Author and animal rights advocate Jeffrey Masson has long written about the emotional life of animals. In his new book, “Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil,” Masson examines human behavior in comparison with other animals, and considers why humans are the most violent predators on earth. He joins us in the studio.

Jeffrey Masson, author of "Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil;" and former psychoanalyst

  • Guest

    When tech geeks force people who don’t have high paying jobs out of San Francisco or the Bay Area, this seems to me almost like a basic animal conflict: One set of mammals wants to be living on the pretty hillside, so they conspire with another set (real estate speculators and the mayor) to force out the “less fit” mammals. No wonder some tech geeks behave like narcissistic trophy-wife seeking drunks… they fancy themselves the alpha male ape on a hill. Such simple-minded people are never good engineers, but tell that to the VCs.

    That reminds me, how many people realize I wonder that it was the USA that first put Eugenics into practice, before the Nazis did? Here in California there was a lot of that, as well as supposedly Puerto Rico with forced sterilizations of poor women.

    Religion is not civilized. It’s a virus that invades the human mind and takes it over in order to replicate its ideas by spreading to other hosts.

    • Niketana

      There’s always the good ol’ Tuskegee experiments for not too distant examples of using people as guinea pigs.

  • geraldfnord

    Uhhh, my cats really enjoy killing things…and have had enemies.

    I think this is the return of the Noble Savage, enough like us that we can appreciate its virtues, conveniently unlike us enough that we can’t judge it when it does what in us would be accounted savagery…..

  • Another Mike

    What about our primate relatives, like chimpanzees?

  • Another Mike

    The dogs domesticated us, not the other way around.

    • Mrs. Eccentric

      We live amidst many raccoons, and i think this is their plan as well. I’d love to see where things lay between our species in 500 to 1,000 years! steph

    • They don’t rape our mothers to bring us into the world, and don’t kill those of us who are not useful to them!

      • Another Mike

        Female dogs refuse the male until they are ready.

        • Ah yes, the lies we tell ourselves to justify exploiting those vulnerable to us. Black human animals are better off when unconsentingly serving white animals too, right? It’s for their sake that we use their bodies for a profit? Please Google “rape rack” as well as “artificial insemination.”

          • Another Mike

            There’s no profit in breeding dogs unless you just don’t care.

  • James Ivey

    Pitbulls are naturally very friendly to people and very aggressive to other dogs. Pitbulls were bred and trained such that a trainer could reach into a fight and pull the dog out without getting bitten.

    It’s only in recent decades that people have been breeding and training pitbulls to be guard dogs — often breeding pitbulls with guard dog breeds. These dogs aren’t really pitbulls, but the term “pitbull” seems to have morphed into meaning any scary looking dog.

    • Another Mike

      There is a theory that dogs interpret human behavior as if we were canines, just as human beings interpret canine behavior as if they were people

  • Ceily

    This guy is in la la land! I watched a documentary on killer whales, and how they hunted a baby whale relentlessly until it ran out of energy – they caught it – and they tore it’s jaw off and killed it, but didn’t eat it – they killed that baby whale for sport.

    • Whether true or not, doesn’t make it okay for humans to!

      • Ceily

        I agree – give peace a chance ๐Ÿ™‚

      • But if the guest is playing fast and loose with facts, maybehis arguments and conclusions are best discarded.

        • Guest

          Defending oneself against someone who is trying to hurt you =/= attacking someone innocent.

        • I think it was more like acknowledged speculation, and trying to work out ideas more than throwing down empirical data. (Which is irrelevant to the argument that killing someone when they have a greater interest in living than the attacker does in munching on their flesh is an unjustifiable act of discriminatory — speciesist, unless one would do the same to an innocent puppy or animal who is a mammal who is a primate who is a human — violence.)

          • He was claiming that animals do not go to war, that early humans had no hierarchy, that early humans did not go to war, that animals never act cruelly. He was then trying to use these factual claims to advance a moral claim. If those claims are wrong, 1) that puts the credibility of his other claims into question (what other stuff has he made up?) and 2) those claims need to be excised from the argument when evaluating his conclusions.

