Until recently, scientists would have said your cat was snuggling up to you only as a means to get tasty treats. But many animals have a moral compass, and feel emotions such as love, grief, outrage and empathy, a new book argues.
The book, “Can Animals Be Moral?” (Oxford University Press, October 2012), suggests social mammals such as rats, dogs and chimpanzees can choose to be good or bad. And because they have morality, we have moral obligations to them, said author Mark Rowlands, a University of Miami philosopher.
“Animals are owed a certain kind of respect that they wouldn’t be owed if they couldn’t act morally,” Rowlands told LiveScience. But while some animals have complex emotions, they don’t necessarily have true morality, other researchers argue.
Some research suggests animals have a sense of outrage when social codes are violated. Chimpanzees may punish other chimps for violating certain rules of the social order, said Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-author of “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals” (University Of Chicago Press, 2012).
Male bluebirds that catch their female partners stepping out may beat the female, said Hal Herzog, a psychologist at Western Carolina University who studies how humans think about animals.
And there are many examples of animals demonstrating ostensibly compassionate or empathetic behaviors toward other animals, including humans. In one experiment, hungry rhesus monkeys refused to electrically shock their fellow monkeys, even when it meant getting food for themselves. In another study, a female gorilla named Binti Jua rescued an unconscious 3-year-old (human) boy who had fallen into her enclosure at the Brookline Zoo in Illinois, protecting the child from other gorillas and even calling for human help. And when a car hit and injured a dog on a busy Chilean freeway several years ago, its canine compatriot dodged traffic, risking its life to drag the unconscious dog to safety.
All those examples suggest that animals have some sense of right and wrong, Rowlands said. “I think what’s at the heart of following morality is the emotions,” Rowlands said. “Evidence suggests that animals can act on those sorts of emotions.”
Instinct, not morals?
Not everyone agrees these behaviors equal morality, however. One of the most obvious examples — the guilty look of a dog that has just eaten a forbidden food — may not be true remorse, but simply the dog responding appropriately to its owner’s disappointment, according to a study published in the journal Behavioural Processes in 2009.
And animals don’t seem to develop or follow rules that serve no purpose for them or their species, suggesting they don’t reason about morality. Humans, in contrast, have a grab bag of moral taboos, such as prohibitions on eating certain foods, committing blasphemy, or marrying distant cousins.
“What I think is interesting about human morality is that often times there’s this wacky, arbitrary feature of it,” Herzog said. Instead, animal emotions may be rooted in instinct and hard-wiring, rather than conscious choice, Herzog said. “They look to us like moral behaviors, but they’re not rooted in the same mire of intellect and culture and language that human morality is,” he said.
But Rowlands argues that such hair-splitting is overthinking things. In the case of the child-rescuing gorilla Binti Jua, for instance, “what sort of instinct is involved there? Do gorillas have an instinct to help unconscious boys in enclosures?” he said.
And even if instinct is involved, human parents have an instinctive desire to help their children, but that makes the desire no less moral, he said. Being able to reason about morality isn’t required to have a moral compass, he added. A 3-year-old child, for instance, may not consciously articulate a system of right and wrong, but will (hopefully) still feel guilty for stealing his playmate’s toy. (Scientists continue to debate whether or not babies have moral compasses.)
If one accepts that animals have moral compasses, Rowlands argues, we have the responsibility to treat them with respect, Rowlands said. “If the animal is capable of acting morally, I don’t think it’s problematic to be friends with your pets,” he said. “If you have a cat or a dog and you make it do tricks, I am not sure that’s respect. If you insist on dressing them up, I’m not sure I’m onboard with that either.”
Copfer, who is a microbiologist, has created a technique that makes use of genetically modified E. coli bacteria to create photographs.
The answer to the enduring question of the smallest thing in the universe has evolved along with humanity.
People once thought grains of sand were the building blocks of what we see around us. Then the atom was discovered, and it was thought indivisible, until it was split to reveal protons, neutrons and electrons inside. These too, seemed like fundamental particles, before scientists discovered that protons and neutrons are made of three quarks each.
“This time we haven’t been able to see any evidence at all that there’s anything inside quarks,” said physicist Andy Parker. “Have we reached the most fundamental layer of matter?”
And even if quarks and electrons are indivisible, Parker said, scientists don’t know if they are the smallest bits of matter in existence, or if the universe contains objects that are even more minute.
Parker, a professor of high-energy physics at England’s Cambridge University, recently hosted a television special on the U.K.’s BBC Two channel called “Horizon: How Small is the Universe?”
Strings or points?
In experiments, teensy, tiny particles like quarks and electrons seem to act like single points of matter with no spatial distribution. But point-like objects complicate the laws of physics. Because you can get infinitely close to a point, the forces acting on it can become infinitely large, and scientists hate infinities.
An idea called superstring theory could solve this issue. The theory posits that all particles, instead of being point-like, are actually little loops of string. Nothing can get infinitely close to a loop of string, because it will always be slightly closer to one part than another. That “loophole” appears to solve some of these problems of infinities, making the idea appealing to physicists. Yet scientists still have no experimental evidence that string theory is correct.
Another way of solving the point problem is to say that space itself isn’t continuous and smooth, but is actually made of discrete pixels, or grains, sometimes referred to as space-time foam. In that case, two particles wouldn’t be able to come infinitely close to each other because they would always have to be separated by the minimum size of a grain of space.
First real-time digital computer developed in 1944 by MIT to aid the war effort. From MIT News:
In the years during and after World War II, MIT played a prominent role in developing technologies that helped the U.S. military defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, and later in creating systems used to track aircraft during the Cold War. In the process, the Institute created the world’s first real-time digital computer and the first electronic navigation system — a forerunner of today’s GPS.
These pioneering developments were among those recognized Wednesday at the Boston-area dedications of three commemorative plaques from the IEEE recognizing the projects as “Milestones” in the field.
MIT’s Project Whirlwind computer, developed beginning in 1944 in a building at 211 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, was the first computer ever to use magnetic-core memory — a system that went on to dominate the computer industry for two decades. It was also the first to use a CRT display to show its output, and the first that was fast enough to provide real-time computations, allowing it to be used to control an aircraft simulator for bomber pilots.