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Animal Grief
October 30, 2009 4:16 AM   Subscribe

Grief among gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and magpies.
posted by Joe Beese (65 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by RussHy at 5:23 AM on October 30, 2009


Interesting stuff. thanks Joe Beese.

And concerning Koko the gorilla, here's some reminiscences from none other than... Shatner!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:26 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Halloween appropriate, as we all remember the dead.
posted by dabitch at 5:33 AM on October 30, 2009


The claims are likely to reignite the debate about whether emotions are a uniquely human trait

Wow, people still believe only humans feel emotion?
posted by rottytooth at 5:37 AM on October 30, 2009


Only those who have never had any pets, I hope.
posted by dabitch at 5:55 AM on October 30, 2009 [7 favorites]


"I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief."


--Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
posted by Rhaomi at 6:12 AM on October 30, 2009 [12 favorites]


That quote gets me teary eyed every time. *sob*
posted by dabitch at 6:24 AM on October 30, 2009


For anyone interested in the topic, I'd highly recommend Marc Hauser's Wild Minds - sciencey enough not to be patronising and accessible enough for the layman.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:14 AM on October 30, 2009


I hate to rain on this parade, but (1) you can't really "rhyme" using sign language, rhyming is an audio thing. Koko gave All Ball a rhyming name? No Koko's trainers did.

(2) Koko had a private moment of grief? Maybe he was just whining about being stuck in a cage all the time.

Anthropomorphism is really, really, fun, but seriously, people, animals can't talk.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 7:32 AM on October 30, 2009


Awesome post. Really nice follow-up to a lot of the comments in this thread. Thanks, Joe Beese.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 7:36 AM on October 30, 2009


Sorry, pick_the_flowers, but I assumed the reference to the rhyming name was explained by how the trainers speak the words to Koko in addition to signing. It wouldn't be too hard for the gorilla to auditorily pick out a rhyme and use the sign language accordingly. From what I've seen, trainers tend to repeat back, verbally and with sign language, some of the words the gorillas are signing.

Not that I think the significance of a rhyming name is particularly great, but I can't help but disagree with your take on it and the tone of your gripe.

As for Koko 'whining' because he was stuck in a cage, I'm not a gorilla expert, but I'll trust the people who constantly monitor her to pick out anomalous behavior rather than just assume that they think 'animals can talk'-- which, anyway, is pretty clearly illustrated by the amazing grip on sign language Koko has.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 7:55 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I hate to rain on this parade, but (1) you can't really "rhyme" using sign language, rhyming is an audio thing. Koko gave All Ball a rhyming name? No Koko's trainers did.

(2) Koko had a private moment of grief? Maybe he was just whining about being stuck in a cage all the time.

Anthropomorphism is really, really, fun, but seriously, people, animals can't talk.


(1) Though Koko signed to communicate with trainers, the trainers clearly vocalized words back to her while signing. It's not as if she couldn't hear, so it's entirely possible that she chose the words associated with rhyming sounds.

(2) As this post helps to illustrate, many animals animals fairly clearly understand the concepts of death and loss (and it seems to me that something pretty negative was being communicated through Koko's signing); for social animals (which gorillas are), an aversion to the death of members of one's group makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. I don't really see how that's anthropomorphism, but then again, I don't really see how it's sensible to believe strong emotional undercurrents would be absent in our closest animal relatives.

Anyway, great post Joe Beese.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:55 AM on October 30, 2009


Maybe he was just whining about being stuck in a cage all the time.

All grief has its solipsistic component: fear and self-pity that we too must die someday; annoyance at our obligations to acknowledge the deceased; taking a certain amount of relish in observing our sorrow. But then there is that other level of grief that feels like being struck full in the chest by a minature black hole -- a deep involuntary sorrow that cannot be savored or reasoned away, but can only be endured until worn down by the passage of time. If you can't see that particular sorrow in this gorilla's eyes, you must be blind.
posted by Faze at 7:55 AM on October 30, 2009 [7 favorites]


...you must be blind.

I'm sorry. That's not fair to the blind. I meant to say: "You must have Asperger's Syndrome".
posted by Faze at 8:11 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Anthropomorphism or not (you anthrocentric bastards!), hearing elephants grieve is goddamn heartbreaking.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:12 AM on October 30, 2009


I'm sorry. That's not fair to the blind. I meant to say: "You must have Asperger's Syndrome".