            As a speciest, I find such discrimination eminently justifiable. Animals are simply not a party to the social contract. They do not appear to be capable of joining in. Therefore, I have no difficulty in denying them the benefits of said agreement. So, I get to eat steak and bacon.

          • Be sure to eat an infant human and a grandma with Alzheimers and a human primate mammal animal who doesn’t speak the same verbally constructed language you do and, of course, a human animal who is mentally handicapped while you’re at it! Not one single foundation of “human rights” includes every human and excludes every nonhuman.

          • (Much less justifies hurting any nonhuman while giving any protection to dogs.)

          • It may be that infant humans, grandmas with Alzheimers and such may not be able to join the social contract. (Though the grandma may have already joined) However, there are significant advantages to drawing clear lines. It is much more administrable if all humans are in than if only some are in. After all, the harm from over-inclusion of a single individual is much smaller than that from the exclusion of a single individual.

          • And there’s no harm to humans when we rape, beat, and kill innocent children of other species? That does nothing to us? Someone’s never seen investigative footage that shows how the people doing the direct abusing and killing behave. Allow me to bring up dogs and dogfighting again. Or what it does — if one knows any basic psychology — to a child to see someone hurting an animal, whether a puppy or a human or a pig. PS, talk about “advantage” assumes that yours are the only rights that matter, and we see what that ideology does within human society.

            Check your human privilege. (Which by the way your talking I’m betting is white middle+ class cishet male human privilege.) Those animals do not want to die and just like everyone does, they have a right to live.

          • Whether showing something causes harm is separate from whether doing something causes harm. If indeed showing footage of slaughterhouses causes harm to children. Then maybe we should show that footage.

            That said, I think liberty considerations demand that we not ban the showing of such footage even if it does cause harm. You don’t have to watch.
            And you would loose that bet. And not just because I have upper class privilege instead of middle class privilege.

          • Selfish entitlement at it’s peak, all. See you at the other side of the movement. ๐Ÿ™‚

          • No such thing. There will always be people to push your ideology. And always they’ll encounter a brick wall. Good luck.

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    I live in a wooded area in the east bay and have been an avid birder for decades.

    Last October a scrub jay was killed and it’s body left quite close to our bedroom window (i suspect cooper’s hawk). The second day that the body lay there, in mid-morning i heard some scrub jays calling quite stridently, and since i care about my neighbors and they sounded really upset i went out to take a look.

    Birds of all types were coming in from every direction – bushtits, down and nuttal’s woodpeckers, stellar’s jays, house finch, housesparrows, oak titmice, california towhees, chestnut backed chickadees and more – around 30 birds, all grouped around the small area (maybe 15 feet in diameter) where the fallen jay lay. All of these different birds remained in this area, flitting about, the scrub jays still crying, for almost fifteen minutes. Then the group slowly dispersed.

    i wept.

    I have never seen anything like this before, though i have heard that elephants handle the bones of their dead. It was incredibly moving and i felt so privilege to be able to see and participate in this gathering. The roots of our emotions and behaviours run much deeper into ancient history than our culture likes to acknowledge. Thank you Mr. Masson. steph

  • Great discussion! Violence against the innocent has to stop. Whether or not humans are more violent than other animals, it’s wrong for us (and anyone) to kill somebody who doesn’t want to die, no matter how different they are from us.

  • Rita Pampanin

    I had an amazing experience with a herd of horses at a stable after I lost my husband. The manager said to go and groom one,,,,they all (7) came over, circled me, nudged me gently while I cried. I’ll never forget the experience.

  • Ben Rawner

    I have heard that Orca behavior is based on what pods they were born in. I was wondering if ur guest saw Blackfish, and how the orcas in captivity torched each other?

    • Remember that those beings were confined, and like humans and dogs and all sentient conscious beings, anyone who should have the ocean but is locked in a bathtub will go crazy.

