Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

The Science of Love: A Pre-Valentine's Day Live Chat

Join a live chat on the nature of love on February 9 hosted by Science Live

Do nonhuman animals fall in love? Of course they do. On Thursday, February 9, 2012, at 3PM (eastern time) there will be live chat on "The Science of Love" hosted by Science Live. Please join Diane Witt of the National Science Foundation and me for what should be lively discussion about the nature of love in human and nonhuman animals.

A brief description of the chat is as follows: "If the bags of heart-shaped chocolate at your grocery store haven't given it away yet, Valentine's Day is fast approaching. What better time to explore the science of love? Join us this Thursday as we chat live with two experts on the biological basis of love and other emotions in the animal kingdom. What happens in the brain when we fall in love? Why do animals form bonds? And what is the latest research telling us about our most powerful emotions? Join us at 3 p.m. EST on Thursday, 9 February, for a live chat on this page. You can leave your questions in the comment box below before the chat starts."

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There's no doubt that many animals experience rich and deep emotions. It's not a matter of if emotions have evolved in animals but why they have evolved as they have. We must never forget that our emotions are the gifts of our ancestors, our nonhuman animal kin. We have feelings and so too do other animals.

While some people, but fewer and fewer including active researchers, still debate whether nonhuman animals can "really fall in love", there are ample data that show they can and they do. Individuals of many diverse species form deep and enduring bonds with one another and deeply grieve the loss of family members and close friends. And it's real love and real loss, not "love" or "loss". Whatever its value is, grief is the price of commitment, falling in love, for example, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow.

Some people like to put quotation marks (scare quotes) around words such as love, grief, sadness, and jealousy, for example, when they talk about the emotional lives of animals as if they're not real or because they're not like our own. They like to say they're sort of like ours but not as strong or as rich. They're not the "real" thing, as if we have it and other animals don't. 

Some people also like to say, "Oh, you're just being anthropomorphic" when talking about animal emotions. But the charge of "being (too) anthropomorphic" is usually merely self-serving double-talk. Many people, including esearchers, now recognize that we must be anthropomorphic when we discuss animal emotions but that if we do it carefully, what I call "biocentric anthropomoprhism", we can still give due consideration to the animals' point of view. Being anthropomorphic is doing what comes naturally. No matter what we call it, most agree that animals and humans share may traits including emotions.Thus, we're not inserting something uniquely human into animals, but rather we're identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe.

Skeptics also like use what I call the "as if" disclaime when talking about animal emotions. They say animals act "as if" they're in love or grieving but they really aren't. However, solid science flies in the face of these claims.There's no reason to assume that nonhuman animal emotions will be just like ours or even that humans always feel they same when they're in love or grieving. There's also no good reason to think other animals are  "sort of in love" or "sort of grieving" given what we now know about the rich and deep emotional lives of a wide range of animals. We know other animals share with us structures in the limbic system that are important for processing emotions and also show similar neurochemical changes when experiencing various emotions. Detailed ethological studies also show that many animals are deeply feeling beings. 

It's bad biology to rob nonhumans of their emotional lives. Following up on Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, we know that the differences among animals are differences in degree, not kind. So, the bumpersticker for continuity simply put is "If we have something, 'they' (other animals) do too." People accept continuity when talking about anatomy and physiology but have been more reluctant to accept it for emotions (and consciousness). Of course, the reason innumerable animals are used in biomedical research is because of their similarity to us. 

We hope you'll join this live chat. So do all of the nonhuman animals who depend on our goodwill for their very survival and happiness. Other animals aren't non-feeling objects but rather subjects of a life that means a lot to them and to their families and friends. Their lives must also deeply matter to us. 

And, when it comes to love, let's face it, we humans don't seem to do all that well in the arena of amor. Perhaps we should be saying that humans "fall in love" and use other animals as examples of what real love truly is. We can learn a lot from them about love and commitment. 

Happy Valentine's Day to them and to you all and hope to see you for this important discussion. 

The teaser image of elephants in love is here.

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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