Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

What if "They" Became Us? Animals, Music, and Childrearing

Three recent books of very different styles are well worth the read.

As if I were looking for more to read, I received three recently published books over the past weeks and it's worth sharing some information about them because I'm sure many readers of Psychology Today and others will want to know about all or some of them. 

The Awareness: What if "They" Became "Us"?

The first, by Gene Stone and Jon Doyle, is called The Awareness, and is one of the most powerful and moving novels in the area of human-animal relationships that I've read in a while. Almost every single page made me stop and think about who we are and who "they" (other animals) are and how we mistreat them in numerous different ways. But, what if the tables turned and "they" became "us" and treated us as if we were they? This is the basis of this thought provoking work of fiction, featuring among other animals, a bear in the Canadian Rockies, an elephant in a traveling circus in Texas, a pig on a hog farm in North Carolina, and a dog living with his beloved owner in New York.

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I wrote this about it when I reviewed it and after going through it again I realize I could easily have heaped more praise on this inspiring and deep (as you want it to be) book.

Every now and again I sit back and wonder what it would be like if other animals could really fight back against the egregious violence to which we subject them in a wide variety of venues ranging from research laboratories and classrooms to zoos, circuses, rodeos, factory farms, and in their own homes in ours and in the wild. This thought experiment takes life in The Awareness and reflects their points of view, and it's clear they do not like what routinely and thoughtlessly happens to themselves, their families, and their friends. By changing the playing field Gene Stone and Jon Doyle force us to reflect how we wantonly and selfishly abuse other animals and the price we would pay if they could truly fight back. This challenging book also asks us to reflect on the well-supported fact that we need other animals as much as they need us. It should help us rewild our hearts, expand our compassion footprint, and stop the reprehensible treatment that we mindlessly dole out.

Many other people agree. For example, Bruce Friedrich, Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives at Farm Sanctuary, writes, “Every once in a while a piece of fiction comes along that can change the way we think about the world. The Awareness is one of those transformational novels—it’s a wonderfully written book that tells an entertaining and suspenseful story, but even more, it would be almost impossible to read this book and not come away with a new and heightened understanding of the human-animal relationship.” And, renowned philosopher and animal advocate Bernard Rollin of Colorado State University notes, "This a book all those who care—and all those who don't care—about animals must read.”

The Awareness is not a "them" versus "us" book

My emphatic suggestion is to read this book, reflect on its very important messages, and share with as many people as possible. I know you'll like the final pages, but won't ruin it for those who are lucky enough to read this book. I want to emphasize that The Awareness is not univocally pro-animal and anti-human. As Gene Stone says in an interview, "I would assume that a lot of people won’t bother to read the book because they’ll assume it’s all pro-animal and anti-human. But that’s not the case at all. We were very careful to show that there’s good and bad everywhere–humans can be good, animals can be bad. One of the most heroic creatures in the book is a human."

The Evolution of Emotional Communication: From Sounds in Nonhuman Mammals to Speech and Music in Man

Another book that fascinated me is a collection of essays dealing with a wide array of different species (including elephants, bats, who are very emotional, rodents, non-human primates, and human primates) and edited by Eckart Altenmuller, Sabine Schmidt, and Elke Zimmermann called The Evolution of Emotional Communication: From Sounds in Nonhuman Mammals to Speech and Music in Man. The table of contents can be seen here. This book couldn't be more different from The Awareness in that the essays in this eclectic book are written in a highly scientific style. However, they are readable by non-researchers and all make the case that evolutionary continuity is a real and important phenomenon, that "emotions are integral decision mechanisms in the brain of humans and animals", there are "cross species universals in emotional communication", and we can indeed learn a good deal about the evolution of human music from studying nonhuman animals.

As an ethologist (see also) I found the conclusion of one of the essays to be fascinating. As the editors note, the authors conclude, "that the musical capacity in humans may have evolved as a response to selective pressures for increased group size for its effect of synchronizing group motivation and emotional experience through emotional contagion, and as such would have promoted group gatherings, social functions, and the establishment of rituals." This description captures the essence of this very important book. "It is the first volume to bridge the gap between research in the acoustic communication of emotions in humans with those in animals, using a comparative approach. With the communication of emotions being an important research topic for a range of scientific fields, this book is valuable for those in the fields of animal behaviour, anthropology, evolutionary biology, human psychology, linguistics, musicology, and neurology."

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing

The third book that caught my eye is called Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing edited by Darcia Narvaez, Kristin Valentino, Agustin Fuentes, James J. McKenna, and Peter Gray. The table of contents for this wide-ranging and superb book can be seen here. My copy is so marked up it looks like a dazzling kaleidoscope and each time I reread different sections I add more highlighting and page markers. While the essays are "highly scientific" and evidence-based, this book is quite easy to read due to the editors' diligence. I can't add more to the description below, and, as with the other two books, I highly recommend it to people with interests in the many different areas that are covered in this landmark book.

The social contexts in which children develop have transformed over recent decades, but also over millennia. Modern parenting practices have diverged greatly from ancestral practices, which included natural childbirth, extensive and on-demand breastfeeding, constant touch, responsiveness to the needs of the child, free play in nature with multiple-aged playmates, and multiple adult caregivers. Only recently have scientists begun to document the outcomes for the presence or absence of such parenting practices, but early results indicate that psychological wellbeing is impacted by these factors.

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution addresses how a shift in the way we parent can influence child outcomes. It examines evolved contexts for mammalian development, optimal and suboptimal contexts for human evolved needs, and the effects on children's development and human wellbeing. Bringing together an interdisciplinary set of renowned contributors, this volume examines how different parenting styles and cultural personality influence one another. Chapters discuss the nature of childrearing, social relationships, the range of personalities people exhibit, the social and moral skills expected of adults, and what 'wellbeing' looks like. As a solid knowledge base regarding normal development is considered integral to understanding psychopathology, this volume also focuses on the effects of early childhood maltreatment. By increasing our understanding of basic mammalian emotional and motivational needs in contexts representative of our ancestral conditions, we may be in a better position to facilitate changes in social structures and systems that better support optimal human development. This book will be a unique resource for researchers and students in psychology, anthropology, and psychiatry, as well as professionals in public health, social work, clinical psychology, and early care and education.

Among the very important messages conveyed by the editors and authors is that, "We do not idolize ancestral forms of care, nor naively sing their collective praises without realizing that the usefulness of evolved behaviors can change through time. Nor do we dismiss the possibility that traits that may have been adaptive at earlier points in our prehistory are not necessarily compatible with present circumstances..."

Clearly, there are "shifting baselines for childrearing" yet evolutionary continuity is a reality. We shouldn't romanticize what we often call the "good old days" or damn some current practices that seem counterproductive to raising healthy humans. As the editors note, future studies "however challenging, will require understanding that our evolutionary legacies are relevant to helping us adjust our lifestyles to provide a fit between our more conservative biology and cultures, which can be at odds with one another to a greater or lesser degree. Only our imaginations are stopping us."

The teaser image can be seen here

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014.  

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

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