That's not fair either. Spielberg has Asperger's Syndrome, and he represents grief all the time on the screen. You know the moment. Somebody's eyes get wide, and the camera pulls in closer to their eyes.

The fact that this is how he represents all emotions in no way undermines my case.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:18 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Anthropomorphism is really, really, fun, but seriously, people, animals can't talk.


Anthropomorphism is ascribing human emotions to animals. I think it's pretty clear that animals do have emotions, and that calling this "anthropomorphism" is just a way of denying that truth. People have people emotions; animals have animal emotions. Claiming that the emotions of humans are somehow stronger or better or more sophisticated is a claim that doesn't make much sense to me; why do we need to feel so special and so separate from other species on the planet?

And anyone who thinks that animals can't "talk" -- that is, can't communicate with each other or with us -- hasn't been paying attention.
posted by OolooKitty at 8:24 AM on October 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm more touched by these than I have ever been by any of an endless parade of people wailing over coffins.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:26 AM on October 30, 2009


Empathizing with animals is great, I love animals, but I don't agree with the interpretations of their "emotions".

I'm not even saying that they don't have emotions, but I think that people need to be much more critical and realistic about interpreting them.

This article from the BBC talks about "the guilty look" in dogs, and how it is a human construction - pet owners thought they saw "the guilty look" when they were told their their dog had been naughty, whether the dog was actually guilty of a crime or not.

Culture is key to interpreting facial emotions. If you can't see that particular sorrow in this gorilla's eyes, you must be blind. Or from a different culture than you.

When Koko signed "water, bird" his trainers interpreted it and him saying "swan". I feel they were putting words into his mouth.

It wouldn't be too hard for the gorilla to auditorily pick out a rhyme and use the sign language accordingly. Most human children are taught how to rhyme. They don't necessarily instinctively get rhyming without an explanation. I have even experienced this among 10-12 year olds I've taught. So humans need to learn rhyming but Koko just gets it? I just don't buy that.

This is a really interesting post, I hope we can continue discussing this topic.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 8:31 AM on October 30, 2009


Skinner be damned.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:32 AM on October 30, 2009


Well, sure, animals don't feel emotions the way humans do. Anyone who has seen a dog nearly have a stroke with excitement because he gets to ride in a car knows that. I've never been that excited about anything in my entire life.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:35 AM on October 30, 2009 [10 favorites]


This article from the BBC talks about "the guilty look" in dogs, and how it is a human construction - pet owners thought they saw "the guilty look" when they were told their their dog had been naughty, whether the dog was actually guilty of a crime or not.

It's entirely possible that the dogs in the study were actually reacting to their owner's disapproval; in fact, the BBC article suggests this: "Where there was any change in the dogs' expression, it was seen to be a subsequent reflection of the human's emotions. If an owner thought the dog had misbehaved and then told the dog off, some dogs showed an 'admonished' look, which humans then misunderstood as an admission of guilt. " The (visible) emotional response was likely not a reflection of guilt but rather a reaction to their human's unhappiness. Which is still a display of emotion, even if it wasn't the emotion that the human had assumed it was.

Which is to say that Clever Hans couldn't count, but he was still doing something pretty amazing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:38 AM on October 30, 2009


Astro Zombie: Don't you understand - you're anthropomorphizing the dog if you think all that means excitement. Dogs can't feel anything humans can remotely interpret in human terms. At best, it is an unfeeling animal, the car ride means nothing to him. His movement is nothing more than animalian indifference to a god-like machine which it cannot comprehend without entering into spasms.

/sarcasm?
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:43 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's entirely possible that the dogs in the study were actually reacting to their owner's disapproval.

Exactly, and it's entirely possible that Koko was reacting to his handler's saddness about the death of All Ball. Eliciting the "correct" response (in that case, grief) would be expected for Koko who has been trained through operant conditioning.

Koko's "genius" seems a case of youthrowenoughshitatawallandsomeofitisboundtostick. Or rather, you give enough positive reinforcement to an animal, you can get it to do anything. Even fake emotional expressions specific to your culture.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 8:47 AM on October 30, 2009


Dogs mainly interpret the world through sound and smell so a car ride with his head sticking out the window is like going to see an awesome film, followed by a visit to a brilliant art gallery, stopping in at a kickass gig on the way home, and finally a wind-down with a great game.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:49 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Even fake emotional expressions specific to your culture.

