Friday, October 16, 2009

The Emotional Lives of Animals

The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

After reading The Emotional Lives of Animals, a small minority of people will become vegans and leave their estates to PETA. A few others (assuming they can read) will throw the book at the cat and kick the dog to express how they really feel about it. Most readers, however, will find this to be a very thought-provoking book, equal parts anecdote, philosophy, and science. The author, Marc Bekoff, is a distinguished science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has won awards for his work studying the social interactions of many species. This book is the product of his research and draws a number of conclusions about how we humans could and should improve our interactions with the animals in our world.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, Professor Bekoff raises a number of questions which deserve consideration. First, do animals have feelings, and if so how do we know? Second, what would be the ethical implications of animals having feelings similar to ours? Third, how do we avoid anthropomorphism? Professor Bekoff helps the reader work through these questions and many others by sharing his scientific findings. In the end, however, the author reaches some conclusions that are somewhat colored by his beliefs about human-animal relations which some may find a bit extreme, and a very small minority will find not extreme enough.

Most of us would agree that dogs (as well as other animals) display a range of emotional behaviors, but does this mean that they have an emotional life similar to ours? Some would argue that as dogs have evolved away from their wolf ancestors, they learned to behave in ways that appeal to humans simply as a means of survival. Cognitive ethology, a relatively new branch of science, addresses this question with the study of how animal minds work and whether or not animals are aware of themselves as separate beings. It further seeks to understand if animals are capable of emotions as we experience them and, if so, to what extent. Finally, cognitive ethology examines the ability of species to make decisions based on unexpected events, to solve problems as a way of increasing their chances for survival, and to pass learned information on to successive generations.

In reading The Emotional Lives of Animals, I kept wishing that Mr. Spock (the emotionless Vulcan of “Star Trek” fame) had been doing the research, because it is hard to believe that cognitive ethologists can be perfectly objective in their observations of animals at play or in stressful situations. When studying animals, human scientists cannot help but respond emotionally, and so the challenge for them is to find ways to quantify behavior from anecdotal evidence and field studies. The greater challenge, however, is to be willing accept data which refute what minds and hearts believe to be true. Unfortunately, while Mr. Spock could be completely objective, he would likely fail to recognize emotional responses to stimuli, and therefore would be unable to differentiate between, say, playing and fighting. In other words, to study emotions one must have them.

Cognitive ethology has its roots in the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin was educated to become a doctor but preferred the natural sciences and philosophical pursuits. Extremely intelligent and hard-working, he finished tenth out of a class of 178 at Cambridge, studying theology and nature. Upon graduation from Cambridge, Darwin accompanied Captain Robert FitzRoy, aboard the HMS Beagle, for a five year exploration of planet earth. During this voyage, Darwin made detailed notes on geology, ecosystems, plants, and animals. These data fleshed out his knowledge of the animal kingdom which had been earlier informed by the work of Carl Linnaeus (the father of taxonomy) and other prominent naturalists such as John Gould, the ornithologist, and James Francis Stevens, founder of the Royal Entomological Society of London. Darwin’s seminal work, The Origin of Species laid out his theories of evolution and natural selection. While initially met with some skepticism by religious fundamentalists, Darwin’s theories have been largely validated by the scientific community through research and field studies across the ensuing decades.

Mr. Bekoff and other animal behavioral scientists use Darwin’s work as a starting point because it was Darwin, himself, who first posited that animals have emotions. If we assume that all chordates (animals with spines, including homo sapiens) have similar nervous systems, then it should follow that instinctive responses to stimuli will be similar. All chordates, for example, recoil from pain and experience the “fight or flight” response to threats. These primitive responses originate in the limbic system of the brain: there is no thought involved. Happiness, sadness, anger, and jealousy indicate a higher level of consciousness, in other words, we have to know we are happy, sad, mad, or jealous and that requires a sense of self as part of a community. Each of these higher emotions originate in distinct areas of the brain and can be measured by functional MRI studies. The brain research that Mr. Bekoff and others have performed show that dogs, elephants, pigs, horses, and other animals experience emotions in much the same way that humans do. This is where the author begins to wade into deep water.

