Reviews

Good Dog! Bad Dog! Morally Sophisticated Dog! and Other Thoughts on 'The Moral Lives of Animals'

Told in a loose anecdotal style and with plenty of thought-provoking details, this is likely to have you reconsidering your relationship with Fido or Mouser.


The Moral Lives of Animals

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 343 pages
Author: Dale Peterson
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-03
Amazon

Just about anyone who has ever owned a pet has, at some point, tickled Rover's belly and cooed, "Oh, you're such a good dog!" Or maybe you've scratched the underside of Mitten’s chin while murmuring, "What a good kitty! Such a good kitty!" What these gestures do, of course, is help us express our affection for the animals that we choose to share our lives with—whether dog or cat, horse or parakeet or hamster. (Okay, probably not fish. It's hard to picture someone tapping on the glass of an aquarium and purring, "Oh what a sweet fish I see in there! You're such a good fish!")

Notwithstanding all this affectionate approval, we as humans are merely using a kind of linguistic shorthand to address our pets, right? When we say "good dog" or "good kitty", what we're really saying is "You're the dog that is good for me" or "You're the cat that makes me feel good things." Right? We're not really imbuing these animals with moral characteristics—with the ability to make choices, to decide whether to be kind or unkind, to discern right from wrong and act accordingly. That's humans-only territory, isn't it?

Well, you may think so, and your parents probably do—and quite likely your priest, rabbi or maulvi does, too. Dale Peterson, however, isn't so sure. In The Moral Lives of Animals, he explores the possibility that morality is an aspect of behavior, and like any other such, it developed over eons of evolution—especially for non-human mammals. His arguments are lucid and his writing is compellingly based upon decades of research and observation. Told in a loose anecdotal style, with plenty of thought-provoking details, The Moral Lives of Animals is likely to have you reconsidering your relationship with Fido or Mouser, whether or not you are entirely convinced of the idea that there is a moral intelligence behind those glittering, non-human eyes.

The first thing Peterson does is dismiss the idea that the belief most of us hold now—that animals are more or less unthinking bundles of instinct, genetically programmed to act the way they do—is so self-evident that humans have always held it. In fact, for centuries animals were thought to possess the ability to make moral choices—to be "good" animals or "bad" ones. One startling illustration of this is the 1662 execution of numerous farm animals along with the man, William Potter, who was convicted of sodomizing them. Potter, a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, was tried, convicted and hanged. Astonishingly, so were the cows, sheep and pigs he had violated. The animals were killed for the same reason Potter was: because they had committed the sin of sodomy. In other words, they had made a moral choice worthy of condemnation.

This is fascinating, but author Peterson soon leaves the historical milieu and instead focuses on various aspects of animal behavior, including human behavior, in order to try to parse what exactly is meant by morality. He forcuses on two sets of moral guidelines, which he defines as rules and attachments. Rules (which roughly equate to "doing what one is supposed to do") govern things like authority, sex and possession; attachments (which correlates roughly with "being nicer than one needs to be") influence ideas of cooperation, kindness and flexibility. These ideas are familiar enough in human society, but Peterson makes a compelling case for their existence in the lives of other mammals, as well.

Peterson cites Biblical sources such as the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate altruistic impulses in human beings, then shows how these same impulses play out among groups of animals; the book's overarching metaphor comes from Moby-Dick, which he cleverly quotes at the start of every chapter and whose appropriateness is astonishing (based on these extracts, one gets the feeling that Herman Melville was a natural scientist first, psychologist second, and novelist third). These and other disparate sources help Peterson avoid the trap of scientific doublespeak, while at the same time maintaining a sense of appropriate seriousness.

Also helpful in propelling the book is Peterson's gift for graceful, illustrative expression. "A lizard is given only one life but many tails," we are informed. Elsewhere, describing the traditional religious interpretations of human morality, "Infants emerge into the buzzing chaos of the world either behaviorally negative (a condition of sinfulness as an inherited consequence of Original Sin or some equivalent) or behaviorally neutral (as a result of being born with a mental Blank Slate)." When discussing the understandable human inability to recognize animal morality, he states that "the search for human values made manifest in the lives of animals [is] easy to parody. It’s like dressing elephants in tutus."

Peterson's smooth writing should not be taken for glibness. This is a very serious book, one in which serious ideas are explored thoughtfully but also in a style accessible to the interested non-specialist. As for why anyone should be interested—well, many of us share our lives with animals every day. Even those of who do not, nonetheless share the planet with them. Given the increasing stresses we are all placing on each other, it seems reasonable, even vital, to carry as clear-eyed and unsentimental a view of the animal world as possible. After all, we are a part of it.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image