That's an odd take on this, and doesn't credit Koko or other primates with the ability to mirror emotions. Where does that come from? How can they mirror emotions? You're saying they've just eventually learned how to reproduce an exact set of muscle twitches and noises in order to please the master? Again, how in the world could they do that if they didn't already have the circuitry to understand and mimic such things? What you're saying is 19th century stuff and flies in the face of neurology.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:51 AM on October 30, 2009


Or rather, you give enough positive reinforcement to an animal, you can get it to do anything. Even fake emotional expressions specific to your culture.

So how far back in our own evolutionary lineage do you think that our ancestors had what you'd recognize as emotions?
posted by hermitosis at 8:53 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Or rather, you give enough positive reinforcement to an animal child, you can get it to do anything. Even fake emotional expressions specific to your culture.

FTFY
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:57 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Even fake emotional expressions specific to your culture.

Also, how did you learn the emotional expressions specific to your culture? Was it by observing the adults in your life and learning from them, copying them, producing certain responses in order to elicit particular reactions?

Koko was a gorilla, but she was learning to participate in human culture. What you might call "faking it" is merely what a stranger in a strange land does until they can, as the saying goes, "make it" on their own.
posted by hermitosis at 9:00 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, how did you learn the emotional expressions specific to your culture?

For the record, I have ultrasound evidence of me in utero with a look of disgust on my face and within minutes of being born I had mastered contempt.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:05 AM on October 30, 2009 [7 favorites]


Exactly, and it's entirely possible that Koko was reacting to his handler's saddness about the death of All Ball. Eliciting the "correct" response (in that case, grief) would be expected for Koko who has been trained through operant conditioning.

Well, that something can be trained through operant conditioning doesn't necessarily mean a lack of emotions or intelligence (in fact, I'd say that in order to successfully be able to train an animal this way they'd need a certain degree of intelligence to both recognize patterns and predict outcomes based on those patterns). After all, humans can be trained through operant conditioning.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:12 AM on October 30, 2009


That's totally true. I was a prick to my wife for like four years and finally she left me. Score one for science!
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:14 AM on October 30, 2009


It's been proven that magpies, gorillas and elephants (to name a few) are self-aware. I don't know how you could be self-aware without feeling emotions, learning, teaching, and forming the building blocks of culture and tradition - however rudimentary.

I'm of the opinion that animals might not display human intelligence so much, but are much smarter and more socially constructed than we give them credit for. All one has to do is spend a bit of time watching how animals interact with each other. Shit, even gophers have a common language. Animal behaviourists have determined that they have different, distinct sounds for hawks, coyotes, etc. which are consistent in geographically separated populations.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:24 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


My kid is four. I recall clearly when I was crying over something, grief-stricken, when he was 2; he laughed because he did not understand why Mama was making such funny noises.

Now he acts concerned if I just say "ow" when I stub my toe. "You ok Mama? Here, let me kiss it."

Humans are not born knowing how to interpret all emotions, either.
posted by emjaybee at 9:26 AM on October 30, 2009


Relevant wiki articles: Emotions in animals and Emotions and culture. In short: recent studies have provided scientific evidence that some nonhuman animals have emotions (including clinical depression) and certain emotions (shown in facial expressions) are equally regarded across cultures.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:44 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


"If lions could talk, we still wouldn't be able to understand them." -Wittgenstein
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:45 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Or rather, you give enough positive reinforcement to an animal, you can get it to do anything. Even fake emotional expressions specific to your culture.

From my understanding of animal training, this isn't the case. Almost all of what we can train animals to do is a version of things they already do. Lion taming, for instance, is a laborious task of directing the animal's natural behavior, and, even then, the animals are extremely limited in what they can be taught to do, which is why you will see them standing all balls, but never see them playing basketball with them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:08 AM on October 30, 2009


Other studies have shown evidence of mourning in gorillas, empathy in rats, and friendship in cats.

Science!

As fascinating as it is, the idea of sad and grieving animals is too much for me today (magpies make wreaths? *pushes back tear in a manly fashion*), so I'm going to go and spend some time hunting down more scientific evidence of this elusive 'cats are friendly' concept.
posted by quin at 10:11 AM on October 30, 2009


standing all balls

I am unfamilar with this posture. Please demonstrate.

