Have you ever wondered why a scrum of dogs set loose in a city playground get along? Their anxious owners stand by fretting over proper doggy etiquette. Not to fear. According to the findings of two professors, dogs and other members of the animal kingdom know how to play fair.

In the new book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, the University of Colorado profs, cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Jessica Pierce, make the provocative argument that long-held distinctions made between human cognition and other species are much narrower than previously realized, differing in matters of degree but not kind.

In order to make his case, Bekoff spent years observing the social behavior of coyotes, domesticated dogs and compiling scientific research from around the world. Wild Justice reveals what pet owners and poets have intuitively understood all along. Animals lead inner lives that go way beyond basic instinct and the need for survival. MNN talks to one of the authors about the book and the science behind it.

MNN: What’s a cognitive ethologist?

Marc Bekoff: A cognitive ethologist studies the minds of other animals. Looking at how smart they are, how adaptable they are. What they’re feeling, questions about moral intelligence, everything that’s going on inside the minds of animals.

It’s often hard to read humans, let alone other animal species. How does that translate to animals in terms of attributing a certain mental state to certain behaviors?

We’re very good at attributing different behaviors — what a person is likely to do, and what they’re feeling based in certain contexts. If you spend enough time studying animals, we discover that we are able to do that as well. We can be wrong. But we can be wrong about humans as well.

Is it fair to say Wild Justice is grounded in the work of Charles Darwin, founder of the theory of evolution, and Jeremy Bentham, an early advocate for animal rights?

One of the central questions of Jeremy Bentham’s work is whether animals can feel. It doesn’t matter whether they can talk or reason. But can they suffer. That’s exactly my point. People wonder whether a cat is smarter than a dog. Those aren’t very important questions to me. I believe animals deserve respect because they are. They just exist.

If animals lead a life of the mind, does it become a question of what kind of minds they have?

One of the things I’ve advocated is to look at animals within a species. Cats do what they need to do in terms of being cats and dogs do what dogs do in terms of dogs. We know enough right now to make informed decisions about animals.

Do you think this book should be categorized as science or philosophy?

That’s a good question. Frankly we took pains to make that happen. Biologists tend not to read philosophy, but a lot of philosophers read biology because that’s the way they inform themselves to make their own arguments.

We’re accustomed to the tooth-and-claw approach to evolution. But it seems as though the more research conducted, the less likely that premise seems to be true.

We’re not saying animals can’t be cruel to one another. Our assertion is that it has to be balanced with cooperation, compassion and empathy. We’re learning it’s the rare situation when animals are mean. Data suggests at least among most primates that the majority of interactions are cooperative and affinitive rather than negative.

Is there an evolutionary basis for altruistic behavior among highly socialized animals?

These emotions are like social glue. One of the reasons we’re more attracted to our companion animals rather than pet rocks is because of shared emotions. They feel. And there’s good evolutionary evidence that indicates animals do have to work together especially if the good of the group depends on the behavior of individuals.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the book is the cruelty on the part of some scientists displayed toward research subjects. Is it justified?

Researchers are notorious for distancing themselves from animals. They give them numbers instead of names. They refer to them as “it” and “that.” I try to make it very clear in my work that animals are subjects of a life, not objects. A lot of researchers mean well. They’re very utilitarian.

Darwin’s work wasn’t accepted during his lifetime, much in the same way people might take issue with your line of thinking. What’s the reaction been like?

What’s phenomenal to me is how times are changing. I do an enormous amount of work with theologians. Zygon: The Journal of Religion and Science devoted an entire issue to my work. I was thrilled about that. We need to accept that people are going to change. It’s going to be a matter of time before people really, really, really accept the fact that we’re not trying to lower humans or raise animals. We’re just trying to tell it like it is.

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