A couple of observations set off by reviews in the January 13 Times Literary Supplement.
One of my greatest peeves about Western philosophy, from day one to right now, is that it is completely obsessed with distinguishing human beings from other animals. I think this is nothing but insecurity and concomitant egomania. Here's a sentence from Derwent May's review of Nathan Emery's Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence: "But what is intelligence? The only kind of intelligence we know about for certain is human intelligence - so our only means of judging if other beings are intelligent is, by definition, to compare them with humans." Very frequently, all the mistakes are built into the first few assumptions, which are supposed to roll painlessly by. But give May this, and you don't need anything else - empirical data about bird behavior or neurology, say - you just defined animal intelligence away a priori. That is instinct, as May would say, not intelligence. First off, of course, it might occur to us that we may be acquainted with many forms of intelligence, insofar as we interact with animals and even machines. We may well be able to learn about other forms of intelligence, and honestly interacting with your cat might be interesting, or trying to get rid of the mice. The "by definition" part is utterly gratuitous, also false; we are going to have to work on the definition. Second, we are imperfectly acquainted with human intelligence, if indeed humans are intelligent. What if you took the approach of trying to open your intelligence to whatever there is in the world rather than shut it down from the get-go by this very slapdash technique?
There are a couple of books reviewed in the 'evolutionary ethics' vein, which I have argued is a non-starter in that it cannot account for the normative force of moral claims. But Michael Tomasello's book A Natural History of Human Morality (reviewed by Adam Hodgkin) appears rather to be an empirical account of how cooperation emerged in human societies. This gives you a no doubt sophisticated and informed version of a familiar narrative: we used to be hyper-competetive brutes; how did we transcend all that to engage in cooperative activity and, in a kind of moral/psychological vein, how did we develop the faculties ('empathy' e.g.), which made that possible? First thing to question: competition as evil or as non-ethical, cooperation as ethics. It's surely a lot more complicated than that, and it depends on whom you're cooperating with and how. Even raw competition is a mode of coordinated activity, and every decent ethics had better strike an individual/collective balance, not simply wipe out the former. And I would emphasize the dark side of cooperation: if cooperation did emerge as Tomasello suggests, it depended on exclusions as much as empathy. As larger groups form, they engage in wider forms of collective exclusion, competition, and violence. The possibility of systematic, population-devastating wars emerges only with large-scale cooperation, correct? As well as often terrible oppressions performed by one part of the group on another, groups crushing individuals, etc. You're going to have to have a sense of the complexity of the terrain to begin with, and again the seemingly obvious ground-clearing assumptions (cooperation/collectivism is moral; competition or individualism amoral or immoral) are where the worst mistakes are made.