Animal Emotions

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What Is It Like to Be an Octophant?

Scientific research shows we can indeed gain an understanding of other minds

There is so much widespread interest in the lives of nonhuman animals (animals) that hardly a day goes by when I don't see something about their fascinating cognitive, emotional, or moral lives. And the animals who are discussed are quite a mix, ranging from ants to spiders, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals. I cover many of these essays in my own and often it's a chore to keep up with what shows up in my inbox. 

What is it like to be an Octophant?

The two essays about which I'm writing deal with octopus and elephants, hence "octophant", a truly alien creature. Some readers may recognize the title of this essay as a variation of the title of a classic article published in 1974 in The Philosophical Review by philosopher Thomas Nagel called "What is it like to be a bat?" (A PDF file of the original essay can be found here.) Dr. Nagel's essay was in part motivated by his discussions with Donald Griffin (see also), often called "the father of cognitive ethology", who for years studied echolocation in bats. It generated wide-ranging discussion that still continues today, and just this week I was told about two different essays that once again raise the nagging question of what is it like to be another animal.  

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What is it like to be an octopus?

The first essay by renowned philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith called "On Being an Octopus" is a short and highly important piece. Dr. Godfrey-Smith writes: "In a famous 1974 paper, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked: What is it like to be a bat? He asked this in part to challenge materialism, the view that everything that goes on in our universe comprises physical processes and nothing more. A materialist view of the mind, Nagel said, cannot even begin to give an explanation of the subjective side of our mental lives, an account of what it feels like to have thoughts and experiences. Nagel chose bats as his example because they are not so simple that we doubt they have experiences at all, but they are, he said, 'a fundamentally alien form of life.'”

While we are rather different from bats, they and we are mammals and we share a lot of traits with them including similar nervous systems. And, it has been suggested by the noted evolutionary biologist and prolific author Richard Dawkins that bat sonar is really modified seeing, not upgraded hearing so maybe in this sense we're not all that different from one another. 

Nonetheless, as Dr. Godfrey-Smith points out, large-brained octopus with less centralized nervous systems are truly more alien. He notes about the evolution of octopus, "The result is an animal that is curious and a problem-solver. Some octopuses carry pairs of coconut half-shells around to reconstruct as spherical shelters. Octopuses can recognize (and take a disliking to) individual human keepers in aquariums. They learn the layout of their environment and hunt on long loops that take them reliably back to a den. Octopuses have eyes built on a “camera” design like ours, with a lens focusing an image. They also have sensitive chemical sensors in their suckers—they taste the world as they touch it. When watching their eyes, it is natural to think that perhaps octopuses are a bit like us, just with more arms and no bones. Like other animals, they use their senses to track what is going on around them and to guide action. Would being an octopus be so different from being a bat, or any other animal with fine-tuned senses and a complex nervous system?"

So, can we ever make significant headway into answering the question, "What is it like to be an octopus?" Yes and no. Yes, if we really try hard and pay attention to what we know about these fascinating yet alien animals and recognize the limitations at hand, and no, if we are looking for a precise explanation. However, an understanding that is more than a wild guess based on solid research can help us along in answering this vexing question.

Dr. Godfrey-Smith's conclusion is well worth some deep reflection. He writes, "Knowing how an animal’s body and brain are put together does not put you into a state that is similar to what is going on inside that animal, so in that sense no description can tell you 'what it’s like to be' that animal. Getting a sense of what it feels like to be another animal—bat, octopus, or next-door neighbor—must involve the use of memory and imagination to produce what we think might be faint analogues of that other animal’s experiences. This project can be guided by knowledge of how the animal is put together and how it lives its life. When the animal is as different from us as an octopus, the task is certainly difficult, but it is one worth undertaking. Doing so is part of the attempt to strike a balance between treating our minds as too private and mysterious to make scientific sense of at all, and treating them as less private and mysterious than they really are." 

Some people like to invoke what's called the "privacy of mind" argument to bolster arguments that we can never know what another individual is thinking or feeling so it's not worth the effort to try to understand them, or there's nothing really going on in their minds because they're merely acting "as if" they're thinking or feeling something. I've argued that the use of the privacy of mind argument is often over-blown and used to distance humans from other animals and this move opens the door for the mistreatment of other animals. Of course, Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, namely that differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind, lay the groundwork that there are many similarities among different species. So, while there will be gaps in our knowledge about what's happening in other minds, we can indeed make very good assessments and they're not merely wild guesses. We ignore nature when we rob other animals of their minds.

What is it like to be an elephant?

The second essay that came my way is called "Do Elephants Have Souls?" by Caitrin Nicol and published in The New Atlantis for which she is the managing editor. It is a very long, detailed, and wide-ranging essay and contains an incredible amount of important information about these magnificent animals including some historical accounts and a discussion of elephants in religion and the ivory trade in which they are brutally massacred and dismembered (for more on the mistreatment of elephants please see "An Apology to Elephants").

Ms. Nicol also writes about Thomas Nagel's essay and his questioning whether we could ever really know what it is to be bat. She notes, "For people hoping nonetheless to comprehend the lives of elephants, there is an astounding wealth of information about them..." 

It is impossible to do Ms. Nicol's essay justice in this short space. But it is really well worth reading because in many ways it's a nice compact summary of the current state of knowledge about these mammoths with legendary memories and highly evolved and deep emotional lives. Elephants experience incredible joy, deep grief, and suffer from PTSD when severely traumatized. There is also some evidence that they intentionally kill themselves when they are extremely distressed. They communicate using infrasounds and seismic vibrations in the ground and "can keep tabs on who is where and what is going on by footfalls many miles away."

In Ms. Nicol's essay and at the end there are a number of excellent resources. She, like many others, argues that we can indeed get a very good feel for what it is like to be an elephant based on solid scientific research. I agree and heartily recommend this thoughtful piece. 

Is it easier to know what it is like to be a dog?

One question that I pondered as I read these two essays concerned whether or not it is easier to know what it is like to be an animal with whom we might be more familiar. I feel I know the minds of coyotes, dogs, and wolves pretty well, for example, because I've been studying them for many years. Yet, while I feel comfortable making predictions about how they will behave in specific situations and what they might be feeling when they play or when they lose a friend, I still for the life of me can't imagine putting my nose where they routinely put theirs, so there is always some sort of mystery about what's happening in their minds and who they really are. However, of course, these sorts of gaps in knowledge are what drive me and others to learn more about the magnificent animals with whom we share Earth.

On-going studies of other minds continue to provide fascinating information and as time passes and the data accumulate we will come to appreciate both the similarities and differences that exist among various animals. We and other animals are most fortunate that the question "What is it like to be a ___?" attracts many people with various backgrounds and interests. 

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

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