, genetically modified foods, and animal testing. In particular, 62% of women oppose the use of animals in scientific research, whereas 60% of men support it.

3- Animal abuse is common, and there isn’t good evidence that it predicts psychopathy and criminality

Toddler with cat

In the chapter I talk about how common animal abuse is around the world in traditional societies, among children and among children in traditional societies.

Animal abuse is considered a risk factor for violence with such certainty in the animal advocacy community that it’s sometimes referred to simply as ‘The Link’. Most of the evidence for an association between childhood animal abuse and adult violence suffers from methodological limitations like retrospective reporting, and sampling incarcerated criminals. But, consistent with the idea that insensitivity to animal suffering is fairly standard in our species, there isn’t replicable evidence that animal abusers are more likely to commit violent crime.Consistent with the cross-cultural ubiquity of animal cruelty, and the historical commonality of using animals for entertainment, animal abuse is normal among young people, even now. In one study, 40% of female college students and 66% of male college students admitted to having abused animals  – and given the modern stigma against animal abuse, this is probably an underreported behavior. There seems to be a moral panic about animal abuse; advocates often depict anyone who has ever abused an animal as likely to commit violence against people, even though the majority of people have, at some time, abused an animal.

Animal abuse is very common outside of WEIRD societies.

It’s common for people in more traditional societies to hurt animals for fun. Jared Diamond describes Papua New Guinean men amusing themselves by raising and lowering squealing bats into a fire and dissecting them alive for their bones.

Men and boys are much more likely to abuse animals than women and girls but this passage about Nisa, a !Kung San woman, describes with unusual clarity the dynamic of curious, playful cruelty, and its ability to facilitate precise prediction of animals:

A flying ant with a long, wormlike body and large, almost transparent wings… landed in the hot sand… Nisa saved it… and pierced it through half the length of its body with a thin twig, leaving the upper half with the wings and head free. She planted the stick, with the skewered insect at the top, upright in the ground and tapped it gently with her fingers. The insect’s wings burst into motion, as if in flight, propelling the free parts of its body around and around the stick; then it stopped. Nisa tapped the stick again and again; each time, the insect responded with the same outpouring of energy… What Nisa was doing… seemed like an inexcusable torture… [But Nisa’s] head and the upper parts of her body had begun to move rhythmically. I did not understand what she was doing at first. Then it became clear: as the insect held itself erect, Nisa’s body also became erect; when the insect circled, drooped, and strained, Nisa’s body did the same. Her face and torso echoed the insect’s plight with a wrenching subtlety and her mimicry of its every movement was so sympathetic that the situation took on a kind of beauty.

Finally, a passage from Pinker‘s Better Angels of our Nature about an anthropologist’s interactions with animals and local people

That is perhaps the hardest part of being an anthropologist. [The hunter-gatherers I was studying] sensed my weakness and would sell me all kinds of baby animals with descriptions of what they would do to them otherwise. I used to take them far into the desert and release them, they would track them, and bring them back to me for sale again!

I speculate that playing with animals can help children learn both how to hunt and track animals, how to physically hurt other humans, and how to care for infants and young children.

Indeed, lacking the kinds of modern toys that Western children have access to, animals are used in just this way, treated with both care and cruelty. ‘Anthropologists have observed returning hunters bringing small wild animals back alive and promptly turning them over to their children… these animated toys are generally badly treated, short lived and… end up the objects of target practice or mutilation’

4 – Maybe you should “Eat the Whales” 

Rarely do we consider how much suffering is involved in our food choices and I was involved in animal activism for several years before I heard any arguments about encouraging people to eat larger animals instead of smaller animals. I expand on this topic a lot more in the chapter itself and here in my Works in Progress piece (link coming soon).

I think People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals PETA is doing better now than they used to in not actively courting controversy, but I have to admit some of PETA’s former more irreverent campaigns were really funny. like this billboard that riffs off of Chik-Fil-A’s perverse ad campaign featuring cows who can’t spell telling you to eat chicken.

eat the whales

PETA removed their site, but you can still check out the campaign in an archived version. Below are some of the graphics from that campaign. According to Herzog, in a 100-ton blue whale, there are 70,000 chickens’ worth of meat.

Screenshot 2020-06-15 at 10.21.20

I know whales are incredibly popular but check out how some whales have hair in their mouths, instead of teeth and this whale defecating “for a startling length of time”.

5- Slaughterhouse workers think the guy who kills the cow, the knocker, has serious psychological problems

Animal killing and butchering were surely features of our evolutionary history, but modern specialization of labor means for the first time there are workers who spend hour after hour killing and butchering animals. Even among slaughterhouse workers, the worker who kills the cow, the ‘knocker’, is considered to have psychological problems compared to other workers who bleed the cow or begin to dismember it.

This passage is from a great book by Timothy Pachirat, a social scientist who was employed undercover at a slaughterhouse for five years. He wants to see every part of the operation so he tries to become a knocker.

