Funny Business

Do animals laugh?  The question sounds innocuous enough, and when my wife played me a RadioLab episode on that very question, the conclusion, although cautious, was that at least rats and chimpanzees do.  This is an instance in which the very question strikes me as terribly speciesist.  Despite the fact that evolution suggests otherwise, Homo sapiens are constantly seeking that fabled northwest passage that will separate us from animals once and for all.  One by one, over the decades, the defining traits have fallen aside.  Animals make and use tools, they build dwellings with ornaments, they solve puzzles, they communicate, and they laugh.  Were we not so obsessed with our own greatness (and consider whom we’ve elected over the past few years!) we might easily recognize that we have evolved to be what we are.

Perhaps it’s because we wish to retain our right to exploit animals.  After all, eating animals is big business and it’s harder to eat someone who’s not so very different from you.  In our culture certain animals are taboo for fodder: dogs, cats, and horses, for example.  This isn’t universally the case, and knowing that animals laugh might just make it a little worse.  We like to think animals “react” using “instinct” rather than respond with genuine emotion.  Until we fuss and fawn over Rover, and accept his affection as genuine.  Consciousness can be quite a burden to bear.  Funny, isn’t it?

We accept evolution up to a point.  Is it any wonder then that creationists still are a force with which to contend?  Often we fail to recognize that science, as it has developed in the western hemisphere, gestated in a largely Christian context.  The reason for drawing a hard line between animals and humans is ultimately, in this setting, biblical.  We’ve moved beyond the idea of God creating each separate species one-by-one, but we haven’t gotten beyond the literal truth of Adam naming and dominating them.  If we don’t consider the biblical origins of these ideas they continue unchallenged, even into the laboratories and sterile rooms of today.  It makes us a bit uncomfortable to consider just how influenced we still are by the Good Book.  At the same time we consider its meta view on the biological world, even as the evidence continues to pile up that little, if anything, really separates us from our faunal kin.  Try explaining that to the rats.  That sound you can’t hear without special equipment, by the way, is their laughing.

No Animals Harmed

Out for a walk after work the other day, I spied a black cat.  Not the superstitious sort, I didn’t let this deter me from continuing on.  Then I noticed that it was a mere three or four feet from a ground hog that was just as large as, if not larger than, the cat was.  They were staring at each other, weighing their options.  The ground hog didn’t appear too concerned.  Then a rabbit hopped up, on the other side of the cat.  A perfect syzygy of fauna that remained still for a moment in a tableau of nature.  About the same time as the cat noticed  the rabbit, the rabbit noticed it back and quickly hopped away.  The cat crouched and slunk after the bunny and the woodchuck ambled off at its own pace.

Not only was this conjunction an odd combination of three species of mammal—four if you count me—but it was such a conscious interaction that I had to think of it as almost human.  Three very different individuals, probably all with eating on their minds, had to assess how to interact, wordlessly.  As far as I could tell the drama ended amicably.  The cat looked well fed, in any case, and the rabbit far outdistanced it from the start.  Chuck was unconcerned.  Although the hard line still exists in science, drawn between ourselves and our fellow animals, I’m convinced that they have a share of consciousness.  We’re told that they’re mere “machines” following instinct.  These three “machines” along the trail were sure acting like they were thinking.

What are they thinking?

As the situation played out, no violence ensued.  Three individuals out enjoying the spring happened to find themselves in a scenario that called for negotiation.  The cat, like Republicans, felt compelled toward aggression, I should imagine.  It had a choice: take on a larger, more worthy foe, or turn its attention to the weaker, more vulnerable prey.  Naturally, it turned toward the weaker of the two.  There were differing agendas at play here, and with a dose of consciousness added in, these critters behaved so like human beings that I felt compelled to share it.   The ground hog and rabbit looked on the situation with some wariness.  They thought about it, and each took the prudent route to safety, for the time being.  Nature, it seems, will find its balance if we let it.  And we, if we would acknowledge it, still have something to learn from nature.

