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Almost Everything Human Is Animal, Though Scientists Still Deny It

July 6th, 2014

By Anthony Liversidge

Times Magazine Salutes Soulful Zoo Inmates Afflicted with Depression, Anxiety

Halberstadt Reports Scientists After Centuries Still Reluctant To Face Reality

Conformists Whisper to Him They Knew It All Along, but Dare Not Speak Up

Today’s piece in the New York Times Magazine – Zoo Animals and Their Discontents – is something of a breakthrough, since Alex Halberstadt (edited by Jillian Dunham) lets us know that zoo animals suffer from depression and other emotional malaise just like human prisoners, and are successfully treated by a behavioral psychologist, Dr Vint Virga, who reads their body language expertly and comforts them sometimes with no more than his constant presence and friendly support.

This level of understanding of animals as conscious, self conscious, sentient and emotional beings may be practiced without thought by every pet owner but has been a sticking point for scientists since Descartes and Spinoza, Halberstadt notes. Even today many scientists confuse it with anthropomorphism, or the projection of our own ideas and emotions on animals when we interpret their behavior. Such is the sanction of scorn and derision attached to such a mistake that scientists don’t dare acknowledge the obvious, which is that animals are indeed human in basic respects because after all humans are first and foremost animals.

The bias against animal sentience is hardly recent. Descartes famously wrote that “the reason why animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts.” Spinoza claimed that human reluctance to slaughter animals is “founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason.” The notion of animals as unthinking automatons has enjoyed curious staying power; one form it has taken is a tendency to study animal behavior to the exclusion of thoughts and feelings. The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour, a longstanding reference, cautions behaviorists that “one is well advised to study the behaviour, rather than attempting to get at any underlying emotion.”

Needless to say animals (dogs, birds, dolphins, octopuses) cannot reason as effectively or use the language of words as well as humans (though in some respects some can compete with a four year old) and their social impulses may vary widely from human in direction and consummation (humans do not actually eat their step progeny unlike lions) but the days when Descartes and Spinoza could write that animals were thoughtless automatons without feelings are long behind us. Science has been busy proving the obvious in this field for a number of years now.

The notion that animals think and feel may be rampant among pet owners, but it makes all kinds of scientific types uncomfortable. “If you ask my colleagues whether animals have emotions and thoughts,” says Philip Low, a prominent computational neuroscientist, “many will drop their voices to a whisper or simply change the subject. They don’t want to touch it.” Jaak Panksepp, a professor at Washington State University, has studied the emotional responses of rats. “Once, not very long ago,” he said, “you couldn’t even talk about these things with colleagues.”

That may be changing. A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence.

Of course, close watchers of Nova and other PBS programs already know many more examples of the extraordinary mental and emotional life of our fellow animals. The latest series of three was one of the most impressive: NOVA: Inside Animals Minds.

At the end of the final segment, Who’s The Smartest?, a group of Australian divers filming giant Manta rays was approached out of the dark by a dolphin wrapped in a fishing line with a hook in its fin, and in response one of the divers was able to remove the hook and line from the animal, which returned to the surface during the seven minute process to get more air before finally swimming away freed of the hook and line which it never could have achieved by itself or with the help of another dolphin.

Saying that it waved its tail in gratitude might be anthropomorphism, but there was no doubt that a high level of interspecies communication had occurred, along the lines of, “Can you free me of this entanglement?” “Yes, sure!”

The Cambridge Declaration

In 2012, a public statement was signed by leading animal researchers to emphasize the findings of the latest research:

In the summer of 2012, an unprecedented document, masterminded by Low — “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” — was signed by a group of leading animal researchers in the presence of Stephen Hawking. It asserted that mammals, birds and other creatures like octopuses possess consciousness and, in all likelihood, emotions and self-awareness. Scientists, as a rule, don’t issue declarations. But Low claims that the new research, and the ripples of unease it has engendered among rank-and-file colleagues, demanded an emphatic gesture. “Afterward, an eminent neuroanatomist came up to me and said, ‘We were all thinking this, but were afraid to say it,’ ” Low recalled.

The Declaration ended thus: “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” It was publicly proclaimed on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non Human Animals at Churchill College, Cambridge, and the signing that evening in front of Stephen Hawking at the Hotel du Vin was filmed by CBS Sixty Minutes.

Scientists in denial

Why this should be necessary when every Internet surfer is aware of how elephants take their ritual leave of a dead companion, and every Economist reader read the obituary of Irene Pepperberg’s African grey parrot Alex which appeared in its pages otherwise devoted to influential politicians, businessmen and thinkers, is hard to say.

Alex’s cognitive and expressive abilities were astounding to those unfamiliar with the intelligence of African greys: he learned 200 word labels to describe the color shape and material of objects and when asked what he wanted for breakfast would choose what fruit he preferred. If brought the wrong one, a banana, say, he would object, “No, apple!”

A lot of scientists still in denial may be clinging to the supposed superiority of man over beast, or justifying their distasteful cruelty in experimenting on monkeys’ brains. But in general it seems to be theoretical conformity to the ruling idea and fear of sanction if they step out of line. They remain as faithful to the shared notion as the followers of Aristotle did for two millennia, until surgeons and scientists decided to look at the evidence of the real world.

For Philip Low, the Cambridge Declaration was aimed directly at the Cartesian prejudice against nonhumans. “The term ‘animal’ is simply an excuse not to look at something,” Low argues, citing eugenics, phrenology and “scientific” racism as byproducts of the tendency to elevate humans — especially certain humans — over other beings. Some scientists have criticized Low for not consulting with more colleagues before issuing the declaration. “Whom did Descartes consult before making his declaration?” Low asked me.

The hero of this fine article is Vint Verga, the behavioral psychologist who attends to zoo patients so well, who has been reading animals’ body language as evidence of their inner state since he was a child, a child who found pets understood him better than his own family.

Mostly, Virga enjoyed being alone in nature, or with animals. “They understood me better than my family,” he says. “I was shy and had a hard time figuring out what to say to people, so at parties I would gravitate toward the cat or dog. I still do.”

The story of how his breakaway conviction was formed is quite moving in itself, an instance of how great a connection there can be between dog and man without words:

The dog was dying. Virga looked in on him at 3 a.m., after a busy emergency-room shift was over and the clinic had finally gone quiet. If anything, Pongo’s condition had worsened. Resigned, Virga sat on the floor beside him; he filled out medical records while leaving his other hand draped loosely around the dog. Virga was exhausted and engrossed in the paperwork, and an hour passed before he noticed that Pongo’s pulse had grown stronger and movement was returning to his body. By the time the sun had come up, Pongo was nuzzling in Virga’s lap and licking his hand.

Virga had been an emergency-room vet for four years and yet, poring over the dog’s chart, he could find no sound medical reason for Pongo’s recovery. He couldn’t escape the conviction that medicine had little to do with it, that it had been the physical contact and the closeness that effected the sudden change.

Herd of donkeys

Virga has little appetite for dealing with what he calls the religion of scientists, who resist the changing nature of our notions about animals and their interiors because they are stuck mentally, conforming to the group rule which dictates expulsion if they think otherwise. But Virga was one who broke away from convention when he saw that group assumptions didn’t match his experience:

For a behaviorist at a zoo, striking a balance between hard science and drawing reasonable parallels between human and animal suffering may be the only avenue toward effectively diagnosing afflictions and treating patients. Virga told me that encountering misgivings about anthropomorphism once made him timid about expressing his convictions. “But we get to a point in our careers when we say, this is what I feel. And now my job is to prove it.” He says that he could not be effective at his job without understanding animals as individuals with complex psychological lives. “In behavioral work, there are no lab tests,” he says. “But medicine is subjective. Sure, when you interpret behaviors, there’s a leap there. But there’s also a leap when you read an ultrasound.” The debate between skeptics and believers, he says, is akin to arguments about religion, and he’s not eager to engage. “Sometimes a scientist will ask me, ‘What are your data points?’ ” he said. “But if we accept that animals are self-aware beings and have emotions, they are no longer data points. No amount of data points will explain identity.”

Just how entrenched is the fear of losing funds for joining in what is wrongly viewed as anthropomorphism in crediting the new evidence is made plain. It is a prejudice solid enough to resist the influence of spouses and children and the rest of the public, all of whom almost certainly believe otherwise:

Yet avoiding anthropomorphism at all costs may be the main cause of the schism between scientists and the public in the debate about animal sentience. “Most reasonable people will be on the side of animals being sentient creatures despite the absence of conclusive evidence,” Jaak Panksepp told me. “But scientists tend to be skeptics. And, in this field, it pays to be a skeptic if you want to get your research funded.” Irene Pepperberg recalls receiving comments from colleagues on an early grant proposal to study verbal comprehension in African grays: “One of the notes was ‘What is this woman smoking?’ ”

Willful blindness

An interesting comment by a philosopher is thrown in to account for this tendency of scientists to deny what they could see with their own eyes:

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote the seminal essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” used a term for the tendency to deny the existence of phenomena that cannot be proved empirically. “Scientism,” he wrote in 1986, “puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic, it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date — physics and evolutionary biology are the current paradigms — as if the present age were not just another in the series.”

Scientism or not it is such an outdated notion that animals are not sentient or thoughtful or emotionally complex creatures that it has become a blot on the reputation of science.

Virga in ignoring such misgivings has opened up a field where animals are understood to be suffering from anxieties and phobias in the same way as we do. He has cured a giraffe of its fear of large cameras with zoom lens, and an aoudad (Barbary sheep) frantic over the loss of its tail, as well as helped to further the reform of zookeeping from negative (hoses, prods, dart guns) to positive reinforcement (clicks, treats) to get the animals to cooperate, amid the reform of enclosures from concrete pits to natural surroundings. One important asset he promotes is a place to get out of sight of the audience, which Virga feels is essential for the animals’ psychological welfare.

All these bring relief to animals that have long been tormented by pitiless life sentences in crummy living conditions and abuse at least partly due to the conformist conservatism of scientists who should know better. Aristotle two thousands years ago ordained that women had fewer teeth than men, without bothering to check the mouth of his own wife. Today there is very little excuse to do likewise in conforming to a theoretical objection to what Virga and so many others have shown is an emotional life in animals to match humans which can be understood by anyone who learns their body language.

After all, Darwin himself was one of the great observer of animals’ emotions in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published as long ago as 1872.

Many comments

Meanwhile, once again the biggest problem in a field is the resolute conformity of scientists to an outdated notion. We couldn’t help posting a Comment on the piece as follows, to join the 260 other Comments allowed so far:

Surely there is a very big lesson in this report of a trend in science toward realizing that animals share so much more in common with us than they lack. It is that group thinking distorts science as often as it does every other field.

Why let scientists off the hook for their long established blindness to the body language of animals just because they whisper to the author that they knew that animals were so much more all along, but did not dare to say so out loud?

How scientific was it to be unable to see what was in front of their noses – don’t any of them have pets!? – all in the cause of supposed scientific objectivity? Aristotle is famous for insisting that women have fewer teeth than men without looking into his wife’s mouth to see if this was true. But that was 2000 years ago. Now we have modern professional science, where there is no excuse for ignoring evidence in favor of theoretical preconceptions.

The sad truth is that scientists have been in denial for centuries on this front, and many still are, and it is not the only example where scientists stick to ideas which are out of date and downright wrong because they want to stay in line. Ask any Nobel winner.

In an era of massive group science split into tiny specialties we have to be more wary than ever before of conformist thinking in science in the cause of bad ideas.

From the sound of Virga’s personality, we bet that The Soul of All Living Creatures, Virga’s recent book, published a year ago, is a must read.

Bottom line: Times news editors must wake up, too

But kudos to the Times for pointing out discreetly how scientists from groups which subscribe to fatheaded notions which they then stick to for centuries in the face of new evidence and a rather obvious conflict with the reality they deal with daily.

Perhaps the editors should consider what other notions scientists have peddled to them as gospel which also conflict with the news that the Times itself reports on the topic.

A good place to start would be the constant reiteration of the phrase “HIV, the virus that causes AIDS”, given that the seminal articles by a leading scientist in the top journals rejecting this still unproven notion published twenty eight years ago have never been answered in the same journals or successfully contradicted elsewhere.

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