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Frans de Waal writes a passionate missive about animals in this weekend’s New York Times. Part letter of appreciation to the primates he studies, part admonishment to the scientific community, de Waal refuses to put humans on a plateau above our furred and feathered friends:

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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 — no different parts, the same old neurotransmitters.

de Waal runs through the most-cited evidences of animal cognition: crows using tools, ape problem-solving, and facial recognition by wasps. When scientists refuse to attribute feeling and thought to animals, they deprive both animals and humans of the benefit of learning more about all the Earth’s creatures.

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As de Waal says, we see our own expressions everywhere, especially on dolphins and domesticated pets. Marc Bekoff provides a longer discussion of the issue, and provides a cogent reasoning of how we might approach the subject with some reserve. Paying attention to which animals show what emotion, at least, can help us separate which attributions are projections and which are indication of deeper thought:

Categorically denying emotions to animals because they cannot be studied directly does not constitute a reasonable argument against their existence.

Citing the same studies as de Waal, Judith Benz-Schwarzburg and Andrew Knight take it one step further, arguing in the Journal of Animal Ethics that if animals can be reasoning creatures, humans ought to offer them respect similar to that enshrined in human rights codes:

After all, so-called marginal human persons, such as the very young, old, injured, or ill, who lack the full range of psychological and social characteristics and abilities exhibited by healthy human adults, are nevertheless valued as persons…. It appears logically consistent to assign similar moral significance to comparable grades or stages of mental complexity in animals who possess them.

Benz-Schwarzburg and Knight also suggest that animals can exhibit behavior aligned to some non-obvious moral code. That is, one not similar to those we humans usually follow, often derived from some form of religion. Animals might act in codified ways, even if we don’t see them as altruistic or community-forming; looking for a combination of learned behavior and ethical reasoning might help us explain more.

Meanwhile, Daniel Gross returns to an early theoretical work in the field: Darwin’s support of his theory of evolution through animal and human facial expressions to indicate emotion. Gross touches on studies that include brain-damaged patients observing emotions in others, and attempts to mark some expressions as “universal” and others as culturally specific. He concludes, much as Bekoff does, that many disciplines and approaches are required to make discoveries:

Just as we cannot understand bird flight by studying only feathers, to cite [one] example, we cannot understand emotional experience by studying only the face, the eyeball, the ear, the brain…. As Darwin understood over a century ago, we need the arts and humanities for many reasons, including for a science that can account both for the basic ways we are and the ways we can be.


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BioScience, Vol. 50, No. 10 (October 2000), pp. 861-870
Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences
Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 9-36
University of Illinois Press in partnership with the Ferrater Mora Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Autumn 2010), pp. 34-59
The University of Chicago Press