Over recent years, academics from around the world have been paying the question of non-human emotion the attention it is due. Many of us, (myself included) would happily testify; I love my dog and my dog loves me. But for science, this kind of thesis has been off-limits to even pursue, for fear of simply anthropomorphising. For instance, recording that a dog can ‘smile’ would not be approved – attributing a human expression and emotion to a behaviour, rather than trying to objectively understand the behaviour and its related causes and consequences.
However, in 2013, neuroscientist Gregory Berns published a book based on the work of himself and his team at Emory University, titled How Dogs Love Us. Embarking on a remarkable journey with his own dog, Berns trained his canine companion to sit calmly during MRI scanning. The pair overcame many obstacles to reveal for the first time the intricacies of the canine brain, confirming how dogs empathise with human emotions and do consider us more than animated treat-givers and belly-scratchers. Advancements in neuroscience and modern evolutionary data, coupled with more detailed analysis of animal behaviour in natural environments, are paving the way to new, objective and accepted studies of animal emotion.
MRI scanning, for instance, has contributed to how we understand ocean mammals. Orcas have an emotional range and depth that is, as yet, unfathomable. They have an extension of the emotional part of the brain, the paralimbic cleft, which we do not have. As quoted from the popular 2013 documentary Blackfish, their sense of self and social bonding is “much stronger, much more complex than in other mammals, including humans”. Laurel Braitman has chronicled why and how animals suffer extreme emotions; anxiety, depression and madness, just as humans do.
In a TED talk in October 2015, Carl Safina overturned science’s aversion to comparing humans and non-humans. He stated, “attributing human thoughts and emotions to other species is the best first guess about what they’re doing and how they’re feeling, because their brains are basically the same as ours. They have the same structures. The same hormones that create mood and motivation in us are in those brains as well.” For Safina, we should utilise the fact we are so similar to other species in order to understand them. As Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal concludes, “To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.” Safina uses the example of an elephant family; how we can observe curiosity, love and mourning. In particular the fascinating discovery that wild herds react differently to the pre-recorded voices of different groups of humans: behaving calmly around the sound of tourists and fleeing from the speech of poachers. They know us!
Seeing a two-way level of understanding brings humans down from our pedestal. Merely having sentience, the ability to empathise and interpret is not what distinguishes us as human. It is becoming clear that it is the depth and range of these qualities which makes species distinct. In this way, scientific insight is questioning the ways we relate to animals, and more philosophically, how we consider ourselves in relation to our ethical – and unethical – treatment of other species.
Image courtesy of Rennett Stowe, hosted on Wikimedia Commons