Short Review – C. Allen and M. Bekoff. Animal Play and the Evolution of Morality: An Ethological Approach

Animal Play and the Evolution of Morality: An Ethological Approach Colin Allen and Marc Bekoff.  Topoi, Volume 24, Number 2 / September, 2005


  • Ethology, whether via the study of laboratory animals or their observation in their natural habitat, can offer considerable food for thought in outlining the origin of morality.
  • An analysis of animal play patterns (particularly amongst canids) reveals a number of interesting proto-moral features. Young animals use play to develop a “foundation of fairness” which allows and furthers future cooperation in the group.
  • Playing fair, as with humans, may also result in the release of endorphins, effectively rewarding fair play.
  • They argue that contemporary research should be diversified away from nonhuman primates in order to widen the scope of the examination of morality amongst animals.
  • Fair play in groups is rewarded by groups and those who do not abide by the “rules” tend to be excluded from the social group – with severe consequences. Coyotes who were seen to break the rules of fair play leave the main group, with 55% dying within a year (compared with an in group mortality rate of 20%).
  • Bekoff further contends that much of morality consists of basic emotional responses and the distribution of resources fairly, things which “have analogues in animal behaviour”.


  • Undoubtedly poses some interesting questions as to the potential origins of morality – even though, as Bekoff admits, “animals don’t theorize on the level of the Kantian categorical imperative”, neither do most humans.
  • Perhaps the most intriguing aspect concerning the evolution of morality – as Bekoff puts it, “to say that the roots of morality can be found in animal behaviour is not necessarily to say that morality itself is a characteristic of those animals”. In other words, we can use the findings of ethology to (potentially) shed light on the roots of our own moral activity without the need to consider the obvious differences between humans and non-humans.
  • Places social relationships at the core of morality.
  • Unfortunately, ethology can only offer us insights into the origins of morality, not its evolution and, particularly, its complexity.

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