Rick, the safety coordinator, is responsible for enrolling employees for the checkup, and I sit across from him with a plate of scrambled eggs. When I tell him I want to be trained as a knocker he coughs on his eggs, then after a few minutes says, “You seem like the kind of person who would be really good for a desk job.” It fits with a running conversation we have been having in which Rick has been encouraging me to start taking classes at the community college nearby and start looking for some other kind of work. Later, I see Christian, Umberto, and Tyler, the railers from the cooler, and I join them. Christian and Umberto need to start working and eat and leave quickly. When I tell Tyler I shot three animals with the knocking gun the day before, he urges me to stop.

“Man, that will mess you up. Knockers have to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist or whatever they’re called every three months.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because, man, that’s killing,” he says; “that shit will fuck you up for real.”

6- Many different polls find that a lot of regular people have pretty extreme views on animal rights

Back in the late eighties, Ingrid Newkirk said:

Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals.

I’ve heard a lot of people get upset over this quote, but a large minority of Americans believe similar things

The End of Animal Farming, by Jacy Reese deals with this much more in depth

7- People hate vegetarians more than almost any other group, but they’re more likely to hire them or rent to them than any other group

Our moral identity is important to us; there is a strong psychological motivation to present ourselves as more moral than others and to resist others’ claims of moral superiority. This creates fraught relationships with ‘moral minorities’ who consider themselves to be in the moral vanguard – including animal advocates, vegans, and others who hold and display a virtuous identity. Vegetarians are widely disliked by the rest of society. In one study, participants reported disliking vegans and vegetarians more than atheists, asexuals, immigrants, or Blacks, but reported being more willing to hire or rent to vegans and vegetarians than all other target groups. In this study, only drug addicts were more disliked than vegans.

8 – Across cultures- women nursing animals at the breast is pretty common

piglet nursing tori amosWhen I was a teenager I was OBSESSED with Tori Amos and this picture of her nursing a piglet seemed especially transgressive. Turns out, it isn’t.

New Guineans, which I earlier described abusing bats, treat pigs as members of their families; piglets sleep in the same hut with their human families and New Guinean women often nurse piglets at the breast ….Cross-species nursing is common cross-culturally. Women around the world have nursed baby animals like bears, monkeys, pigs, and puppies. In some of these cultures, eating an animal nursed at the breast is considered as taboo as eating your own child. In other cultures, animals like dogs, are traded with other groups in order to limit the discomfort of killing animals one raised and in other cultures, animals are nursed so that they can be later eaten.

A bear's foster mother.
Ainu woman with bear (source)

Among the Ainu of Japan, bear cubs are breast fed and then ceremonially sacrificed and eaten, while the women who suckled the bear cubs show their ambivalence by alternately crying and laughing. 

Here is a great blog from Hal Herzog about human animal breastfeeding.


9- Consumers who say they care about animal welfare rarely buy products in accordance with those beliefs

It’s unlikely that individual consumer choices are going to significantly reduce the demand for animal products. Polls show Americans say they are very concerned about animal welfare, but this doesn’t translate into their choices as consumers. One experiment on the ‘vote/buy gap’ – the tendency for consumers to vote for higher welfare standards but not to buy in accordance with these ideals – showed that 80% of consumers who chose to buy cookies made with battery cage eggs said that battery cage eggs should be illegal

Here is Jayson Lusk’s blog about the study where he rules out some alternative hypotheses, like that the consumers didn’t know what they were buying.

10- Evolutionary explanations don’t excuse or normalize violence in the animal domain or any other. 

I have been involved in the animal movement for more than 10 years- I really believe that animal treatment is a pressing moral issue. Unfortunately there is this idea that undermines the enterprise of understanding, that explanation is intended to excuse behavior. As I conclude in the chapter:

Evolutionary explanations are often maligned because they are said to excuse or normalize violence. To say animal cruelty and inflicting animal suffering is normal and natural is not to minimize the suffering of animal victims either as the result of any individual’s sadism or the large-scale production of animal products. To say that our nurturing instincts predispose us to be kinder to animals that demonstrate kinship cues or that elicit the cuteness response is not to say that these responses are moral. To say that we are more disgusted by meat that looks more like the animal it came from than meat that looks more abstract is not to say it is more moral to eat meat packaged in cellophane. And to say that we virtue signal about our moral behavior is not to say that moral behavior isn’t important or that cynical motivations render moral behavior immoral. When we take our moral intuitions as moral rules we project and institutionalize our evolved moral blind spots into the world, often making it worse for others. Advocacy requires understanding. If animal suffering is an ethical issue, we have to be realistic about our incentives to signal, our functional emotional responses and what comprises our evolved moral psychology towards animals.


4 thoughts on “Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology- 10 ideas”

  1. Reblogged this on Utopia, you are standing in it! and commented:
    That is perhaps the hardest part of being an anthropologist. [The hunter-gatherers I was studying] sensed my weakness and would sell me all kinds of baby animals with descriptions of what they would do to them otherwise. I used to take them far into the desert and release them, they would track them, and bring them back to me for sale again!

    Liked by 1 person

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