Mice aren"t considered "animals" under federal law, and aren"t protected from harmful research.© Getty Images
Many researchers also recognize that we must be anthropomorphic (attribute human traits to animals) when we discuss animal emotions but that if we do it carefully and biocentrically (from the animals" point of view), we can still give due consideration to the animals" position. As Professor Robert Sapolsky, a world-renowned ethologist and neuroscientist and author of A Primate’s Memoirs notes about his anthropomorphic tendencies when he describes baboon behavior: "One hopes that the parts that are blatantly ridiculous will be perceived as such. I’ve nonetheless been stunned by some of my more humorless colleagues—to see that they were not capable of recognizing that. The broader answer, though, is I’m not anthropomorphizing. Part of the challenge in understanding the behavior of a species is that they look like us for a reason. That’s not projecting human values. That’s primatizing the generalities that we share with them." No matter what we call it, researchers agree that animals and humans share many traits, including emotions. Thus, we’re not inserting something human into animals, but we’re identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe. Being anthropomorphic is doing what’s natural and necessary to understand animal emotions.
Over the years, I’ve noticed a curious phenomen that I call anthropomorphic double-talk. If someone says that an animal is happy, no one questions it, but if someone says that an animal is unhappy, then charges of anthropomorphism are immediately raised and sceptics ask, "How do you know this?" This is especially true of people who try to justify keeping animals in zoos or using them for invasive research. Of course, seeing positive emotions is as anthropomorphic as seeing negative emotions, but some people just don’t get it.
THE EVOLUTION OF ANIMAL EMOTIONS: DENYING EMOTIONS TO ANIMALS IS BAD BIOLOGY
It’s bad biology to argue against the existence
of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology and social neuroscience support the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives. Emotions have evolved as adaptations in numerous species and they serve as a social glue to bond animals with one another. Emotions also catalyze and regulate a wide variety of social encounters among friends and competitors and permit animals to protect themselves adaptively and flexibly using various behavior patterns in a wide variety of venues. Charles Darwin’s well-accepted ideas about evolutionary continuity, that differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind, argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions, empathy, and even moral behavior. In practice, continuity allows us to connect the "evolutionary dots" among different species to highlight similarities in evolved traits including individual feelings and passions. What we have since learned about animal emotions and empathy fits in well with what we know about the lifestyle of different species—how complex their social interactions and social networks are. Emotions, empathy, and knowing right from wrong are keys to survival, without which animals—both human and nonhuman—would perish. That’s how important they are. The borders between "them" (animals) and "us" are murky and permeable.
ANIMAL EMOTIONS AND SCIENCE
Studying animal emotions addresses a number of big questions concerning how science is conducted. Many skeptics feel that we are so uncertain about whether other animals have any sort of emotional life that they prefer to put off weighing in until we know more. For some, this really means waiting until we are absolutely sure. But science is never as certain as many would like it to be. Climate change researcher Henry Pollack says it well in his book Uncertain Science
Uncertain World: "Because uncertainty never disappears, decisions about the future, big and small, must always be made in the absence of certainty. Waiting until uncertainty is eliminated is an implicit endorsement of the status quo, and often an excuse for maintaining it.
Uncertainty, far from being a barrier to progress, is actually a strong stimulus for, and an important ingredient of, creativity."
Concerning animal sentience, which includes emotions, veterinarian John Webster notes in his book Animal Sentience and Animal Welfare, "The nature of science is that it never (well, hardly ever) yields answers that are complete and unequivocal, but the consensus among scientists is that most, if not all the animals that we use for our own purposes, whether for food, for fun or for scientific procedures, are sentient. The simplest definition of animal sentience is "Feelings that matter.""
I often begin my lectures with the question: "Is there anyone in this audience who thinks that dogs don’t have feelings—that they don’t experience joy and sadness?" I’ve never had an enthusiastic response to this question, even in scientific gatherings, although on occasion a hand or two goes up slowly, usually halfway, as the person glances around to see if anyone is watching. But if I ask, "How many of you believe that dogs have feelings?" then almost every hand waves wildly and people smile and nod in vigorous agreement. Using behavior as our guide, by analogy we map the feelings of other beings onto our own emotional templates, and we do it very reliably.
Researchers who conduct invasive work have to ask themselves, "Would I do this to my dog?"© Getty Images
WHY ANIMAL EMOTIONS MATTER
When people tell me that they love animals because they’re feeling beings and then go on to abuse them, I tell them that I’m glad they don’t love me. Recognizing that animals have emotions is important because animals" feelings matter. Animals are sentient beings experiencing the ups and downs of daily life, and we must respect this when we interact with them. While we obviously have much more to learn, what we already know should be enough to inspire changes in the way we treat other animals. We must not simply continue with the status quo because that is what we’ve always done and it’s convenient to do so. What we know has changed, and so should our relationships with animals. Quite often what we accept as "good welfare" isn’t "good enough."
Our relationship with other animals is a complex, ambiguous, challenging and frustrating affair, and we must continually reassess how we should interact with our nonhuman kin. Part of this reassessment involves asking difficult questions. Thus, I often ask researchers who conduct invasive work "Would you do that to your dog?" Some are startled to hear this question, but it’s a very important one to ask because if someone won’t do something to their dog that they do daily to other dogs or to mice, rats, cats, monkeys, pigs, cows, elephants or chimpanzees, we need to know why.
Humans have enormous power to affect the world any way we choose. Daily, we silence sentience in innumerable animals in a wide variety of venues. However, we also know that we’re not the only sentient creatures with feelings, and with the knowledge that what hurts us hurts them comes the enormous responsibility and obligation to treat other beings with respect, appreciation, and compassion. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it’s their emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their behalf.
Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other animals. We must never forget this.
MARC BEKOFF is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. All of this material is discussed in his book The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter (New World Library, California, 2007).
CONTACTS: Marc Bekoff; Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals