Neuroscience, evolution, and culture

Getting emotional for animal emotions

Do animals have emotions? This is tough philosophical question – how would we ever know? How do you even know I have emotions? Traditionally, we have recognized emotions by their outward manifestations alone. We see someone laugh and we assume they must be happy because we laugh when we are happy.  In the case of animals, relying on such inferences means that it is easier for us to attribute emotions to animals that are similar to ourselves, such as apes and monkeys, than to animals such as chickens, who show no facial expressions and whose behavior can be interpreted reliably only by experts.

There are other ways to infer emotions, for sure. When we see someone offering help, we usually assume they care for others. A recent report shows that chickens care for others, too. Hens react with distress calls and accelerated heart rate to their chickens being distressed by puffs of air. Is mother hen feeling bad for the chicks? We cannot know, but we should not just assume they can or cannot based on what we see and how we like them. We need to understand what emotions are and what a brain needs to generate feelings and consciousness. Today, we simply don’t know.

We should not be surprised however, that mothers in species with parental care show outward signs of emotions. The mother is there to nurture offspring, and she must react to potentially threatening situations. The outward signs of emotions we can measure are simply these defense mechanisms: the mother’s call tells both the chicks and potential predators that she is there, and her increased heart rate is a sign that she is getting ready to defend the chicks.

If we were to take these behaviors at face value as signs of feelings such as empathy for others, we would conclude that ants and bees are more empathic than chickens, than apes, than humans. Ants and bees do no hesitate to get killed to defend their nests, for example, and they do so with unerring resolution unknown to us, apes, or chickens. These behaviors are probably just genetically programmed reactions and we do not routinely assume that ants and bees feel bad for the eggs and larvae that are in danger when the nest is attacked. Konrad Lorenz pointed out in 1935 that the situation is quite complex:

“The Jackdaw (Coloeus monedula) possesses  a  very interesting reaction of defending any  fellow-member of the species in the grip of some bird or animal of prey.  For a long time I  have been familiar with the fact that my tame but free-living Jackdaws would furiously attack me if I  gripped one of them in my hand, but I  was very much astonished when I  inadvertently elicited exactly the same response by carrying a wet, black bathing-suit in my hand.  Subsequent experiments showed that  anything glistening black and dangling, carried by any living creature would release the very same reaction in the Jackdaws. Even Jackdaws themselves were subject to attack from their fellows when they happened to carry nesting material possessing  the characteristics just mentioned.”

To summarize: We cannot know what a hen, a bee, or any other organism feels because we do not understand how brains can produce feelings, and any appearance of feeling can be mimicked by the notorious mindless zombie of consciousness philosophy.


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