(great post Joe)
posted by Pantengliopoli at 11:26 AM on October 30, 2009


Standing on balls, rather. No, I won't demonstrate that either.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:01 PM on October 30, 2009


And anyone who thinks that animals can't "talk" -- that is, can't communicate with each other or with us -- hasn't been paying attention.

This is kind of confusing the issue. Of course animals can communicate, both within and across species, but there's also a widely accepted argument that non-human animals don't have language, for a certain fairly technical but useful definition of "language".

Whether other animals "talk" or not is rather different from whether they feel, anway. I don't see why we should change our ideas about the emotions of other species based on whether or not they use the same specific tricks to communicate that we do.
posted by dickymilk at 12:05 PM on October 30, 2009


You'd be very surprised, then, Astro Zombie, at what dogs and other animals can come up with when challenged to decide something new to do with an object. There are more detailed discussions of this available: I recommend Karen Pryor's new book, Reaching the Animal Mind and the associated website, which has fantastic links organized by book chapter.

To me, the video of the grieving mountain gorilla linked in Faze's post above and of the grieving elephants in the video in this post feel so familiar. There are expressions we all recognize, including sadness. But I am also struck by how much I recognize the silence that descends on us with grief. I started remembering the complete absence of sound or movement in the theater when I saw Schindler's List.
posted by bearwife at 12:38 PM on October 30, 2009


I'm trying to imagine what the magpie conception of the afterlife is.

I bet its shiny. So very shiny.
posted by The Whelk at 12:44 PM on October 30, 2009 [7 favorites]


*shrugs*

pick_the_flowers, we have far more evidence for animal emotion than for, say, the vast majority of cosmology. The thing is, we have no *reason* to want cosmology to be true, whereas large parts of human ethics are in trouble if animals have rights.

Note that we have pretty unambiguous data linking how we think of animals now (as a policy, anyway) and how we used to think of foreign people.

Ultimately, once again we have morality forcing the scientific hand. For something to be right, the science must be this way, so damnit, the science is this way. That's not science, that's rationalization. Cows can feel fear, and be tasty. You're going to need to find another reason it's moral to eat them, despite "well, they don't feel fear".
posted by effugas at 2:03 PM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


(and I'm not a vegetarian)
posted by effugas at 2:03 PM on October 30, 2009


Cows can feel fear, and be tasty. You're going to need to find another reason it's moral to eat them, despite "well, they don't feel fear".

It's only if accept the proposition it's immoral to eat animals that feel fear. Or "feel" anything else.
posted by tkchrist at 2:56 PM on October 30, 2009


To be clear, I'm not saying that animals don't have emotions, I'm just saying that interpreting animal language is up to the individual, and that kind of subjective interpretaion is shady science. Where Koko's trainers saw grief and attempts at syntax, I did not. But then again I haven't spent decades hanging out with a gorilla, raising him as if he was my child, communicating with him as if he were a human, and forming emotional attachments to him, so maybe I just don't know.

Koko was a gorilla, but she was learning to participate in human culture. What you might call "faking it" is merely what a stranger in a strange land does until they can, as the saying goes, "make it" on their own.

Maybe now would be a good time to bring up feral children - it seems that if a human child spends specific developmental years with dogs, they can never learn human language, though they can learn to ape other human behaviours. I say ape them because they can never actually "make it on their own". So they will always be faking it. Koko is, likewise, never going to "make it".

Ok, let me be honest, there was another reason I said "ape" and it was because I thought it was funny that ape is a verb. As in "I learned to ape the emotions of a sensitive human being" (Shatner makes his second appearance in this post).

What you're saying is 19th century stuff and flies in the face of neurology.

What you're saying would be valid only with links to back it up, which I would be interested in.

I'm more touched by these than I have ever been by any of an endless parade of people wailing over coffins.


That was such a sad thing to say.

The idea that someone finds animal suffering so much more touching than human suffering is a deeply painful idea to me. Is it because you have given up on humans? Is it because humans seem more selfish? Because humans are vengeful? Because you want to save and protect animals? I'm sorry that someone feels like this.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 3:18 PM on October 30, 2009


What you're saying would be valid only with links to back it up, which I would be interested in.

