As Smart Emotional Apes We're Not Alone So Let's Get Over It
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Marc Bekoff, Animal Emotions / Psychology Today
April 2016

For many people, what we are learning about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals has to be used on their behalf, to protect them from being wantonly abused in an increasingly human-dominated world in which billions upon billions of nonhumans are routinely and horrifically abused. And, while we are making some progress, it is most unfortunate that the U. S. Federal Animal Welfare Act still does not recognize much of what we know about the animals most commonly used in invasive research. This rather lame act also does not recognize rats and mice as "animals." No joke.

We have a long way to go before nonhumans receive the protection they so well deserve, however, denying what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhumans is a bad habit. Surely we can do much better.

I was flipping through the New York Times this morning and an essay by renowned primatologist Frans de Waal called "What I Learned From Tickling Apes" caught my eye. I enjoyed reading it, and I agree with much of what he writes. And, in many ways, I remain surprised that he, other researchers, and I rewrite the "same old same old" because there still seem to be some skeptics -- though the number is dwindling -- even when we write about the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals) with great care and pay attention to what scientific research has discovered.

Dr. de Waal's essay is available online so here are a few tidbits about which to think. After writing about a juvenile chimpanzee's reaction to being tickled and the laughter that accompanies it, he gets into a discussion about the supposed ills of "being anthropomorphic." Dr. de Waal writes, according to some people, "Animals donít have 'sex,' but engage in breeding behavior. They donít have 'friends,' but favorite affiliation partners."

In a previous essay I noted that there often is double-talk surrounding charges of anthropomorphism. I used the example of Ruby, a forty-three-year-old African elephant living at the Los Angeles Zoo. In fall 2004 Ruby had been shipped back to the Los Angeles Zoo from the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee because people who saw Ruby in Knoxville felt she was lonely and sad. Ensuing discussions made it clear that some people felt that it was anthropomorphic to claim Ruby was lonely and sad, but that it was perfectly okay to say she was happy. Double-talk at its finest.

The "F" word, friends

What about friendships among nonhumans? Of course, nonhumans form deep and enduring friendships with members of the same and other species. One of the best examples, of course, is the bond between companion animals (AKA pets) and humans. Because of their reservations about claiming that animals form friendships, skeptics often put the taboo "F" word, friends, in quotation marks to reflect their uncertainty. Thus, the use of "friends" would mean two dogs or two cats who we would call buddies or BFF's are merely acting as if they were friends, but we really don't know if this is so. Surely, anyone who's lived with more than one dog or cat or rat, for example, or who's done long-term fieldwork on social animals, knows they form deep and meaningful friendships.

"Linguistic castrations"

Dr. de Waal goes on to write, "Given how partial our species is to intellectual distinctions, we apply such linguistic castrations even more vigorously in the cognitive domain. By explaining the smartness of animals either as a product of instinct or simple learning, we have kept human cognition on its pedestal under the guise of being scientific. Everything boiled down to genes and reinforcement." Yes, many people are concerned that we are making other animals "too smart." However, I honestly don't know what this means. Solid empirical research has unearthed numerous "surprises" about the cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals.

Furthermore, cross-species comparisons about how smart individuals of one species are when compared to others are fraught with error because individuals do what they do to be card-carrying members of their species. Along these lines, Dr. de Waal writes, "How likely is it that the immense richness of nature fits on a single dimension? Isnít it more likely that each animal has its own cognition, adapted to its own senses and natural history? ... Instead of a ladder, we are facing an enormous plurality of cognitions with many peaks of specialization." Comparing members of the same species might be useful in terms of the ways in which individuals learn social skills or the speed of learning different task, but comparing dogs to cats or dogs to pigs or humans to chimpanzees says little of importance.

Dr. de Waal returns to accusations of anthropomorphism as he moves through his essay, and notes, "This accusation works only because of the premise of human exceptionalism. Rooted in religion but also permeating large areas of science, this premise is out of line with modern evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Our brains share the same basic structure with other mammals ó no different parts, the same old neurotransmitters" (please also see "Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism"). He also notes, "Brains are in fact so similar across the board that we study fear in the ratís amygdala to treat human phobias. This doesnít mean that the planning by an orangutan is of the same order as me announcing an exam in class and my students preparing for it, but deep down there is continuity between both processes. This applies even more to emotional traits."

Dr. de Waal introduced the term ď'anthropodenial,' which refers to the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us." He goes on to write, "Anthropomorphism and anthropodenial are inversely related: The closer another species is to us, the more anthropomorphism assists our understanding of this species and the greater will be the danger of anthropodenial. Conversely, the more distant a species is from us, the greater the risk that anthropomorphism proposes questionable similarities that have come about independently. Saying that ants have 'queens,' 'soldiers' and 'slaves' is mere anthropomorphic shorthand without much of a connection to the way human societies create these roles." This is a very reasonable way to cash it all out.

So, what does it all mean?

According to Dr. de Waal, "Unjustified linguistic barriers fragment the unity with which nature presents us. Apes and humans did not have enough time to independently evolve almost identical behavior under similar circumstances. Think about this the next time you read about ape planning, dog empathy or elephant self-awareness. Instead of denying these phenomena or ridiculing them, we would do better to ask 'why not?'Ē He also notes that one reason that the debates are so heated is because of their moral implications.

For many people, what we are learning about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals has to be used on their behalf, to protect them from being wantonly abused in an increasingly human-dominated world in which billions upon billions of nonhumans are routinely and horrifically abused. And, while we are making some progress, it is most unfortunate that the U. S. Federal Animal Welfare Act still does not recognize much of what we know about the animals most commonly used in invasive research. This rather lame act also does not recognize rats and mice as "animals." No joke.

We have a long way to go before nonhumans receive the protection they so well deserve, however, denying what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhumans is a bad habit. Surely we can do much better, and surely we should demand that those who write legislation to protect other animals, and those who use them for food, clothing, research, and entertainment, and those who choose to share their homes with them, use what we know about these fascinating beings. Of course, we also need to take much better care of wild animals and their homes. I hope that Dr. de Waal's essay makes us all rethink and re-feel who we are and who "they," other animals, are, and get us all to act on their behalf right now. They need all the help they can get.


Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff) 


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