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Catching Up with Caveman

We need science to tell us what we used to know about animals.

This post is in response to
Dogs Are People, Too: They Love Us and Miss Us fMRI's Say
Border collie image

You're talking to me, right?

Science is on a roll when it comes to understanding animal experience.

Psychology Today contributor Marc Bekoff noted wistfully a while ago that “Science leaders have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.”[1]

René Descartes must be turning over in his grave. Almost five hundred years ago, he famously taught that all the material world, including the human body, is merely a machine devoid of consciousness. The latter resides only in the human mind, he argued.[2] His model of animals as machines without thought, feeling, and consciousness has sanctioned centuries of brutality against animals in science and industry.

Now scientists have concluded that “dogs are people, too” because they have positive emotions of attachment and love, much as humans do. Psychology Today contributor and neuroeconomist Gregory Berns and colleagues trained dogs to remain very still inside M.R.I. scanners so that the caudate nucleus in their brains could be observed as things they liked (or hand signs referring to them) came in and out of viewable and smell-able range. Their caudates lit up just as the same areas do in humans when experiencing positive emotions such a love.[3]

Caudate Nucleus

Love center

Scientists such as Berns and Beckoff deserve much praise for carrying out and popularizing research that corrects modernity’s centuries-old notions of creatures as machines. Such images have liberated legions of scientists and businesspeople to use animals with little or no regard for their welfare—at great psychic cost to the animals as well as to people who empathize with them. I and many others despair at the thought of animals suffering every day in factory farms, slaughterhouses, and laboratories, or tied up in backyards.

Interspecies Community

But it’s a bizarre turn of history that we should need experts to tell us that animals can be conscious, experience emotions, and possess personalities. Animal consciousness and emotions—indeed their personhood—have been as plain as daylight to people in cultures throughout human history. It’s also obvious to many modern pet owners. But modern science and philosophy historically cast doubt on all that—before now proving it.


Communication requires a mind and consciousness

Perhaps the most common religious-philosophical system in history, animism, sees the entire natural world as alive and ensouled, deserving of respect and consideration. People in animist societies remind themselves of the spirits in the landscape by placing offerings to them. When I was living in Bali, friends often reminded me to honk the motorbike horn when crossing rivers to ward off the spirits there. A Jain sutra teaches, “All beings are fond of life; they like pleasure and hate pain, shun destruction and like to live. To all, life is dear.”[4]

Many Native American cultures relate to other-than-human animals as persons who play a role in their society and history. Coyote is trickster. Bear may be a cousin. At a 2005 commencement ceremony at UC Berkeley, Chief Oren Lyons acknowledged and thanked all the members of the landscape around us. He called the trees our grandfathers. He referred to corn, beans, and squashes as the three sisters who feed us. He paid heed to the four-legged creatures of the forest and told us he is a wolf. Similarly, the Maori of New Zealand traditionally recognized all creatures and even the landscape itself as kin.

By bringing nonhumans into their social networks and by identifying with them as totems, people acknowledge and pay tribute to the personhood of other creatures.

Embodied Knowledge

We moderners tend to dismiss such notions as quaint fairy tales or the superstitions of people lacking science. But if science depends on rigorous observation of the natural world in all its glory, then in some ways such people are (or were) the greatest scientists of all. They had to use all of the finest power of their senses to know the world around them in all its detail and flux—the minute characteristics of the plants and animals that they ate, used as medicine, or guarded against. Their sustenance and survival are homage to their scientific skills.

These people knew in their guts that their fellow creatures were alive and fully able to suffer pleasure and pain. Their bodies told them so in ways that cognitive science is just beginning to unravel. When we see another animal or person move, circuits in our brain activate that are similar to those of the mover.[5] We’re animals, too, and it’s a common animal faculty to be able to feel what’s going on with another animal when we see it move or look at us. Is that lion looking aggressively at me, or just casually? My life may depend on knowing the difference.

Enter Modern Science

The reason we need modern science to reconstitute this knowledge about animals for us is that we experience so little fully embodied, sensory engagements with animals in the natural world compared with our ancestors. Instead we engage with cars, houses, smartphones, emails, and ideas. In place of our senses knowing the world, we have the astoundingly complex realm of science and governance mediating between us and pulsating, flowing nature. We depend on science to tell us that animals fear, desire, and feel—things our distant ancestors knew well, back to Neanderthals and beyond.

It’s no accident of history that science has replaced our senses as a faculty for knowing. That space was opened up by our most influential Western philosophers. As I write in my new book Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment,[6] Plato denigrated the senses as a way of knowing:


Plato: Who needs a body?

“When it [the soul] tries to investigate anything with the help of the body, it is obviously led astray. . . Then here too—in despising the body and avoiding it, and endeavoring to become independent—the philosopher’s soul is ahead of all of the rest. . . In fact the philosopher’s occupation consists precisely in the freeing and separation of soul from body . . . true philosophers make dying their profession.”[7] Plato distrusted the senses and said we should know the world through contemplation alone: “Observation by means of the eyes and ears and all the other senses is entirely deceptive.”[8]

Descartes also looked poorly on the senses. Tearing human consciousness out of its embodied origins, he located human identity entirely in the conscious mind: “I think, therefore I am.” What about this alternative?: “I know that I am a part of the web of life because I sense, think, and feel it in my animal body.”

Recapturing Ancient Abilities

We must use our senses to know animals and the suffering or joy we may impose on them. And the same goes for nature as a whole.

Ecopsychologists and environmental philosophers are mapping out the role of our senses in knowing and partnering with nature. In his book Becoming Animal the environmental philosopher David Abram provides a powerful guide for attuning our senses to the flowing, living nature upon which human life utterly depends.[9]

Abundant sensory engagement with the larger world of nature beyond humans can both restore our lives and enable us to adequately respond to nature’s needs. Knowledge “gained directly through the senses and in the gut,” writes the ecopsychologist Laura Sewall, puts “flesh and bones” on abstractions such as climate statistics. It can “inform us so deeply that denial would be a personal betrayal.” To heal our ailing environments, Sewall writes, “our hearts must be triggered, and our bodies and emotions engaged.”

Because of neuroplasticity our brains slowly rewire themselves to adjust to our experiences. Thus our lack of experience with wild nature means our capacity to fully perceive the complex sensory scapes of nature is degrading.[10] We can still see, without the help of science, that animals are alive and conscious, but we may lose that ability if our experiences with them continue to diminish.

Can we engage our fully embodied selves with nature as our ancestors once did? The welfare of other animals on the planet and the future of the human species may depend on it.

My book: Invisible Nature

Follow me: Twitter or Facebook.

Follow my environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature.

Read more of my posts: The Green Mind.


[2] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 2nd ed., trans. Laurence Julien

Lafleur, Library of Liberal Arts (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960), pp. 14, 73, 74, 80.

[3] Another Psychology Today contributor, Hal Herzog, questions whether such brain activity indicates “personhood” for dogs.

[4] J. Barid Callicott, Earth's Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. p. 55.

[5] For discussions of embodied cognition, see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

[6] Kenneth Worthy, Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment(Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2013).

[7] Plato, Phaedo, 65a–e & 67d–e.

[8] Plato, Phaedo, 83a–b.

[9] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, 1st ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010).

[10] Laura Sewall, “Beauty and the Brain,” in Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species, ed. Peter H. Hasbach and Patricia H. Kahn (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), pp. 274–75, 280.

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