You first.

I'm more touched by these than I have ever been by any of an endless parade of people wailing over coffins.


That was such a sad thing to say.


I gave that a bit more of a charitable reading. Human grief is often tinged with all kinds of fears and considerations that can make it a bit obtuse and overblown. Animals don't really have the forebrain to run that baser emotion through so what you hear/see when they grieve is perhaps a purer expression. That purer expression touched the same basic faculty in turgid dahlia that is shared with other developed animals so there was more of a resonance there than someone bawling over a casket, worried about the future and funeral costs or whatever. I could be wrong tough.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:23 PM on October 30, 2009


For the record, I have ultrasound evidence of me in utero with a look of disgust on my face and within minutes of being born I had mastered contempt.

No wonder, you start out in a slimy bloody cramped little sac, which then contracts violently and shoves you out through an impossibly small opening into a considerably colder and waaay too bright world where everybody's grabby. And you're still not out of the woods then!
posted by namespan at 3:57 PM on October 30, 2009


I'm more touched by these than I have ever been by any of an endless parade of people wailing over coffins.

The idea that someone finds animal suffering so much more touching than human suffering is a deeply painful idea to me. Is it because you have given up on humans? Is it because humans seem more selfish? Because humans are vengeful? Because you want to save and protect animals? I'm sorry that someone feels like this.


I agree with Burhanistan. In short: people are cynical of other people because there people can be shifty and might just be "aping" their sorrow for a number of reasons.

... you will see [lions] standing all balls, but never see them playing basketball with them

What you can do with patience and the right mouse can be amazing. Then there's dancing with dogs. They look pretty into it.

I'm going to go and spend some time hunting down more scientific evidence of this elusive 'cats are friendly' concept.

There are three cats in my household. One mother, one son, and one young interloper lady. The little lady is crazy, often doing circuits in the house for no good reason beyond that it's fun to run (*human emotion attached to possibly normal cat activity*). The young'n and the son battle, but rarely hiss, and then they make up and lick eachother and cuddle (*projecting, again*). But the little one and the mother, and now the son and the mother, will play fight but hiss while doing so. Non-scientific assumption: the little lady and the son are friends, while there is still a relationship-battle between the oldest and younger ones. (Also: this is more endearing in person, than my attempt at clinically drab write-up).
posted by filthy light thief at 4:54 PM on October 30, 2009


Anyone who believes that animals can't feel emotions has never had a close relationship with one.

And, I'm going to kick ass if anyone else refers to Koko as "he"... Koko was a female.

Now, I'm going to go spend some time with a very old, very ill cat, who has shown me more emotion in the past years than most of the people I know....
posted by HuronBob at 6:55 PM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


tkchrist,

It's only if accept the proposition it's immoral to eat animals that feel fear. Or "feel" anything else.

It's my sense that this, right here, is at the heart of people's desires for animals to be emotionless automatons. The quotes aren't lost on me: Literally one second after saying you don't care if they feel fear or not, you're already backpedalling by saying "Oh wait, they don't really feel anything."

There are some interesting experiments that could be run, basically along the lines of subjecting a test animal to a series of stimuli and recording actions taken, classes of noise made, general physiology, etc. And then you could twist the experiment around, hand the responses to a series of investigators, and ask:

Emotion-bearing, or not?

I submit to you that, given the results of the emotional turing test described above, that the average chimpanzee, dog, or even cow would be able to pass for human. I also submit that the harder you try to define what makes an emotion "count", the more you're really just trying to special case humanity because you're really sure cannibalism is wrong.

Again, I'm not a vegetarian, and I have no interest in arguing that anyone else should be either. Our bodies are dependent enough on meat-derived proteins and vitamins that it's clear we've adapted to consume it. But denying fairly obvious scientific facts, because of moral qualms, is sort of the problem we have in the evolution space. Lets not inject it into animal neuropsychology, OK?
posted by effugas at 7:16 PM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Animals don't really have the forebrain to run that baser emotion through so what you hear/see when they grieve is perhaps a purer expression.

Yeah, I'm kind of with Pick, here. Sometimes it seems like animals are our Noble Savage 2.0, all pure an innocent and therefore worthy of respect, admiration and kindness, unlike corrupt and evil humans who do bad stuff and who therefore are often contemptible even while suffering.