  • tduane62

    In “Gifts of the Crow” by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, they observed ravens who held a grudge against a human who insulted them by swiping at them (to shoo them away from their picnic table food). The ravens demonstrated the “grudge” by dropping apples on the person whenever they saw him. They also document that ravens play including sliding down snow hills on their backs. They also documented incidents of ravens giving gifts to people who feed them, or help them. Worth a read.

  • anna_s

    Thanks for this discussion! Just want to encourage the host and guest to remember that when discussing pit bull type dogs and Rottweilers, using phrases like “more aggressive” and “less gentle”, even when trying to say something positive about the dogs, perpetuates stereotypes that make it harder for advocates to successfully promote adoption and help people understand that every dog is an individual. Language matters! Thanks!

  • Niketana

    While we should be wary of research conducted on animals in captivity, I think that recent studies have dented the halo over bonobos, our supposed peaceful, all love cousin. I wish it weren’t true, but some studies have found that human beings have become LESS, not more, violent, that the chance of dying a violent death was greater thousands of years ago, and I think these findings predate agriculture.

    That said, I think many of us would behave insanely if held against our will or nature in captive situations like zoos or aquatic parks.

    I don’t know what to believe about our human nature. Can we blame agriculture and private property for war and murderous violence? Maybe, as Michael suggests, we have to take heart in the fact that SOME tribes and mammals are utterly peaceful and loving and nonpossessive, even though others aren’t.

    • Many animals fight for dominance within a group. I would wager that the vast majority of gregarious animals do form hierarchies and do so through violence and the threat of violence. The guest was playing fast and lose with facts and words which is unfortunate.

      • Niketana

        I agree; this happens among orcas, too. But some anthropologists have been citing the bonobo as a close primate relative that is unlike the chimp in that it lacks the aggressive behavior. But I’ve read more recently–despite the guest’s claims–that the bonobo isn’t so sweet, disappointingly.

  • Tom Dambly

    It seems to me that it isn’t really necessary to make such absolute distinctions between humans and animals for us to learn from animals and from nature, and that those sharp distinctions aren’t necessary to support the arguments that Mr. Masson is making.

    Perhaps our differences from animals are not essential differences, but differences of degree — we have observed that animals have some degree of language, have emotional lives, can use tools, etc.

    Doesn’t the idea that we have something *in common* with these other Earth-dwelling creatures make the notion that we can learn from them even more compelling?

  • Mark

    It takes intelligence to go to war. It takes collective wisdom not to.

    • Nice!

    • Guest

      It takes intelligence to use Facebook. It takes wisdom not to.

      • Menelvagor

        it takes a lower-form of intelligence (like lack of chromosomes).

    • Menelvagor

      and compassion. Im not sure i would call organizing a war intelligence. I think rather it is a sign of cruel instinct–a lower mind that lacks capacity for reasoning, wisdom and compassion. it is a base intelligence. A denial of whole self. A computer wins at chess, but the computer doesn’t understand or care why or what it is doing. But your point is well made. Agreed.

  • Angeline siegel

    I’m sorry to hear that the discussion is seeking academic/scientific thought when Dr Masson is not an ethnologist. Rather what he does offer is a more holistic perspective of our nature. Plus I’m saddened that most all comments have hinged on human ethics rather than the animal perspective.

    • Dr. Masson makes claims about the morality of certain human actions and uses certain facts as arguments. Evaluating the validity of these facts seems very relevant to evaluating his argument. If those factual claims are not relevant to his moral claims, then why is he bringing them up?

  • Thank you Michael! There are no acceptable circumstances to kill someone who doesn’t want to die. We have to challenge the humane myth!

    • What about in self-defense? Is it really unreasonable for me to use deadly force when it is the only way to preserve my life and limb from an attacker?

      • Defending oneself against someone who is trying to hurt you is not the same as attacking someone innocent. Knocking out a man who tries to rape you does not justify killing any men you like and eating or wearing their bodies.

        • I was responding to your statement which was “There are no acceptable circumstances to kill someone who doesn’t want to die.” You had not specified “innocent”.

