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March 18, 2011 12:32 PM   Subscribe

The Creature Connection: Our love for animals can be traced to our capacity to infer the mental states of others, which archaeological evidence suggests emerged more than 50,000 ago. This article is part of a NYTimes series on the relationship between humans and the animals we raise.

From Single Cells, a Vast Kingdom Arose: The beginning of animals is one of the more mysterious episodes in the history of life, and intermediate species are extinct.

Supremacy of a Social Network: The ability to cooperate, to make individuals subordinate their strong sense of self-interest to the needs of the group, lies at the root of human achievement.

Emotional Power Broker of the Modern Family: Pets alter not only a family’s routines but also its hierarchy, social rhythm and web of relationships.

For Whom the Cell Mutates: The Origins of Genetic Quirks: While the origins of the cats at Hemingway’s longtime home in Key West, Fla., remain murky, the cause of their polydactyly is no longer a mystery.

No Face, but Plants Like Life Too: Vegetable behavior, and other ruminations on what we kill so we can eat.

Via
posted by homunculus (21 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Okay if anybody sees the answer to this askme in there, please point it out.
At a cocktail party last weekend, an Anthropologist was telling me about an experiment/study where people were shown videos of various animals preying on one another, and then measured their reactions. The findings, he contends, were that humans were largely more sympathetic to the deaths of animals more similar to themselves (i.e. sharing a more recent common ancestor). What is this study, what is this area of research called, and where can I read more about it?

As in: Humans were more likely to have a sympathetic (or negative, or disgusted) reaction to a snake being killed and eaten by a tarantula (because the snake is a chordate/has a backbone... like us) than we would if the roles were reversed and the snake was eating the tarantula.

Likewise, we'd be on the side of the squirrel (mammal) in any configuration of "squirrel eating snake" or "snake eating squirrel" confrontation. And so on and so on.
That study has got to be mentioned in there somewhere.
posted by cashman at 1:09 PM on March 18, 2011


I can't express enough how delighted I am that the gene responsible for mitten-cats is the "Sonic hedgehog gene."
posted by restless_nomad at 1:26 PM on March 18, 2011


Taken from "No Face, but Plants Like Life Too", this whole article is ridiculous ("I really want not only to eat, but to survive"?!) and this blockquote is their main offender:
Maybe the real problem with the argument that it’s O.K. to kill plants because they don’t feel exactly as we do, though, is that it’s the same argument used to justify what we now view as unforgivable wrongs.

Slavery and genocide have been justified by the assertion that some kinds of people do not feel pain, do not feel love — are not truly human — in the same way as others. The same thinking has led to other practices less drastic but still appalling. For example, physicians once withheld anesthetics from infants during surgery because it was believed that these not-quite-yet-humans did not feel pain (smiles were gas, remember).
I'm not a vegetarian because I like animals, I'm a vegetarian because I hate your babies GRARGRARGRAR
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 1:30 PM on March 18, 2011


I can't express enough how delighted I am that the gene responsible for mitten-cats is the "Sonic hedgehog gene."

You can always tell when a Drosophila researcher named a gene, because it always has a ridiculous name. This is because they spend all their time knocking out little flies with ether, and are therefore high as a kite for most of the working day.
posted by kersplunk at 1:53 PM on March 18, 2011 [18 favorites]


I can't express enough how delighted I am that the gene responsible for mitten-cats is the "Sonic hedgehog gene."

See this wonderful collection of bizarre (mostly Drosophila) gene names for more of this stuff. (Though it's not a gene, I'd like to add to the list the absolutely delightful "bag-of-worms" phenotype of C. elegans. This makes the mommy worm unable to properly lay her eggs, causing them to all hatch inside her living body, filling her with hundreds of tiny worm babies who proceed to devour their way out.)
posted by theodolite at 3:03 PM on March 18, 2011


For example, physicians once withheld anesthetics from infants during surgery because it was believed that these not-quite-yet-humans did not feel pain

Well, that's just a horrifying concept.
posted by Existential Dread at 3:21 PM on March 18, 2011


Researchers trace the roots of our animal love to our distinctly human capacity to infer the mental states of others, a talent that archaeological evidence suggests emerged anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.
What evidence is that?

I'm having a difficult time imagining what could be considered evidence for it. Also, my capacity to infer the mental states of others points out to me that there are nonhuman animals who sure seem to have the capacity to infer the mental states of others, and so I'm surprised that this is brought up as somehow "human", and that it's claimed to have arisen such a short time ago.
posted by Flunkie at 4:01 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I can't express enough how delighted I am that the gene responsible for mitten-cats is the "Sonic hedgehog gene."


Likewise.

But that's because I'm not a doctor. A lot of these genes control the same (or similar) pathways in humans. Imagine saying: "I'm sorry Miss, your child is developmently disabled because the tiggywinkle hedgehog gene on one of his chromosomes isn't working."
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:03 PM on March 18, 2011


So if you don't like animals, there's literally something wrong with you?
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:10 PM on March 18, 2011


And the fact Hitler loved dogs means what?
posted by canoehead at 6:08 PM on March 18, 2011


Maybe the real problem with the argument that it’s O.K. to kill plants because they don’t feel exactly as we do, though, is that it’s the same argument used to justify what we now view as unforgivable wrongs.

I may be mistaken but the last I heard on this subject is that plants do not possess central nervous systems, brains, or the ability to feel pain or have emotive states or memories.

No matter which side of the evolution-vs-creationism debate you have set up camp on, it would be supremely unlikely/illogical for a plant to evolve/possess such mechanisms. Apple trees would not evolve pain receptors because that would be a big waste of resources, and even if at some point they did have pain receptors, they would have evolved away from such things because I don't know that there's a whole lot of precedent for organisms that feel pain but have no way to respond to it (fight or flight). And for a god to create something that felt pain but couldn't do anything about it would be supremely cruel indeed.

