This past year was remarkable in terms of what we have learned about the cognitive, emotional and moral lives of nonhuman animals (animals). A new and outstanding book called We Animals by award-winning photojournalist and activist Jo-Anne McArthur whose work also is featured in the wonderful documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine (see here) and a recent TEDTalk entitled "If We Could Talk To the Animals" by biologist Denise Herzing about the clearly smart and emotional dolphins she and her team study and her talk made me think of an incredible number of larger themes and "big" questions centering on the fascinating lives of the other animals with whom we share our magnificent planet. By paying attention to who other animals are we learn lessons about ourselves.
Let's stop pretending we don't know what other animals want and need: They do not want to die
First, let's stop pretending we don't know what other animals want and need.
As a biologist, I realize there aren't "higher" and "lower" animals, and labels like higher and lower really don't mean anything at all and are frequently used to justify the mistreatment of lower animals because the word lower far too easily slides into "less intelligent," "less feeling," or less valuable." So, are humans exceptional and unique? Yes, but so too are other animals. And, just like us, animals want to live in peace and safety -- so let's stop pretending we don't know what they want and need. They do not want to die and surely do not want to be subjected to brutal torture before they succumb.
Incredibly exciting and important research has shown that humans do things that other animals can't do and they do things that we can't do. For example we now know:
• Mice, rats and chickens display empathy;
• Fish use their head to tell other fish where there's food;
• Many animals experience emotions ranging from contagious and unbounded joy to deep sadness and grief;
• Animals play "just for the hell of it" because it feels good;
• New Caledonian crows outdo chimpanzees in making and using sophisticated tools (and dingoes also use and make tools);
• Gorillas learn to release other gorillas from snares;
• Animals care for disabled members of their group;
• Animals want to be treated fairly and will rebel when they're treated unfairly;
• Fish display different personalities;
• Cuttlefish display episodic memory -- the ability to remember when and where something happened -- and can keep track of "what they've eaten, where, and how long ago"; this is the first demonstration of this type of memory in an invertebrate;
And the list goes on and on. In my latest book, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, I review these and many other studies. It's simply amazing what we're learning about the fascinating lives of other animals.
Some people call these discoveries "surprising" and exclaim, "Oh, I didn't think they could do that!" However, if people keep open minds and hearts about whom other animals are, such findings are not really surprising at all.
Years ago, people thought only humans made and used tools, were conscious or self-aware, and had sophisticated ways to communicate with one another -- and we now know those perspectives are wrong. People don't have to embellish other animals; we just have to let them show us who they are.
There are also far fewer skeptics about the mental lives of other animals than there were even ten years ago. In July 2011, a group of renowned scientists reinvented the wheel, so to speak, and offered what's called the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. In that declaration, the signers concluded: "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates." These researchers also should have included fish, for whom the evidence supporting sentience and consciousness is also compelling.
We must not ignore nature, for we do so at our own peril. By paying close attention to who other animals are and what they want and need, we can rewire our hearts and keep our hopes and dreams alive as we reconnect with other animals and nature as a whole and feel ever so comfortable with our membership in the diverse and fascinating animal kingdom.
We should be proud to be members of the animal kingdom. Sensationalist media that portrays other animals as brutal bloodthirsty beasts are thoroughly misleading and, in fact, we can learn many lessons about trust, friendship, cooperation, peace, and forgiveness from them if we pay attention to available data merging from a wide range of studies.
Seeing and treating other animals for who they are doesn't lessen humans at all. We suffer the indignities to which we subject other animals. We must use what we know about other animals on their behalf, to make their lives the very best they can be and to help them to live in peace and safety. This really isn't asking too much. And, we are indeed making progress and there are many reasons to keep our hopes and dreams alive.
When we accept, and become openly proud of, our membership in the animal kingdom, hope abounds because we can see that we and "they" (other animals) must, and really do, share a passion to live peacefully on our wondrous planet. And I have much hope that we are heading into a future in which there will be considerably more peaceful coexistence.