          I definitely agree that killing a person because you want to eat or wear their bodies is unacceptable.

          • Ah, my apologies. Should have specified “innocent” or said “attack” or clarified the context of killing them for the purpose of profiting off their bodies.

  • jacobmogey

    This guy keeps harping on genocide as uniquely human–ironically, in making this claim, he demonstrates something that he is completely blind to: going out of the way to agitate for the rights and well-being of completely different species across the globe is also uniquely human. As is giving up a comfortable life in the first world to live in poverty and help complete strangers.

  • Alex

    abuses are far better documented for humans as opposed to animals. animals have no news service. Of course with this degree of under reporting from the animal community the discrepancy will be vast.

    • Menelvagor

      agreed. But this in itself says something. If animals have the capacity to be cruel then they have the capacity to be kind–and this suggests a rational calculating mind that grows with experience and makes choices.

      Kindness in the animal kingdom is also under-reported.

  • Michele

    I can’t help but wonder… isn’t the real question NOT “do other animals behave cruelly?” but “WHY aren’t we more evolved (and thus, beyond violence) than other animals, considering our adaptive intelligence and unique ability to reason?”

    I also think that thanking a “former” animal abuser for his call rather than asking what provoked him to be cruel in the first place was wildly missing the point…. perhaps SADISM is a uniquely human characteristic- but why?

    we need to ask the real questions about the intricate relationship between how we raise boys to disassociate from their emotions and the searing conflict that occurs when vulnerability meets ego and the imbalance in nature that is caused in a testosterone-driven society.

    • Another Mike

      1. Traits which we still possess are likely key to our survival as human beings.

      2. Quizzing a caller changes the shape of the show.

      3. Children are not fully human.

    • red_donn

      The more intelligent a species, the more likely it is to engage in activities we might now label as “evil.” Dolphins are serial rapists, various predators and primates kill and actively torture for sport, and not only ants, but some chimpanzee troops, actually engage in organized warfare over both the short and long term.

      It’s currently theorized that much of our frontal lobe development came about from the ability to understand, predict, and manipulate social interactions. This did not arise out of a desire to empathize and nurture, but particularly to lie.

      If Steven Pinker’s “A Brief History of Violence” holds water, not to mention a study of ethical systems over time, there’s considerable evidence to indicate that we are slowly trending away from violence. However, there’s every reason to say that this is not due to mere intelligence.

      Intelligence can be expressed as the degree of complexity applied in manipulating ourselves, our fellows, and our environment. Nothing in that context by itself demands a non-violent ethos. Over time, with sufficient sense of history, sociology, or simple social programming, we’ve found that more cooperative modes of life tend to lead to greater satisfaction for everyone, but it was hardly an immediate leap demanded by the emergence of many individual intelligences. The slow progression of identifying the good of others with our own good, and letting go of irrational taboos, has a long way to go.

      P.S. According to long-term studies by the CDC, testosterone in males under the age of 40 has declined every decade since the study began in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Other studies show the various positive mental effects of testosterone supplementation on men, including confidence, calmness, and more positive outlooks on life. A different term that “the male hormone” may be far more accurate and useful in reflecting on the root causes of warfare.

      • Menelvagor

        I dont think you can know that. While it may have truth in it. Even Chimps are individuals–and while some waged war and coerced others to wage war and hoard water–still others sought to be kind and share. I’m sure of it. You are generalizing–a pessimistic atitude that you incorporate into your findings. An attitude that BELIEVES we are all born evil.

        • red_donn

          Actually, as an existentialist, I don’t believe an attempt to declare a fundamentally good or evil nature has any grounding in reality. The same natural drives and tools that, in one scenario, give rise to ethnic warfare can, in another, develop into humanistic art and literature. Therefore, the assignment of good and evil at birth is ridiculous. We’re more like players waiting to be taught whatever rules that make up the game of being human at that point – sometimes we even improve on those axioms.

