Do we say animals are dumb because we eat them?


NOT long ago I asked a zoologist who works with dolphins: "How intelligent are dolphins?" She replied: "I hate being asked that." She then mumbled something to the effect that it depends on what you mean by intelligence but I didn't feel inclined to pursue the matter. According to an interesting book I have just read, it is just as I didn't ask my colleague: ow affectionate are dolphins?"

According to this book, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, by Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy (Vintage, 1996), the conventional position denies that animals have emotions. The authors totally disagree with the conventional scientific position and present a stimulating argument in favour of a rich emotional life for animals.

Rene Descartes listed six basic emotions: love, hate, astonishment, desire, joy and sorrow, but there is no universal agreement on which emotions are the basic ones. Any dog or horse owner would assure you that animals possess the full range of emotions and tell you that they witness this daily.

When you walk into your driveway in the evening and the dog comes bounding out to meet you, wagging his tail and rushing excitedly, is he not greeting you with a joyous heart?

When you leave the dog in the boarding kennels before going away on holiday and he has to be dragged from you whining, is he not exhibiting sadness and regret at your leaving?

When you catch the dog doing something wrong and you scold him, and he skulks away with his tail between his legs, is he not feeling shame and remorse?

When the dog plays with his puppies and guards them solicitously against danger, is he not displaying love of offspring? The simple commonsense answer to each of these questions would seem to be yes.

Why then do so many scientists claim that no emotion on the commonly accepted lists can be observed in animals? The authors of this book claim that very little scientific study has been made of animal emotions and that the conventional scientific position is simply an unwarranted assumption. But why would scientists want to make such an assumption, and how can they ignore the common sense evidence that I described in the last paragraph? Well, while the scientists will agree that there is no shortage of testimony supporting the reality of emotions in animals, they will point out that this evidence is both anecdotal and anthropomorphic (the false attribution of human characteristics and values to animals) and its not the result of scientific research. Anecdotes don't count for much in science, and anthropomorphism is to be avoided. Babe would not be one of the top 10 favourite films of your average animal behavioural scientist.

So, if anecdotes don't count, why not carry out proper research in the area? According to the authors, research is not being carried out for a number of reasons, including the intrinsic difficulty of such research, an almost pathological fear of anthropomorphism, a deep rooted prejudice (largely unconscious) against the idea that animals and humans could share the same basic emotions, and a fear (in many) of the practical consequences of discovering that animals and humans do share the same emotions.

Scientists who deny the existence of animal emotions describe all animal actions in terms of behaviour. Thus, if one animal attacks another it is said to exhibit aggressive behaviour, not angry behaviour.

An animal that cowers and runs when attacked by another animal is said to display submissive or evasive behaviour, not fear.

The thrush who sits in a bush on a summer's afternoon, singing melodiously, is said to be unconsciously marking territory and sending out a signal of sexual readiness, and not in any way getting personal enjoyment out of singing the song.

ALL animal behaviour is encoded in genetic make up which has been chosen by natural selection in order to maximise procreative efficiency. In this view, animals are viewed as robots that unconsciously and mechanically act out their parts.

It must be admitted that the study of animal emotions is a very difficult area. Animals have no language with which to explain their feelings, so how is one to get inside the animal's head and know for sure what the animal is feeling?

It is up to behavioural psychologists to figure this out. If intrinsic difficulty becomes a sufficient reason to avoid studying a problem, then all science will eventually come to a full stop.

It must also be admitted that anthropomorphism is a pitfall that must bed extremely difficult to avoid when studying animal emotions.

Again it is up to scientists to find a way around this problem. Anthropomorphism seems to be regarded by people who work in the field as more than an error, and to have assumed the status of sin.

In this regard it is interesting to note that the original concept of anthropomorphism was falsely attribute human characteristics to God which was declared a sin.

There are a number of practical considerations which make it very inconvenient to countenance - the idea that animals have emotions. For example, we breed and raise large quantities of animals, e.g. cattle, pigs and chickens, in order to eat them. Also, biological and medical scientists routinely perform experiments on animals. It would be very difficult to justify such practices if it were known for sure that animals have a range of emotions that compare, even approximately, with human emotions.

Many scientists dismiss the commonsense evidence that animals have emotions as anthropomorphic error.

However, from a biological point of view it would be surprising if animals did not have emotions, because they are equipped with the necessary biological apparatus to support emotion.

In humans, emotions are mediated through a part of the brain called the limbic system, which in evolutionary terms is very old - the "reptilian brain".

In the animal brain, the limbic system is prominent but the cortical regions of the brain, where cognitive function resides, is less well developed than in the human.

It would seem strange for animal brains to be equipped to generate emotion but not to engage in this activity.

Charles Darwin firmly believed that animals displayed a full range of emotions, and he wrote freely on the subject. The great animal behavioural scientist Konrad Lorenz believed that animals have emotions.

It is not my field of study but I would be very surprised if it could be scientifically demonstrated that animals are bereft of emotional capacity. It certainly seems high time that this important matter was given the attention it deserves.