But then, maybe plants do feel pain, and are like paralysed infants, suffering but unable to respond. That feels pretty unlikely, though. Growing thorns and dripping sap to seal wounds and fight off infection/parasites isn't really on any kind of metric of consciousness.

I think "but plants might feel pain too" is probably more anti-vegetarian prevarication than anything else. "Well, I don't eat meat because I don't like the idea of causing unnecessary suffering." "Oh yeah? Well what if cabbages have feelings too?" Seems a silly argument that detracts from the overwhelming pile of evidence that suggests that animals do feel pain, and adds nothing whatsoever to the slim-to-none pile of evidence that suggests that plants do.

However, "do no harm" is a tough one. Chopping down a tree or whatever is undeniably harming it. Fruitarians are most consistent, I guess, waiting for the fruit to drop from the tree naturally (are they called fruitarians?). But then there's harm in that too because the apples are seeds that have the chance to turn into another tree, so you're harming that particular genetic line's chances of survival.

I guess you just do what you can, in the end. Like Grayling says: "I'm a vegetarian, but I wear leather shoes. I'm trying my best." It's all any of us can do.
posted by tumid dahlia at 7:03 PM on March 18, 2011


"40 percent of married women with pets say they get more emotional support from their pets than from their husbands." Ummm...wtf?
posted by bloggerwench at 9:55 PM on March 18, 2011


40 percent of married women with pets say they get more emotional support from their pets than from their husbands.

This may not make the headlines that another school shooting does, but is is more horrifyingly indicative of what a pathological mess modern human society has become.
posted by kozad at 9:55 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


what a pathological mess modern human society has become.

You think it's getting worse?
posted by pracowity at 5:07 AM on March 19, 2011


bloggerwench:"40 percent of married women with pets say they get more emotional support from their pets than from their husbands." Ummm...wtf?

Kozad:This may not make the headlines that another school shooting does, but is is more horrifyingly indicative of what a pathological mess modern human society has become.

What? I don't see that statistic as being particularly surprising, or indicative of the some sort of horrible decay that has taken place in modern human society (if you truly have evidence that society was "better" in past, feel free to present it, but I think the claim reveals a terrible lack of perspective).

People find pets more "supportive" because their relationship with people is completely different. My dog just cares about food and attention. I might mistake this as "emotional support", and in fact, I might get genuine emotional benefit from it. But when I do something that my wife doesn't like, I'm not going to get support from her (and she may even be right in withholding her emotional support!) My dog won't do this.

But dogs aren't discerning at all. My relationship with my wife is much more satisfying, because of, not in spite of, the fact that she has intelligence and discernment; she is my equal, unlike a dog.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:17 AM on March 19, 2011


I hate the habit of science reporting to describe evolutionary processes in terms of intention. I know otherwise it's difficult for people to get their head round it, but it leads to all kinds of nonsenses and inaccuracies, especially in the 'single cell' link. Cells do not have motivations.
posted by Summer at 8:14 AM on March 19, 2011


Full disclosure: I wavered between vegan and vegetarian for over ten years, but now eat chicken or fish, once in a while. So take that for whatever it is worth, which is probably nothing.

I did promise myself that I would always let science guide my opinions on the matter when it comes to discussing pain and stress in animals and plants, and it forced me to spend a fair bit of time learning about how the brain processes what we consider pain. So hopefully I can share a little information with anyone interested in learning more; I tracked down the work of ichthyologists specifically but as far as I know, the information is fairly universal.

What we call pain boils down to two separate experiences: 'stress' and 'suffering'. You'll notice a lot of douchebag PETA flyers talking about how fish feel pain. They always, without fail, fall back on sliding pain under the term 'stress'. This is because fish (as far as I have studied scientist's work) do not in way experience 'suffering'.

Fish- and most living things- have a nociceptor network (so to speak, it isn't an actual network function) that registers damage to the body. Nociceptor response is easy to understand: you put your hand on the stove, your nociceptor response fires and you have pulled your hand away before you even feel the pain. That's the damage/response system that measures harmful stress and orders the body to react to it.

Suffering- the agony that comes after you ave burned your hand and pulled it away- is a product of a developed cerebral function, which plants, fish, etc lack. Last I read, the wavering point is connected to sentience in some slight way- fish experience stress but do not experience suffering- they lack the ability, and ichthyology has found no reason to suggest any other mechanism provides a unique experience of suffering- but you can obviously see and recognize how a cow or cat or dog or pig can experience suffering merely through their reaction and relation to damage and the overt survival tactic of experiencing suffering in relation to heightened response to damage.

Anyways, I'm not judging anyone or anything, just tossing out some information for you to take in and hopefully use.
posted by Bushidoboy at 9:42 AM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Like they say, everybody is food for somebody or "thing" so here we are, between a rock and a hard place. I've been a vegetarian for over 40 years but still wear leather shoes. I wince cutting into a clove of garlic that has a green heart.
posted by chance at 8:46 PM on March 19, 2011


In this comic it shows a Jain who only eats fruits. As in, no part of a plant that wasn't freely given with the intention of being eaten. She won't even touch honey because "I don't steal from animals".

Very thought-provoking comic if you are into that sort of thing. Goes unexpected places. I think I'll read it again, it's one of my favorite pieces of artwork ever.
posted by marble at 10:01 PM on March 19, 2011


Why isn't stress considered a form of suffering?
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 11:12 PM on March 19, 2011


But Bushidoboy, they're not fish anymore, remember? They're sea kittens.
posted by Because at 6:09 PM on March 21, 2011


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