Dale Alfred Peterson was born and raised in Corning, New York, a small town known for glass manufacturing in western New York State. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1967 (BA in English and Psychology), then began graduate studies at Stanford University, first in the writing program under Wallace Stegner, later in the English Department. Stanford awarded him a Ph.D. in English and American Literature in 1977.
The Vietnam War caused a break in Peterson's graduate studies. As a conscientious objector, Peterson was assigned to alternative service in 1971 at a large U.S. Veterans Administration hospital, working as an attendant on a lock-up ward for severely disturbed or mentally ill patients, many of them diagnosed as schizophrenic. He wrote a novel loosely based on his experiences, which was never published, and began work on a non-fiction treatment of the social and psychological experiences of the mentally ill. That study became an insider's history of mental illness based on autobiographical accounts of madness written during the nearly five and a half centuries between 1436 and 1976: published at last as A Mad People's History of Madness (1982).
After receiving his doctorate, Peterson turned to carpentry, becoming a high-end finish carpenter engaged in remodeling houses in Silicon Valley, incidentally developing some friendships and connections with various people in the computer industry. A young Steve Jobs, for example, gave him one of the early Apple II computers.
Using the Apple II as a word processor, Peterson turned away from carpentry and settled down to writing, first with four books about computers (personal computers, computers in the arts and education, and programming). In partnership with John O'Neill, a London artist who had emigrated to California in order to design artistic games, he also helped create a computer game on the theme of interspecies communication, The Dolphins' Pearl, which was released in 1984.
The Dolphins' Pearl marked a shift in Peterson's interests from intelligent machines and to intelligent animals. Making the decision to write about primates, Peterson began to research the topic at libraries but soon took a more direct approach in a series of arduous trips into tropical forests around the world: floating for two thousand miles down the Amazon River from southeastern Brazil, making visits to West, Central, East Africa, and Madagascar, and from there traveling to southern India, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Mentawai Islands. His proximate goal was to find the twelve most endangered primates (monkeys, apes, and prosimians) in the world. His ultimate goal was to write a book about those animals and their fate. Published in 1989, The Deluge and the Ark: A Journey into Primate Worlds was short-listed for the Sir Peter Kent Conservation Prize in Great Britain.
It also attracted the attention of Dr. Jane Goodall, the pioneering primatologist, who went on to join Peterson in writing a book about the ethical issues of using chimpanzees in captivity and the conservation problems threatening chimpanzees in the wild. Translated into Chinese, German, and Polish, Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People (1993) was distinguished as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Library Journal Best of the Year.
With Harvard University biological anthropologist Professor Richard Wrangham, Peterson co-authored the classic evolutionary study of human violence Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1996), which has been translated into nine foreign languages and honored by The Village Voice as Best of the Year. In 1995 he published a light-hearted book about his travels into obscure parts of Africa looking for chimpanzees (Chimpanzee Travels), and in 1999 he released a second travel book, describing a 20,000-mile road trip taken with his two children in the United States (Storyville USA).
Peterson also turned to biography. Through collecting and editing hundreds of her personal letters, he produced a highly personal, two-volume "epistolary autobiography" of Jane Goodall: Africa in My Blood (2000) and Beyond Innocence (2001). He next wrote Goodall's only full (according to Nature magazine, the "definitive") biography, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (2006). The New York Times honored it as a Notable Book of the Year, while the Boston Globe called it Best of the Year.
During this general period, moreover, he joined forces with photographer Karl Ammann to tour Central Africa and produce a shocking exposé of the trade in ape meat, Eating Apes (2003), which was pronounced Best of the Year by the Denver Post, Discover, The Economist, and the Globe and Mail. Subsequent African and Asian travels with photographer Ammann resulted in Elephant Reflections (2009) and Giraffe Reflections (2012). Peterson’s retrospective narrative of those rough travels in the company of Karl Ammann--Where Have All the Animals Gone? was published late in 2015. Additional recent works include The Moral Lives of Animals (2011) and a play for children entitled Jane of the Apes, which was co-authored with Randel Wright.
For 2013 and 2014, Peterson was named a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University; in 2015 he was named a Scholar in Residence at the Erikson Institute for Education and Research, Austen Riggs Center. During that period, he worked on a book entitled Ghosts, which is a narrative of everyday life at Jane Goodall’s research site in East Africa during the 1960s. He also, in late 2014, co-organized the Harvard University symposium on Animal Consciousness: Evidence and Implications, which was a two-day public conversation among prominent American neuroscientists, animal behaviorists, and humanists on issues of animal cognition and consciousness.
As a member of the executive board for several years, and currently the chairman, of PEN New England, Peterson has been active in promoting nature writing and writers through the creation of the Henry David Thoreau Prize for Literary Excellence in Nature Writing. Recent recipients of the prize include Diane Ackerman, Peter Matthiessen, Gary Snyder, E. O. Wilson, and Gretel Ehrlich. Peterson is also an adjunct faculty member in the English Department at Tufts University.