Stripping Animals of Emotions is "Anti-Scientific & Dumb"

There's more than enough science that shows animals are emotional beings.

Posted Mar 09, 2019

"We like to see ourselves as special, but whatever the difference between humans and animals may be, it is unlikely to be found in the emotional domain." (Frans de Waal)

A recent New York Times easy by renowned Emory University primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal called "Your Dog Feels as Guilty as She Looks" with the subtitle "Animals are no less emotional than we are" has generated a good deal of interest including a good number of emails to me that arrived yesterday and overnight. Dr. de Waal's piece is an excerpt from his new book titled Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves that was reviewed by Sy Montgomery in which she writes, "In this book, de Waal sets the record straight. Emotions are neither invisible nor impossible to study; they can be measured. Levels of chemicals associated with emotional experiences, from the 'cuddle hormoneoxytocin to the stress hormone cortisol, can easily be determined. The hormones are virtually identical across taxa, from humans to birds to invertebrates." She also notes that to avoid charges of being anthropomorphic, "researchers have invented a glossary of contorted terms: Animals don’t have friends but 'favorite affiliation partners'; chimps don’t laugh when tickled, but make 'vocalized panting' sounds. This isn’t just silly; it’s dangerous. Instead of worrying about anthropomorphizing animals, we should fear making a far worse mistake, what de Waal calls 'anthropodenial.' When we deny the facts of evolution, when we pretend that only humans think, feel and know, 'it stands in the way of a frank assessment of who we are as a species,' he writes."

Dr. de Waal similarly ends his piece by writing, "For the longest time, science has depicted animals as stimulus-response machines while declaring their inner lives barren. This has helped us sustain our customary 'anthropodenial': the denial that we are animals. We like to see ourselves as special, but whatever the difference between humans and animals may be, it is unlikely to be found in the emotional domain."

I couldn't agree more with the above views, and it astounds me that there still are some people who ignore the results of ample comparative research on the emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals). According to a colleague who wrote a detailed email about all that we really know about animal emotions, the denialists' views are "anti-scientific & dumb." A good number of emails weren't as friendly, because so many people are simply sick and tired of people ignoring what we know and making sweeping and false claims about how other animals simply are automatons and don't experience emotions. For those who want to peruse all that we know about animal emotions please click here for numerous essays in popular and scientific media and for a long list of scientific studies click here. You'll easily see that ignoring the rich and deep emotional lives of animals truly is "anti-scientific & dumb." 

What do we really know about dogs and guilt?

The title of Dr. de Waal's essay also caught my eye because I'm interested in everything "dog." So, when he writes, "Your Dog Feels as Guilty as She Looks," I immediately thought of discussions along the lines that research shows that dogs don't experience guilt. This isn't so. (For a more detailed discussion see Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They DoUnleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, many essays here, and links and references therein.) In an essay called "Dogs and Guilt: We Simply Don't Know," I wrote about how the results of an experiment by noted Barnard College dog researcher, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, have routinely been misinterpreted by many people who haven't read what she actually wrote. In an essay published in 2009 titled "Disambiguating the 'guilty look': salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour," Dr. Horowitz discovered that we are not very good at reading guilt, but this does not mean that dogs can't or don't feel guilty.

I asked Dr. Horowitz to comment on this and she wrote:

"Spot on, on 'guilt.' Thanks so much for alerting me to and correcting the ubiquitous error about my study, some years back, which found that dogs showed more 'guilty look' when a person scolded or was about to scold them, not when the dog actually disobeyed the person's request not to eat a treat. Clearly what the results indicated was that the 'guilty look' did not most often arise when a dog was actually 'guilty.'"

"My study was decidedly NOT about whether dogs 'feel guilt' or not. (Indeed, I'd love to know...but this behavior didn't turn out to indicate yay or nay.) I would feel dreadful if people then thought the case was closed on dogs (not) feeling guilt, which is definitely not the case. Many secondary sources got this right, but it must require reading the study to appreciate exactly what I did."

So, I'm glad Dr. de Waal selected the title he did for his essay because while we really don't know if dogs feel guilt, I do agree that when the proper research is done we'll learn they do. It's extremely important to get things right, and it's essential to pay attention to what researchers actually study and discover in their research. There's also no reason why dogs shouldn't be able to feel guilt, as do other mammals, so let's wait and see what we learn in future work.

There have been similar discussions of whether or not dogs feel jealous, with some people saying something like, "Of course they don't" and others saying "Yes they do." In fact, after the proper studies were done, we've learned they do. (See "Jealousy in Dogs: Brain Imaging Shows They're Similar to Us" and "Dogs Know When They've Been Dissed, and Don't Like It a Bit" in which I discuss a research essay called "Jealousy in Dogs.") It's not clear why some people continue to ignore what we know and strip dogs of jealousy and guilt and rob other animals of their emotions, but that another story. 

Evolutionary continuity 

"It's time to accept these strongly supported facts and accept that the real question at hand is why have emotions evolved, not if they have evolved, and learn more about them."

In the description of Mama's Last Hug, we read, "De Waal discusses facial expressions, the emotions behind human politics, the illusion of free will, animal sentience, and, of course, Mama’s life and death. The message is one of continuity between us and other species, such as the radical proposal that emotions are like organs: we don’t have a single organ that other animals don’t have, and the same is true for our emotions." Also recall Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, in which differences among species are seen to be variations in degree rather than kind: "If we have or experience something, 'they' (other animals) do too." Arguments based on continuity support the claim that discovering jealousy in dogs is not all that surprising, and it won't be all that surprising to learn that dogs also experience guilt. But, of course, we need to wait for the proper studies to be done. Along these lines, Dr. de Waal writes, "We like to see ourselves as special, but whatever the difference between humans and animals may be, it is unlikely to be found in the emotional domain."

All sorts of scientific research, ranging from observational studies to neuroimaging projects, strongly supports the fact that we are not alone in the emotional arena. So, it's time to accept these strongly supported facts and accept that the real question at hand is why have emotions evolved, not if they have evolved, and learn more about them. 

What makes the field of cognitive ethology—the study of animal minds—so exciting is that there is so much fascinating research to be done. There's no doubt that many animals experience rich and deep emotions. 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. 

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