Mr. Bekoff presents a strong argument that the factory farms and slaughterhouses which put food on most of our tables are filled with terror and suffering, and that is morally wrong. Technological innovation and factory farming provide the means to feed many more people per acre of farmland than would be possible if we all had to raise our own animals and till our own soil. This efficiency, unfortunately, comes at a high price: environmental degradation, unsanitary conditions in food processing facilities, and other practices which are harmful to human health. On the other hand, without this degree of productivity, perhaps millions of people would die of starvation every year. It is Mr. Bekoff’s hope that his work and that of his colleagues will lead to more humane practices in the farming and slaughter of animals for food.

As living organisms, according to biology, our first job is to sustain our species.  As sentient beings, on the other hand, we understand the suffering of others. The idea of herding our fellow humans into a slaughterhouse – where they would watch as those ahead in line were eviscerated before being processed into plastic-wrapped cuts of meat, sausages, and “by-products” – is unthinkable. It would be morally wrong to subject members of our own species to that treatment for our own consumption. So, the question is whether it is wrong to send other sentient animals – the ones we eat – to slaughter. If we assume that humans evolved along with every other species living on earth, and further that we have bodies which require animal protein in order to thrive, then it is hard to advocate vegetarianism. While it is possible to eat a nutritionally balanced diet without eating animal products, it is difficult and, on a deep level, unsatisfying. Hunting and fishing for food could be, therefore, a more ethical choice than purchasing mass produced meat and poultry.

Another issue Mr. Bekoff indirectly raises in The Emotional Lives of Animals concerns human moral and ethical development. As creatures evolved from single-celled organisms to the kaleidoscopic variety we have thus far discovered, survival often meant collaboration within species. A school of fish, a flock of birds, a pod of whales, a tribe, a family are all examples of structures which enhance the ability of a species to “be fruitful and multiply”. Behavioral studies of dogs and primates reveal that these animals have hierarchies and rules which govern their behavior, enabling a dog pack to work as a team to take down prey, and requiring primates to divide labor and share food for the benefit of the clan. Once a species develops an ego, however, things get more complicated. Chimpanzees, like humans, are capable of deceit, jealousy, and murder. Unlike humans, however, chimps do not appear concerned with the meaning of good and evil. Some chimpanzees are simply mean or psychopathic, but most go along to get along, celebrating births and mourning deaths. We humans, on the other hand, seem to struggle mightily with ourselves on questions of good or evil, right or wrong, and caring for others over self interest. As individuals, most of us are pretty decent people, but these moral questions are often lost in political and policy decisions. If providing life-saving care to sick people means a tax increase, a surprising number of us will be opposed to it.

It struck me, after reading The Emotional Lives of Animals, that perhaps humans are still evolving, that in many ways we have not yet outgrown our tribal origins. Deep within each of us is a hunter, a warrior, a member of an exclusive tribe. Civilization – art, science, religion, law, knowledge – is what moved us out of savagery and, some would say, closer to God. In order keep our species on this trajectory of progress, especially as the planet becomes more crowded, we need to focus our political discourse on ethical questions such as how we acknowledge and respect the emotional lives of our fellow creatures, be they human or animal, and what our collective responsibility to other beings is.

Marc Bekoff sums up his book nicely: “What do we do with what we know? …We each must make our own choices.” The most important thing is to understand the systems and processes by which we live. No single person can right every wrong in the world, nor should he or she try. What we can do is make choices: we can choose to eat free-range and organic meat, poultry, and eggs. We can learn to appreciate or, at least tolerate, vegetarians. We can adopt pets from animal shelters and spay and neuter them. Most important, however, is to do what we can as individuals to reduce the suffering in the world. As the Dalai Lama says, “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.” Amen.

Copyright 2009 all rights reserved, Teresa Friedlander