As an aside, saying "I do not accept the proposition it's immoral to eat animals that feel fear," is not quite the same as saying "I don't care if they feel fear or not."

Suppose we can someday prove that animals do experience emotion. Most mammals, in fact. Is it then immoral for a wolf to hunt a deer? A cat a mouse? I think we would say no; carnivores eat meat and hunt prey, this behavior is but natural, and morality doesn't enter into it, though prey animals may experience fear and predators bloodlust. Even if said prey animal is a participant in an animal society which has its own culture, hierarchy, and social relationships --- as say, a wolf pack --- that the wolf does not extend the freedoms of wolf society to the deer does not seem to us unnatural, or wrong. Nature itself is amoral.
posted by Diablevert at 8:26 PM on October 30, 2009


Jesus, you're all over the place.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:57 PM on October 30, 2009


Diablevert,

I have no doubt that animals can be assholes, or that they can be altruistic. There's plenty of evidence of both -- again, far more than we have for anything cosmological.

The problem is that animals not being conscious, emotional creatures makes it very easy to draw a bright line between moral behavior (killing cows) and immoral behavior (killing humans). In fact, historically the killing of humans has been implemented by convincing people (who very much wanted to be convinced) that they were really just killing animals.

The messy thing is that if animals are just like humans, then humans are just like animals. And it's OK to kill them when convenient.

We, as humans, have built a moral code of astonishing depth to facilitate society at the scale it exists. The moral code has the feeling of fact, much as the nature of concrete or air. It has to, in order to function. But science is very good at teasing fact from superstition...
posted by effugas at 9:01 PM on October 30, 2009


Put a little more simply, nature is amoral, humans cannot be, because human society cannot scale without self-enforcement of social mores (which to some degree overlap with law).

But humans are natural entities. We are, as a matter of living flesh, amoral creatures.

So we must be, what we are not. One way we do that is by defining how we are not like every other creature on earth. Consider how a ridiculously common trope of even Science Fiction is how humans, with their overwhelming capacity for love and sacrifice, are defined by and made special by this fundamentally unique trait.

Except the science isn't very subtle about this ... it's really not that rare a trait. But hush, we need it to be...
posted by effugas at 9:06 PM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


The messy thing is that if animals are just like humans, then humans are just like animals. And it's OK to kill them when convenient.

Nah, that only holds if you consider that morality is external to human society, and that consciousness is the relevant criteria for whether human moral rules ought to apply to a given subject. But I think what the science suggests is that moral codes are internal to human society. The universe is neither good nor evil. People can act good or evil, in the judgment of other people. Morality is a set of rules, behaviors and instincts we have evolved in order to get along with each other. It doesn't, therefore, apply to our relations with other species. An ape cannot murder me. It can kill me, sure, it can do so in a fit of rage, or even with malice aforethought. But it can't murder me, because being an ape, it cannot be expected to respect my rights, to grant me mine as I would grant him his, by mutual consent. And neither can I murder an ape. Though each of us may repent and grieve our actions. (......aaaaand, we're back on topic.)
posted by Diablevert at 9:16 PM on October 30, 2009


Wait, an ape can't "murder" but it can "repent"? This is just making stuff up, you know.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:20 PM on October 30, 2009


We are, as a matter of living flesh, amoral creatures.

Nope. Baked into the muffin. Our moral judgments are in part consciously rationalized and in part unconscious and instinctive, and the wiring for each switch can be traced in our brains.

So yeah, I would agree that we like to try and pick some trait, mark some bright line, between us and animals. We're always striving for that, appears to answer some need in us, to be sure.

Where we differ is that I'm saying, even if you accept, as I do, that there's a gray fuzzy area here, a sliding scale between human and animal consciousness, that does not to me imply, necessarily, a moral obligation to non-humans. Even if chimps can feel pain and grieve and not want to press the red button if it will make the other chimpanzee scream, it does not necessarily follow to me that I have to treat the chimp like a mentally disabled human, that I have to ascribe to it rights. I'm a speciesist, and in so being, am but nature's faithful hound. And an omnivore. And so I don't think it's any more wrong for me to eat meat than for a chimp to hunt bush babies.
posted by Diablevert at 9:32 PM on October 30, 2009


Wait, an ape can't "murder" but it can "repent"? This is just making stuff up, you know.

