monkey family

The Science Channel attempts to answer the question: How do aliens think? Yet inadvertently settles another ridiculous debate: Do animals feel emotion?

The story of the baby albino dolphin falling victim to the annual Japanese dolphin hunt has ignited a heated emotional response from humans across the globe.

There is even speculation that the mother of the white dolphin, dubbed Angel by some activists, committed suicide after her baby was torn from her side. Witnesses report Angel’s mother spyhopped, or poked her head up out of the water, for half an hour after the crime, looking for her child before disappearing beneath the water for good.

Photo by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Photo by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Peruse the comments’ section of any news story on the subject, and it’s clear humans do feel emotions, and use them actively to made judgments about their world, as well as to lead their actions throughout their lives.

Few can argue that humans live rich emotional lives, but the debate concerning animals and their capacity to experience emotions is counterintuitive and rife with contradiction.

As a one-time English as a second language teacher, working at a school for foreign students coming to Los Angeles to study English, I was surprised to discover how many people claimed emotion as uniquely human, as many of my sociological studies were disguised as topics of debate.

Perhaps the most common argument I encountered was that animals do not have emotions, they are motivated by pure instinct, and that any suspicions we may get that any species other than humans do experience emotions is just us projecting our own emotions on animals.

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So following this logic, when a human cowers, wide-eyed, under threat of harm, the Human is Feeling the emotion of Fear. But, when an animal displays exactly the same reactions, its mind is only processing instincts, like a computer program.

This injured moth, who the kids named Dinosaur, lived with us for 6 months. She liked to look out the window while perched on my daughter's arm and refused to go back in her enclosure when we tried to put her back.
This injured moth, who the kids named Dinosaur, lived with us for 6 months. She liked to look out the window while perched on my daughter’s arm and refused to go in her enclosure when we would try to put her back.

Humans get to have emotions, most of my students would assert, but animals are slaves to instincts.

This is just one of the arguments that makes it convenient to dismiss the suffering of an estimated 7.7 million other species of animals on the planet as irrelevant in the greater scheme of our manifest destiny.

For far too long we’ve been misusing our gift of logic to rationalize exploitation and abuse, even for that of other humans. It’s a morality of convenience, and it only serves to hurt us as much as it has damaged the rest of life on this planet, as our own health is linked to the wellbeing of all creation.

But the idea that animals do not have emotions is a modern one, in fact, it is a complete reversal of the classical attitude toward emotion.

I discovered this switch in the most unlikely of places, on an episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole entitled “How Do Aliens Think?” on the Science Channel.

A portion of the episode was devoted to theorizing whether aliens would be “burdened” by emotion, as humans are.

The show began by describing one line of thought, that “emotions are primitive urges that merely cloud our thinking,” and then went on to dispel this myth.

Psychologist Lisa Barrett described her “groundbreaking research” that “reveals that language, memory, even rational thought all depend upon emotion.”

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Apparently this is a “groundbreaking” revelation, although I believe anyone open to seeing the world and all its elements as being interconnected circuits playing an important part in the set-up of reality would have already assumed that emotions must have evolved for some relevant purpose.

“The notion that our emotional and rational mind are very separate dates back to Plato, who saw emotions as savage, brutish instincts,” Morgan Freeman said. “Charles Darwin argued that emotions are evolutionary holdovers from animals which no longer serve any useful purpose, just like our tailbones.”

So contrary to the arguments many of my students asserted, that “brutes” are incapable of emotion, the logic used to draw that most important distinction between us and the beasts of our world has traditionally been the opposite – that animals are inferior to Humans because animals are more emotional.

“Experts” don’t agree on an exact definition of emotion, but “I know it when I see it,” to borrow Justice Stewart’s famous threshold test for the obvious. My feeling is that actions are driven by emotions which are fueled by instincts.

It is our instinct to preserve our species, so we feel love for our children, motivating us to actively work toward taking care of them, even at the expense of our own safety.

Many creatures on this planet, all mammals, birds and even many reptiles and bugs, care for their young.

We watched this mother pincherbug for more than a month caring for her young, cleaning them and regurgitating food for them.
We watched this mother pincherbug for more than a month caring for her young, cleaning them and regurgitating food for them.

In our desperate attempt to create a convenient borderline between us and them, we have for some reason embraced emotion, first as being a crude animal phenomenon, and now as something uniquely human.

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“If emotions are essential to consciousness and self awareness, then aliens will certainly have them,” Morgan Freeman said in conclusion to his question of How do Aliens Think? “They will use them the same way we do, to realize their goals, to define their personalities and to make sense of their world.”

And so it seems that if aliens ever did decide to visit us, they may question our own capacity for emotion, for surely, if we could experience the beauty of an emotional life, it would hurt us too much to inflict the kind of suffering we have now condemned little Angel to, not to mention the billions upon billions of others whose misery is excused by the simple misuse of our intellectual blessings.

“For no matter the distinctions we draw between body and soul, body and earth, ourselves and others – the connections, the dependences, the identities remain. And so we fail to contain or control our violence. It gets loose. Though there are categories of violence, or so we think, there are no categories of victims. Violence against one is ultimately violence against all … Why, having lived so long at the expense of other creatures and the earth, are we not healthier and happier than we are?” Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

Tina is a journalist and mother of three who's lived all her life in the South Bay of Los Angeles except for a two-year stint in the heart of Spain. She believes humans have the capacity to make this a beautiful world for all species to live, and mothers have a special charge to raise their children to enjoy, love and respect all creatures.


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