Dog Daze

I read quite a bit about animals. One reason is that when you’re counting all the species on the planet we’re pretty clearly among the animal part. Having grown up with many pets, the dogs particularly stand out. We tended to have only one dog at a time and they were so full of personality that it obviously wasn’t a matter of projecting to understand that one was more or less optimistic or joyful than another. Some could be mean while others were loving. There was quite a bit of buzz about W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose back in January. For Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge the book fit one of the categories for me, and so I found myself reading about animals again. The thing about buzz is that I listen with only half an ear. I didn’t know much about the book except that it was a novel narrated from a dog’s point of view.

A couple of things struck me as I got into the story. One was that the protagonist ended up still believing that humans were more important than dogs. I suppose there’s some kind of evidence for that, from a dog’s viewpoint, but it doesn’t seem very strong to me. After all, we’ve bred wolves into pugs and cockapoos with an intentionality that even Mr. Darwin would’ve recognized as unnatural selection. Left to their own wolves would’ve adapted, but they’re pack animals and while dogs may think us the alphas, they’re each an important part of the group. They are giving, but that’s the nature of being in a pack. It’s also something that elected officials in Washington could stand to learn. When there aren’t rifles and traps, pack animals prosper.

The second thing that stood out about A Dog’s Purpose was reincarnation. The idea scares me. Life’s been a long challenge this time around and, unlike Nietzsche I’m not sure I could face it this exact way again. In any case, reincarnation only works if there are souls to pull it off. Cameron posits that for Toby to become a fully developed Buddy four cycles of reincarnation are needed. Like a good Platonist, our protagonist recalls the important lessons from each previous life and is able to develop into a more fulfilled dog each time around. The karma here is good. Cameron does seem to “get it” from a human-projected dog’s point of view. It can be fun, and it can be sad. The important lesson, for me, is that animals are who we are and to be a successful pack we need to look out for the good of each other.

Ethology Theology

MindingAnimalsProminent public intellectuals, we’re used to hearing, often lament the survival of religion into a rationalist age. As an obscure private intellectual—if I may be so bold—I am always pleased to see when a credentialed scientist asks if we are being too hasty. No, but actually says we’re misguided to dismiss the evidence of our own observations. Marc Bekoff’s Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart is an encouraging study by a balanced individual. Bekoff, unlike many scientists, realizes that emotion does play into observation and reasoning. More than that, materialistic reductionism does not account for human or other animals’ experience of life. Historically motivated by religions to separate ourselves from animals, we have only come to know slowly—painfully slowly—that the distinctive markers of humanity are shared in degree by other animals. Bekoff is bold enough to give the lie to the belief that animals have no emotional life. Traditionally science has said that we cannot know what goes on in animal brains so it is best to take animal emotions off the table. Then scientists go home and love their dogs, who love them in return. When’s the last time I read a scientist writing about love?

Minding Animals is a manifesto. We have, in our arrogance, made unwarranted assumptions about both animals and our unique status on the earth. We drive other species of animals to extinction at a rate that required an asteroid collision or some other catastrophic event in the past. And we use animals as if they had no interests of their own, even such basic interests as avoiding pain and suffering. “They’re just animals,” we’re told. Bekoff is an ethologist—someone who studies non-human animal behavior. As common sense, both the sine qua non and bête noire of science, reveals, animals experience and express happiness, anger, and love. They can be depressed. They can be overjoyed. And we treat them as if they were objects to do with as we please.

Bekoff admits some of his fellow scientists treat him as if he’s gone soft. Like Diogenes, however, I search for an honest man and I think I have found him. Instead of castigating religion, Bekoff ends his book with a chapter on theology. Not to make fun of it, but to show that even scientists must integrate different kinds of knowledge. Not only is the science that Bekoff describes appealing to the emotions, it also makes sense. No scientist is completely objective. Even Mr. Spock breaks down once in a while. We all have perspectives. And that includes our fellow earthling animals. We evolved from the same ancestors and yet treat them as if we own them. Minding Animals will—or at least should—make us feel guilty about that. Being human and being humane, after all, are only a silent e apart.