          The question, however, was originally raised in the historical context, which I have become convinced can be factually argued as moving away from the Hobbesian point of view (nasty, brutish, and short) over time. The whole development of ethics has been likened to the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory, wherein perfectly rational individuals choose mutual distrust and selfishness when cooperation would yield the best result. It has taken time, and various means of bonding the human race together to move us towards better and better outcomes.

          If you consider it pessimistic that intelligence did not immediately form an advantage by imparting charity and mercy, then I would be interested to hear what evidence you base the counterfactual on.

          Frankly, I consider my view to not merely be more realistic, since it doesn’t assign modern values as objective drives, but also a much more positive outlook! Humans aren’t diseased, deluded, or a Messiah away from paradise – we’re making all the progress that has ever occurred, bit by bit, because we as a species do prefer a world with ethics of trust, solidarity, and compassion. When I see the state of the world, I don’t wonder about “what went wrong” but instead think “not yet, we’re still getting there.”

          • Menelvagor

            “This did not arise out of a desire to empathize and nurture, but particularly to lie.”

            how do you know that?

            I agree with you in that we are not all fundamentally good or evil but learn from our environment. Even a chimp 10million years ago would have certain experiences–good or bad–that lead him to make certain choices–selfish hoarding, or brutal taking, etc–so other chimps could have had certain experiences that lead them to make more altruistic and cooperative choices–just as we do today.

            The problem is, certain aggressive chimps belligerently influence the other more passive chimps–in all societies. I am more inclined to think that it is the clash of hammer and forge, of opposites that stimulate intelligence. As you say, if chimp A is an aggressive bully, chimp B might use deception to avoid conflict–(but his nature may be one of altruism). As the belligerents get more aggressive, the pacifists are forced to become more creative.

            So it might very well be that the A-holes among us inadvertently triggered higher conspicuousness–the forbidden fruit–a tree of good and evil.

            Fables, legends, folk tales, religion, myth all attempt to explain the known of which they do not understand.

            perhaps the forbidden fruit is so old that goes back to the missing link or even chimps. Aggressive chimp A–tyrant king of the pack–forbids the Beta chimps from eating off his fruit tree. Another clever little chimp–maybe female–either innocently or in attempt to seduce head chimp takes fruit–we see monkeys taunting each other in zoos all the time–head chimp snarls and beats his chest and chases the other chimps out of the orchard.

            I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you are saying. I just dont think we can KNOW anything.

    • Menelvagor

      i think learning not to be cruel comes with being human. nature vs nurture. Children act like tyrants all the time. Empathy is learned thru experience. We may have natural affection, but we also have the will to be cruel. There is some evidence of this in animals too–even tho mostly they are life loving happy creatures when in pleasant and privileged environments. I have seen strays that have great affection for other cats or dogs and people and some who do not. I had a cat once who hunted often. Sometimes he would bring me his kill–a sure sign of gratitude or something like that. But I remember too watching him with mice and chipmunks when he caught them–he teased them for a long time–tossing them n the air, giving them a chance to escape only to grab their tail and pin them down. It seemed rather cruel to me. But maybe he was just fascinated with life and the motion like a toy. I dont think he empathized with the creatures. On the other hand, i have seen cats and dogs clearly empathizing with humans and other cats and dogs. Like humans, love is experiential and grows over time. As a prepubescent teenager I sometimes forced neighbors to fight while I watched on high from the porch. Tyrants are like immature children, embracing a dark side. Love is a choice.

  • Niketana

    Human beings have the faculty of reason to take them above and beyond bestial impulses, cruelty to animals and to each other, etc. Unfortunately, some malevolent leaders have also used their intelligence and gifts for logic to carry out crimes against an “other.”

    Ethicist Peter Singer argues that where empathy falls short, reason can and should take us to acting in ways that don’t cause suffering to anyone. That may be necessary, but simply showing people images of cruelty in factory farms is often enough to change their attitudes about how we produce meat.

