Animal Writes
3 May 2000 Issue
Social Play & Morality In Animals

by Marc Bekoff -- [email protected] 

Many mammals, especially youngsters, love to play, seeking out play with boundless zeal and expressing joyful glee as they run about and wrestle, chase and bite their friends. Playtime's safe time, mistakes are forgiven and apologies accepted by others, especially when one player's a youngster who's not yet a competitor for social status, food or mates. Animal play is obvious, but animal social morality isn't. People often wonder if some nonhumans are moral beings with codes of social conduct that regulate their behavior in terms of what's permissible and what's not during social encounters.

Group-living animals provide many insights into animal morality. Individuals coordinate their behavior some mate, some hunt, some defend resources, some accept subordinate status to achieve common goals. Individuals know what they can and can't do, and the group's integrity depends upon individuals agreeing that certain rules regulate their behavior. At any given moment individuals know their place or role and those of other group members.

Consider pack-living wolves. For a long time researchers thought pack size was related to food resources. Wolves typically feed on such prey as elk and moose, each of which is larger than an individual wolf. Hunting such large ungulates successfully takes more than one wolf, so it made sense to postulate that wolf packs evolved because of the size of wolves' prey. Defending food might also be associated with pack-living.

However, long-term research by David Mech showed pack size in wolves was regulated by social, not food-related, factors. Mech discovered that the number of wolves who could live together in a coordinated pack was governed by the number of wolves with whom individuals could closely bond (social attraction factor) balanced against the number of individuals from whom an individual could tolerate competition (social competition factor). Codes of conduct, and consequentially packs, broke down when there were too many wolves.

What about social play and the development of social morality? It's thought that during play, while individuals are having fun in a relatively safe environment, they form social bonds, acquire different dominance ranks, and learn what they can and can't do to others, how hard they can bite, how roughly they can interact and how to resolve conflicts. They generalize these codes of conduct to other group members and other situations. Individuals also learn to anticipate what others will do in certain situations and to behave flexibly in changing environments. As a result of lessons in social cognition and empathy they learn what's "right" or "wrong" what's acceptable to others the result of which is the development and maintenance of a well-oiled social group. (Social morality doesn't mean other animals are "wrong" when they kill for food, for they've evolved to do this.) My own research on members of the dog family showed that youngsters of more-social species (wolves) play more than youngsters of less-social species (coyotes, red foxes, golden jackals).

Rules of social play, interacting justly, transfer to codes of social conduct that facilitate the smooth functioning of a social group. What could be a better atmosphere in which to learn social skills than play, where there are few penalties for transgressions?

Human morality has some origins in the behavior of nonhuman animals. Social morality, knowing right from wrong and behaving fairly, is an evolved trait shared by many of our animal kin. We aren't alone or unique in the arena of social morality.

Marc Bekoff ([email protected]) teaches in Environmental, Population and Organismic Biology at the University of Colorado. April 16, 2000

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