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Book Review - Minding Animals
Minding Animals
by Marc Bekoff
Oxford University Press, 2002
Review by Rob Loftis, Ph.D.
Feb 7th 2003

Marc Bekoff has for years been a leading figure in cognitive ethology, the branch of the study of animal behavior that acknowledges the common-sense truth that animals have emotions and other mental states similar to our own. His previous work includes Species of Mind, written with philosopher Colin Allen, and numerous empirical studies of birds and canids. Bekoff’s new book, Minding Animals, is partially an attempt to defend the kind of science he does, but it also has a broader agenda. Bekoff argues that because animals have feelings like ours, many of our current practices, such as eating meat and wearing animal skins, are immoral. This book—with blurbs on the back from Steven Jay Gould and activist Julia Butterfly Hill and an introduction by Jane Goodall—is clearly aimed at a popular audience. It is also a book that wants to be taken seriously—in the introduction, Goodall instructs us to “read this book carefully.” While the book has many strengths, I’m afraid it won’t have much appeal, either to a popular audience or to those who have been involved in the debate over animals for some time.

Bekoff begins the book with a general defense of cognitive ethology and ends it with an extensive discussion of animal ethics, but the most interesting section is actually the middle. There he gives an overview of the current state of knowledge about animal minds, including a discussion of his intriguing hypothesis—argued previously in The Journal of Consciousness Studies (2001)—that human ethics has its evolutionary roots in ideas of fairness found in animal play. When young animals play, they make an agreement, monitored by a constant series of exchanged signals, not to hurt each other, even though they easily could. Animals that don’t play fair are punished by not being allowed in future play sessions, a ban that will severely hurt the animal’s development. Bekoff also notes that in play animals will frequently allow the other to win so that the total number of victories is split 50-50, and dominant animals will often give submissive gestures to equalize the playing field. These are deep and important observations, which should be further explored.

Unfortunately, Bekoff’s more general ideas about what cognitive ethology can do and its impact on animal ethics are not as insightful. Particularly problematic is his repeated assertion that we cannot compare the normal mental abilities of different animals (pp. xx, 13, 86, 91) or at least that we cannot make any ethical inferences on the basis of such comparisons (pp. 41, 54–55). In Bekoff’s mind, any such comparison is “speciesist.” He even goes so far as to claim that laws in Great Britain and New Zealand banning harmful experiments on the great apes constitute unjustified discrimination. In truth, however, people who believe in animal rights not only can compare the normal cognitive ability of different species, they must. A vegetarian eats lettuce and not pork because she knows that a pig has a rich mental life and a head of lettuce has no mental life at all. She can thus compare the mental capacities of organisms and make a moral judgment based on that distinction. Comparisons that Bekoff criticizes, such as the estimate that an adult chimpanzee has the linguistic capacity of a normal four-year-old human child, may be more complicated and harder to support, but they are not different in kind.

Given that such comparisons are inevitable, it is not surprising to find that Bekoff himself compares the average abilities of various species. Indeed, his definition of cognitive ethology makes such comparisons a part of his job description (p. 86). Bekoff is also willing to draw moral conclusions based on the typical capacities of animals. Like animal liberationists Peter Singer and Tom Regan, he acknowledges that in a lifeboat type situation, where one must either sacrifice a normal human or a normal dog, one should sacrifice the dog (p. 27). In a sense, Bekoff is ignoring his own arguments when he denounces cross-species comparisons. He frequently points out that critics of cognitive ethology make the fallacious leap from the fact that cognitive ethology is difficult to the assertion that knowledge of animal minds is impossible. But Bekoff himself makes the same leap when he gives arguments showing that cross-species comparisons are difficult and concludes that they are impossible. This point is not a philosopher’s quibble. The judgments I am defending are common sense, and if an animal rights view cannot appeal at least a little to common sense, it will not get far.

Minding Animals is also burdened by Bekoff’s prose style, which is too often cloying and clichéd. He says things like, “It is a never ending journey” (p. 7) and “I conclude that love is the answer” (p. xxi). He can also be redundant. On nearly every page in the first chapter there is a sentence whose meaning boils down to “I really love studying animals.” His scattershot organization can also bog the reader down. At times I felt like I was just being subjected to a barrage of random animal anecdotes. At one point, Bekoff flatly asserts that the “plural of anecdote is data” (p. 47). This isn’t true. To become data, anecdotes must be presented in such a way that patterns in them are manifest. In many sciences this is done by quantification, but a thematic organization of stories can also impart knowledge. I could discern little such organization in Bekoff’s presentation. The stylistic problems are a big flaw for a book that aims at a popular audience. A talented writer like Barry Lopez can do much more to bring you into the world of animals than Bekoff can.

On a purely logical level, to infer that animals deserve radically better treatment than they currently receive at our hands from the fact that they have minds like ours is fairly easy and straightforward. Unfortunately, the animal rights position challenges habits whose age is measured on an evolutionary scale. Minding Animals may not be the best contribution to this struggle, but all efforts are needed.


© 2003 Rob Loftis

Rob Loftis, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, Auburn University