Opinion

The inner lives of animals

There's strong evidence that our fellow creatures think and feel

Do animals have feelings similar to ours? To anyone who's ever looked deeply into the eyes of a dog (especially mine), or watched mama orangutans cuddle their babies or young gorillas roughhouse like teenagers, it's a ridiculous question. Many hardheaded scientists, however, dismiss speculation about animal consciousness as pointless anthropomorphizing; they view lesser species as furry or finny animatrons, acting out instincts and impulses installed by evolution. But in his new book, Beyond Words, marine conservationist Carl Safina thoroughly dismantles this behaviorist view of animals. (See an excerpt here, which appears in The Week magazine.) With detailed, first-hand observations, Safina demonstrates that wolves, elephants, and orcas exhibit complex planning, empathy, jealousy, anger — even sheer joy at being alive. Many animals, he points out, have brain structures similar to the regions associated with emotions in humans. People who observe animals closely know them to be individuals, with distinct personalities. "You have to deeply deny the evidence to conclude that humans alone are conscious, feeling beings," Safina says.

The evidence shows that elephants and apes mourn their dead, becoming listless and depressed. Dolphins can recognize their own reflections, have intricate social structures, and appear to call each other by individual names. Apes and chimps make tools, plan for the future, and display empathy and inferential reasoning. Primatologist Frans de Waal, writing in The New York Times about the recent discovery of a hominin ancestor with both human and ape characteristics, blames human vanity for the belief we are separate and distinct from the "extended family" of creatures on the great continuum of evolution. "The wall between human and animal cognition," de Waal says, "is like a Swiss cheese." If you doubt our kinship with the animal kingdom, I refer you to the daily news coverage of our species' Darwinian struggles for dominance and survival. Evolution is a work in progress: We are still closer to the beasts than to the gods.

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