I learned amazing things about animals specifically elephants, wolves and killer whales, in Carl Safina’s book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. While I would love to babble on about elephant families, wolf hierarchies, and killer whale communication (and the fact that killer whales are actually dolphins!) I would be leading you astray. Even though the book focuses on these three species, with plenty of interjections about primates, dogs, bees and others, their lives are used as examples for a bigger discussion about whether animals think and feel.
If you, like me, share your life and house with animals, you will immediately conclude that it is a no-brainer. Of course animals think and feel! For a very long time, however, science saw things differently (and they sometimes still do). To impute animals with individual thoughts and feelings, to grant them the ability of communication with us, we are very often told is anthropomorphizing them. This does a number of things. It neglects to take into account that humans are animals too, that we evolved from the same origins as every other creature on this planet and have a lot more in common than we often care to recognize. It also denies other animals agency over their own lives, turns them into lesser beings, and allows humans to treat them and their homes however we see fit.
Scientists these days are keen on “theory of mind” and testing animals, often in artificial laboratory settings. Trouble is, there is not an agreed upon definition of what this idea means. Depending on who you ask it could range from “knowing another has thoughts different than yours” to “mind-reading abilities.” If the latter definition is used, and it is more frequently than one would think, then even humans fail to have a theory of mind.
But of course, since we are the ones designing the tests we can say and do whatever we want to. And do we ever design terrible tests. In 1978 some researches testing theory of mind on some chimpanzees in a lab showed them videotapes of actors trying to get to out of reach bananas, trying to play a record on an unplugged record player, and shivering because the heater wasn’t working. The chimps were then supposed to choose a photo that showed the solution to the problem. Of course they failed the test and the researchers declared that chimpanzees have no theory of mind because they didn’t know about heaters and unplugged record players.
Not only was the experiment a bad one, but Safina insists the question itself is pointless. What difference does it make whether an animal has theory of mind or not? Watch animals in their natural environment, living their lives as they are meant to live them and it becomes clear they understand themselves as individuals. There are a good many observations of incidents in which animals lie to each other. You can’t lie unless you know the one you are deceiving is also an individual.
Part of the problem, of course, is that much of the time the humans conducting the studies are using humans as the standard. When an animal proves to not be human, it fails. Sometimes studies will say things like such and such an animal exhibits human-like qualities blah blah blah. Who made humans the measure of all things? We did. Who decided that humans were the gold standard to which all else had to meet or even exceed expectations? We did. Crowning ourselves as the peak of evolution gives us dominion over everything and justifies killing elephants for their tusks, wolves for sport, and forcing killer whales, dolphins and sea lions to entertain us at places like Sea World. And it soothes our guilty conscious when it comes to lab animals.
Time after time Safina shows just what complex and varied lives the other animals we share this planet with live. To say the pleasure of an elephant enjoying a mud bath is unknowable or not the same as the pleasure I feel in a bubble bath discounts the feelings of the elephant. Of course we don’t know what the elephant’s pleasure feels like. Of course it is different than the pleasure I feel. But then, the pleasure you feel is different than mine too and just as unknowable to me as that of the elephant’s. To require en elephant experience pleasure just like I do in order for science to even credit the elephant with having feelings is ridiculous.
To acknowledge animals as thinking and feeling individuals would mean we humans aren’t as special as we like to think we are. It would mean recognizing the wrongs we have done and continue to do to fellow animals. It would mean stepping down from the throne to share the planet and its resources with all the other animals and granting them the rights they deserve.
I freely admit that Safina didn’t have to prove anything to me. I have lived with animals — cats, dogs, birds, a turtle— my whole life and I am astonished that there are people who believe animals neither think nor have feelings. I cried several times while reading Beyond Words over the cruelty humans inflict on the world and how we don’t care what effect it has on the families of other animals. There is my bias. You may feel differently and need some convincing.
Safina is always careful in his observations. He has a PhD in ecology from Rutgers University and holds the endowed chair for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University. In other words, he is a scientist and conducts himself as such throughout the book. His writing style, however, is relaxed, non-academic, clear and without flourish but enjoyable and well-paced. Beyond Words is a fascinating book and it will either confirm what you already know about animals or it will challenge you to see them differently.