God-Dog Anadrome (Evolution of Morality)

According to a Pew Forum poll from 2007, 57% of Americans think it is necessary to believe in God to be moral.  Research, however, does not support the belief that religious people are more “moral” than non-religious people.  As Mark Chaves (2010:5) recently noted:

Decades of psychological research looking for behavioral consequences in intrinsic religiosity has yielded the conclusion that intrinsically religious people do not act in more prosocial ways than anyone else, but they think they do, or should, or would, so their behavioral self-reports often are different from those of other people even when their behavior is not (Batson and Powell 2003; Leach et al. 2008; Trimble 1997).

An “anadrome” is a word which forms a different word when spelled backwards.  Although dogs do not believe in gods, it turns out they have a keen sense of ethics or morality.  Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce report on this in their article “The Ethical Dog: Looking for Roots of Human Morality in the Animal Kingdom?  Focus on Canines, Who Know How to Play Fair“:

Chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates regularly make the news when researchers, logically looking to our closest relatives for traits similar to our own, uncover evidence of their instinct for fairness. But our work has suggested that wild canine societies may be even better analogues for early hominid groups—and when we study dogs, wolves and coyotes, we discover behaviors that hint at the roots of human morality.

Morality, as we define it in our book Wild Justice, is a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions. These behaviors, including altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness, are readily evident in the egalitarian way wolves and coyotes play with one another. Canids (animals in the dog family) follow a strict code of conduct when they play, which teaches pups the rules of social engagement that allow their societies to succeed. Play also builds trusting relationships among pack members, which enables divisions of labor, dominance hierarchies and cooperation in hunting, raising young, and defending food and territory.

Because this social organization closely resembles that of early humans (as anthropologists and other experts believe it existed), studying canid play may offer a glimpse of the moral code that allowed our ancestral societies to grow and flourish.

What we call morality or ethics is not the exclusive province of humans or religion.


Batson, Daniel and Powell, Adam.  2003.  “Altruism and Prosocial Behavior,” in Handbook of Psychology: Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 5, eds. T. Millon and M. Lerner, pp. 463-84.  Wiley.

Chaves, Mark.  2010.  “Rain Dances in the Dry Season: Overcoming the Religious Congruence Fallacy.”  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(1):1-14.

Leach, Mark et al.  2008.  “Religious Activities, Religious Orientation, and Aggressive Behavior.”  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47(2):311-319.

Trimble, Douglas.  1997.  “The Religious Orientation Scale: Review and Meta-Analysis of Social Desirability Effects.”  Educational and Psychological Measurement, 57(6):970-986.

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