11 January 2009

Animal Violence

I was reading Temple Grandin (and Catherine Johnson's) essential book, Animals In Translation, when I read something that I wanted to comment on. (To be fair, the book is just one huge feast for thought, but this seemed particularly philosophical.)

I don't know why animal violence happens, but when I read through the research literature I'm struck by the fact that the animals with the most complex brains are also the ones who engage in some of the nastiest behavior. I suspect people and animals probably pay a price for having a complex brain. For one thing, in a complex brain there may be more opportunities for wiring mistakes that will lead to vicious behavior. Another possibility is that since a more complex brain provides greater flexibility of behavior, animals with complex brains become free to develop new behaviors that will be good, bad, or in between. Human beings are capable of great love and sacrifice, but they are also capable of profound cruelty. Maybe animals are, too.

I think this part is especially telling: “... become free to develop new behaviors that will be good, bad, or in between.” It contrasts with the more reductionist idea that proceeds it, which attributes aberrant behavior to faulty wiring, rather than the freedom to choose, but here again is illustrated the duality of things.

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