  • Menelvagor

    Living in a city, I rescued an incredibly affectionate white cat with blue eyes who seemed to be waiting for me one day at dawn–ran to me and climbed all over me. We decided to take him home, cleaned him up, got him to the vet–got a clean bill of health, got his shots, and had him groomed. When the time came to get him neutered he was dizzy with anesthesia and i carelessly left the window open. he climbed out on the ledge and fell to his death under anesthesia–he wasn’t out of my sight for more than a minute ( I heard him scratching in the litter box, seconds before the silence). We buried him in a plum grove in sight of my living room window. We even burned candles for him on his grave and every night after for several days. but during the day, the next day after his death, and a few days following-cats from around the area came calling, sat on his grave in silence, one at a time, all day long, some observing from a distance, before they came to sit with him and say their goodbyes. I couldn’t believe my eyes. At least ten cats came calling, just to sit with my friend and watch his grave. Sometimes, I regret rescuing little Ma Jiang. The next spring, ivy flourished on his grave.

  • Menelvagor

    this show was extremely short, and said nothing really. I was so dissapointed. Is it my feed? The audio meter says 52 minutes but I only got ten minutes before you closed the show and said goodbye–Krasny come back, come back…..

  • Menelvagor

    Ok, I was able to fix it. The cat I have now was born to a mother who is famous. She regularly–everyday–escorted the owners pet dog–a dog that was blind/nearly blind, around the building to poop and pee–back and forth into the shop in which they lived. A seeing-eye cat for a dog. They did this alone without any help or humans. The firs time i met this cat (my cat’s mother) she blinked slowly at me with great affection (so it seems); her eyes were filled with an intelligence I have never seen in an animal before. Her daughter, my cat, is the same way. She is obsessed with playing fetch like a dog. Sh brings it back to me every time and drops in my lap or at me feet, or on the desk where I am working–if I dont comply, she insists, by tapping me or climbing on me and tapping on me. She loves to play hide and seek throughout th ehouse. She plays chase. And tag. She loves tag. This is a cat. She also shows signs of understanding my moods, and seems to be sad when I am sad.

  • Menelvagor

    abortion is not a big deal (in the early stages) only in America is it such a loopy big deal. No-not all people mourn a zygote. I know plenty. Abortion is political. Now, if the baby is halfway developed that’s something different. But the first month after conception, nonsense. In America everyone feels pressure to conform to this sentimental religious–RELIGIOUS NONSENSE. I dont mourn my sperm. If i did i would be a mass murderer in the billions. Only in America are women so pressured to carry to term, even among progressives. and yet Americans are the most warlike people on earth. So it is forbidden to abort an unformed fetus, but is glorious to murder in the mass millions and go forth to kill poor people in the name of wealth, god, oil, power, pride, hate, racism, patriotism….i’m sorry but aren’t those poor people human lives that you so readily torture, maim, incinerate, burn alive, nuke, stab and shred with bullets…? Are they not? Religious people make me so sick. Religion = bigotry. religion = evil. If there is a god, and it is a an all-good god–surely he condemns America.

    When will Americans have an honest conversation?

    Krasny, not for the first time, you cut a guest off when he began to reveal such things–how we teach our children to kill and go to war–you cut him off immediately because this is not allowed to be spoken of. You’ve done it before-and so have other NPR shows. Apparently it is forbidden to question our corporate-aristocracy’s wars and our war like nature.

    Krasny, are you afraid to look into the abyss?

  • HiloHattie

    This interview prompted a lot of Youtube surfing. Check out the Jeffrey Masson web page and his “favorite videos”! Then watch other related Youtube postsโ€ฆ time to go veg!

  • Neytiri Tskaha

    Wonderful program…. so many many thanks!

    “For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.โ€ – Henry Beston

  • Lester Sanders

    Mr Masson blankly states that animals kill only for survival and there is no evidence they take pleasure in killing. I spent some time with a shepherd in the Flat Top Wilderness.
    He said the worst thing about wolves was that they would attack his flock at night and wantonly kill (rip their throats) large numbers of sheep and leave them otherwise untouched (did not eat them).

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