The Magazine

Social Animals

Pondering the limits of anthropomorphism.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By WRAY HERBERT
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There is no evidence that any other animal has this talent. A few years ago, scientists became very excited when it was found that scrub jays cache food that they retrieve later on. This was taken as evidence of rudimentary prediction and planning; but on closer analysis, Suddendorf sees no convincing evidence of actual episodic memory, much less any true planning, with the jays. Not even the great apes have shown evidence of truly thoughtful planning—carrying an emergency tool kit, for example, as we know primitive humans did. And they fall far short of the sort of long-range planning that sets us aside: devising strategies to reach distant goals, choosing a career, and so forth.

Romantic readers will be racking their brains right about now, trying to recall anecdotes that elevate chimps and dogs and cats. For some people, for some reason, it’s important to be connected to other members of the animal kingdom on an emotional level. You need look only as far as the Internet, where there are entire websites devoted to “dog shaming”—that is, displaying photos of dogs with written “confessions” of their household sins. There are also videos of dogs, caught in the act of this or that, slinking away, their heads downcast in the face of human disapproval. The appeal of these images is presumably a deep-seated desire for dogs to have human emotions like shame and guilt. 

But do they? Not according to Suddendorf’s thorough survey of the current evidence. Emotions like guilt and shame require a sense of right and wrong—in a word, morality. Suddendorf borrows primatologist Frans de Waal’s three-level moral hierarchy to deconstruct the moral claims of other animals. According to de Waal, morality requires, at a minimum, empathy and reciprocity, and there is fairly good evidence of such compassion and cooperation in other animals. But beyond that, the evidence is much thinner. There is scant evidence that even our closest relatives establish and enforce social norms (de Waal’s second level of morality), and there is zero evidence that any nonhuman animal engages in true, self-reflective moral reasoning. This is the capacity to contemplate what “ought” to be and to act according to these moral assessments; it is a distinctly human capacity. 

Those dogs on the Internet? They may arouse empathy and other emotions in us, but the hounds themselves are most likely feeling and exhibiting a simple fear of punishment. Chihuahuas and gorillas are incapable of high-level moral reflection because their minds cannot build flexible mental scenarios, as our minds routinely do. We alone can reason about past, present, and future motives, beliefs, and actions—and, based on this reasoning, make deliberate decisions about how we will act. No nonhuman comes remotely close to this moral capacity.

So our ability to play the longest-sentence game is profound, and underlies everything from language to time travel to morality—indeed, all human culture. But this exceptionalism comes with daunting responsibilities, Suddendorf believes. This is an important leitmotif that runs throughout the author’s arguments. Because we—and we alone—can anticipate the future and plan our actions, it follows that we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to avert disaster and create a sustainable future. Our future depends on how well we imagine the possibilities of what is to come and our willingness to link our minds cooperatively to solve global problems.

For Thomas Suddendorf, those problems include the extinction of many of the world’s species, even our closest ape relatives, many of which are in danger. If the gap between us and all other animals seems wide, it is because other hominin species that once walked the earth have perished. We weren’t always so special, and it’s good to remind ourselves of that. If these other cousins perish, the gap will widen even further.

Wray Herbert is the author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits.