Michael Jawer

Michael Jawer

Feeling Too Much

Living Closer to the Bone (Part 7)

Could non-human animals have - or be - a soul?

Posted Sep 10, 2015

In my last post, I described the profound connectedness that sentient creatures share, with one another and with nature.  This sense of connection is felt – and expressed – in different ways.    

One example, an especially exuberant and heartfelt one, is depicted by primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.  Her subject of study, a male bonobo named Kanzi, was reunited with his adoptive mother, Matata, after several months apart.  In the author’s words:

“I…told [Kanzi] there was a surprise in the colony room.  He began to vocalize in the way he does when expecting a favored food–“eeeh….​eeeh….​eeeh.” I said, No food surprise. Matata surprise; Matata in colony room.  He looked stunned, stared at me intently, and then ran to the colony room door, gesturing urgently for me to open it.  When mother and son saw each other, they emitted earsplitting shrieks of excitement and joy and rushed to the wire that separated them.  They both pushed their hands through the wire, to touch the other as best they could.  Witnessing this display of emotion, I hadn’t the heart to keep them apart any longer, and opened the connecting door.  Kanzi leapt into Matata’s arms, and they screamed and hugged for fully five minutes, and then stepped back to gaze at each other in happiness.  They then played like children, laughing all the time as only bonobos can.”

An instance of concern by one wild animal (a stallion named Champ) for the life of another is shown here, in this account of a river rescue.  

Then there’s the sort of striking, all-encompassing unity with nature that people sometimes feel (a variety of which at least some non-human animals presumably feel themselves).  Legendary primatologist Jane Goodall related one such experience when she was observing chimpanzees in the Gombe forest: “Lost in the awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness.  It is hard – impossible, really – to put into words the moment of truth that suddenly came upon me then...It seemed to me, as I struggled afterward to recall the experience, that self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself.  The air was filled with a feathered symphony, the evensong of birds.  I heard new frequencies in their music and also in the singing insects’ voices – notes so high and sweet I was amazed.  Never had I been so intensely aware of the shape, the color of the individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique.  Scents were clear as well, easily identifiable…the aromatic scent of young, crushed leaves was almost overpowering.”

Such experiences are likely to be experienced by children, by the way.  The foremost collection I can recommend is a 1992 book by Edward Hoffman, Visions of Innocence.  It’s entirely possible that children, whose apprehensions of nature are unclouded by preconceptions and whose  language skill has not matured to the point where they immediately leap to ‘explain’ something to themselves, have a propensity to become immersed in the wholeness of life more so than adults.

These mystical or overpowering spiritual experiences have several things in common: they arise spontaneously; they confer a heightened form of sensation in which the experiencer perceives everything with an incredibly vividness; they endow the person with an all-encompassing (if fleeting) sense of oneness with the natural world; and they can’t be easily described in words.

Goodall has come to consider the concept of soul in context of this spiritual connection with creation.  Perhaps, she suggests, if individual people have souls capable of experiencing such a connection, then animals – specifically the chimps she’s most familiar with – do as well.  But consider a slightly different view, voiced by the psychologist and theologian Malcolm Jeeves: one doesn’t have a soul, one is a living soul.  In this scheme of things, as long as one is alive – as long as one is sensing, feeling – then one is ensouled in nature.  One is part, in other words, of the empathosphere or psychesphere that fixes our affinity with one another.

Think for a moment of how we use the word soul in common parlance.  We may speak of a “soulless” corporation.  Or confide to a lover that we want them “body and soul.”  Or we describe a certain ballplayer as the “soul” of his team.  Or listen to “soul music” that conveys an unmistakable mood and rhythm.  In each case, we are associating soul with feeling.  And not just any feeling, but deep feeling, core values, that which is vitally important or just plain moves us.  These are not mere figures of speech, but reflections of true meaning: what our soul (if we “are” one) identifies with.  Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, whose books explore the foundations of consciousness, has commented that “feelings form the basis for what humans have described for millennia as the…soul or spirit.”  Ultimately, we know ourselves – and others – through feeling.

With all of life’s ups and downs and frequently scary unpredictability, we understandably wonder “What’s it all about?” and “Why am I here?”  While those answers can never be certain, one thing is clear: we’re all in this together.  We may compete, we may exploit, we may threaten, intimidate and even kill, but none of these elements of our animal nature trumps the fact that we share this planet and all its beauty and resources with myriad other species that feel.  Our nature, then, also allows for compassion, gratitude, courage, wonder, awe, and the exultation of fellow feeling.  Here, on display by two young ones, is what we have to marvel at in the riddle of each other’s existence. 


Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994, xvi.

Goodall, Jane. Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. New York: Warner, 2000, 173-74.

Hoffman, Edward. Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

Jeeves, Malcolm, “Neuroscience and the Soul.” Forum cosponsored by the Woodstock Theological Center and the Georgetown University Center for the Study of Science and Religion. Woodstock Report, March 1998, No. 53. 

Pearce, Joseph Chilton. Magical Child: Rediscovering Nature's Plan for Our Children.  New York: Bantam Books, 1977.

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue. Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. New York: Wiley, 1996, 143-44.

Watson, Lyall. Lifetide: The Biology of the Unconscious. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, 337-37.

About the Author

Michael Jawer

Michael Jawer has been investigating the mind-body basis of personality and health for 15 years. He is the author of The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion.

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