Yeah, I was being a bit fuzzy and high-falutin. To be clear: I'm not a scientist, I cannot offer definitive evidence of animal's possession or not of emotions. I was not attempting to do so. What I was attempting to do, perhaps too glibly, was make an argument about the nature of rights, morality, and consciousness. The thread's about whether animals experience emotion. TK and effugas, above, were arguing about whether, if animals can experience emotion, it is therefore immoral to eat them. I jumped in supporting the idea that the ability to experience emotion/consciousness is not the relevant criteria for determining whether one is obligated to regard another being as subject to human morality, possessing attendant rights and obligations. That's what I was attempting to allude to when I said an ape can't murder; murder's defined as the crime of unlawful killing. Even if you can prove that an ape experiences emotion, has a conscious desire to cause harm, an ape cannot understand law, and does not have obligations under it. It can't murder me because it isn't a member of my society. I would argue that morality overall is something that evolved to govern, and can only truly be said to exist within, societies.
posted by Diablevert at 9:56 PM on October 30, 2009


Diablevert--

I'm not saying, "If animals have emotions, then it's immoral to eat them."

I'm saying, "Animals have emotions. Not saying it's immoral or not, hell, I had chicken for dinner tonight, but if it's moral it's not because they're emotionless."

Regarding morals baked into the muffin, of course they are. Like I said, society couldn't scale otherwise. But -- here's the key -- what's baked in is a sense of how the universe works. We're built to have delusions, which if you know anything about the perceptual system, shouldn't at all be surprising. Color, as we see it, really doesn't exist. It's a delusion too, just a really useful one.

Interesting factoid: There's a certain type of pig that freaks the hell out if it realizes its about to die. Not just the normal freakout, but to the point where the hormones and chemicals that are released render its meat pretty much inedible. This has led to two defenses: Testing, and not letting pigs see eachother die / know they're about to die.

Anyway, you all can argue the morality of it all. Again, chicken, nom. But lets not delude ourselves about the nature of what we're doing.
posted by effugas at 10:13 PM on October 30, 2009


Diablevert--

By the way, your argument works really well to argue that a Hutu can't murder a Tutsi.
posted by effugas at 10:14 PM on October 30, 2009


Hutu can't murder a Tutsi

A Hutu can't understand law, or have obligations under it?

But anywho, yeah, we agree on too much to argue properly. But I am comfortable with speciesism, by and large. It's an arbitrary line, but we're not the only species that uses it as a boundary.
posted by Diablevert at 10:22 PM on October 30, 2009


It can't murder me because it isn't a member of my society.

I think that's the line that gives you some Hutu/Tutsi problems.
posted by effugas at 11:50 PM on October 30, 2009


Literally one second after saying you don't care if they feel fear or not, you're already backpedalling by saying "Oh wait, they don't really feel anything."

Really I said all that?

I even back peddled? Huh. I did not know that.

I guess I'd better clarify or you'll eventually start claiming I admitted to serial killing.

I never said I don't care. I have emotions too. My emotions are swayed by my perceptions. And if I interpret an animals suffering when I'm killing it for food as something akin to what I feel, then I feel empathy. It is debatable if an animals and I truly feel the same things in the same ways. But I'm not intellectually opposed to the notion.

In fact I'd wager most people liberally interpret animal emotions to the point of incredible anthropomorphizing. So your idea that people would like animals to be unfeeling automatons is frankly total bullshit.

However, that in no way determines the morality of that individual act of me killing that animal for food. It might however influence how I kill that animal so as to not create unnecessary suffering.

What I intended to the charitable reader was to imply it may not matter if I, or you, or anybody, cares or not. My emotional state and the animals emotional state are irrelevant to the larger issue of whether it's ethical or moral to kill an animal for food.

Now if you take five minutes to grok that, sit with it, before jumping into a host of assumptions you might get to a conclusion as to why that might be. I'm not gonna spell it out for you. I don't care to get into the authenticity of utilitarian philosophy or repeating myself from the Natalie Portman "Meat is Murder (or Rape)" thread.

Suffice to say there less subjective reasons to help one determine if killing animals may or may not be ethical for an individual. Emotional capacity of an animal is literally an emotional appeal that is one of the least tenable and rational arguments for just about anything.
posted by tkchrist at 4:25 PM on November 2, 2009


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