Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

W&L Spring Term Course Explores Animal Behavior, Human Morality

From marriage and the family to slavery and systems of government, individuals have historically looked to animal behavior for answers on how humans should conduct themselves

A new spring term course at Washington and Lee University, “Animal Behavior and Human Morality,” is delving into the history of this phenomenon.

“I like to think it’s a fun and engaging topic,” said Nicolaas Rupke, the Johnson Professor of History at W&L who is teaching the course. “If animals behave in certain ways, then these ways are natural and therefore beyond reproach. If humans share these traits, then they too are free of blame.”

According to Rupke, an internationally-known expert on the history of science, the course is designed to give students hands-on experience in carrying out original research in the history of science. “I expect students to familiarize themselves with the main work of a particular scientist and explore in detail the life times and reception of the ideas of that person,” he said.

The study of animal behavior generally started around 1800, Rupke said, noting that previously most people had believed that the basis for human morality was Biblical teaching. But, he added, people began searching for other sources and felt that clues for how we should behave could be found in nature.

In the early days of studying animal behavior, there was a great deal of debate about the correct form of government. Should it be a monarchy like the bees, a republic like ants or would anarchy be best? For example, in the early 19th century, major advocates of the French Revolution criticized bee societies and touted ant societies and their relative success. Also around that time, they discovered that ants have the phenomenon of slavery. “Citing ant behavior became a hot topic in justifying American slavery in the abolition debate,” said Rupke.

According to Rupke, the next big event was in the 1900’s with the questioning of marriage and why monogamy is supposedly normal behavior. “This was a more liberal move away from Victorian sexuality,” he said. “A major German writer, Wilhelm Boelsche, argued that narrow Victorian monogamy was all stuck-up nonsense. It’s not natural. ‘Let’s be more promiscuous,’ he said. And he and his circle of friends, which included famous artists and people from across Europe, certainly were living a pretty wild life in a suburb of Berlin.”

Ant society came back into fashion as a result of World War I. “An expert on the study of ants, who was also a politician and co-founder of the League of Nations, wrote serious literature on the behavior of ants in guiding us toward world peace,” said Rupke. “Following World War II, there was also a major development that dealt with aggression, territoriality and trying to understand the two world wars. So they studied how ritual behavior among animals settles conflicts between them and how animals prevent intra-species destruction.”

Another highlight in the study of animal behavior came with the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the publication of Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape. “It was basically used to justify the 60’s,” said Rupke.

Similar studies have followed, but with more complexity, at the level of altruism and sociobiology. For example, today’s use of Bonobos—chimpanzee-type apes—to emphasize empathy and the importance of females in ape society, which has proven popular with the gender equality movement.

“This all raises the question of whether these connections are justified,” said Rupke. “As an historian, I use an historical argument rather than a theological or philosophical one. When you look at these connections, instead of reflecting what nature tells us about human morality, it instead tells us about the sensibilities, preferences and predilections of the time when those who studied animal behavior lived. So in the end it’s a form of ventriloquism, and it isn’t really nature speaking — it’s the dominant human culture at that time.”

A native of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Rupke was trained in earth sciences at the University of Groningen (B.S.) and at Princeton University (Ph.D.). After establishing an impressive research record in marine geology, Rupke turned his interests to the history of science, particularly to late-modern biological and physical sciences as they developed in Germany and Great Britain.

His books include works on William Buckland, the 19th-century British geologist, and Richard Owen, British contemporary and critic of Charles Darwin and founder of the British Museum of Natural History. Rupke has also written a major book on Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist and explorer whose work in botanical geography laid the groundwork for the field of biogeography.

News Contact:
Sarah Tschiggfrie
News Director

If you know any W&L faculty who would be great profile subjects, tell us about them! Nominate them for a web profile.