What Humans Don’t Think or Feel

Scientists are busy proving that nonhumans have intelligence, sentiments, and sociability and publishing their “discoveries.” A few months ago, Carl Safina came out with Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, and today I heard on The Diane Rehm Show an interview with a biologist, Frans de Waal, who has published Are We Smart Enough To know How Smart Animals Are. I have a bone to pick with these studies for two reasons: the nonhuman animals are yet again at our disposal and the scientists pull up short of stating the only really valuable conclusion their research provides.

First, aside from Jane Goodall and maybe a few others who go into natural habitats, scientists are conducting their “research” on animals in captivity. Frans de Waal mentioned having a close relationship with a chimpanzee he was studying who recently died in a zoo.  Nice existence, living in a cage and performing tasks for Professor de Meer. Where were the elephants kept that proved to him that elephants have large intellects and human qualities like recognizing themselves in a mirror? By the way, I might ask who cares if an elephant can or cannot recognize himself in a mirror. Leave it to the most egocentric species on the planet to think it is vitally important to know if an elephant can use a mirror just like we can. Aside from the obvious element of coercion, to what end is all this research? There is one really important result: if animals are, as established through all these lab tests, intelligent, social, resourceful and emotional, then how can we justify treating them like objects—putting them in what is a human’s worst nightmare: living in confinement in order to be fattened up for someone’s dinner. That is the stuff of grim  fairy tales of the brothers Grimm.  However, scientists who marvel at the intellect of the nonhuman drop the exercise of reason when it comes to concluding that cruelty to such beings might be wrong. At that point, good old mindless cultural norms do just fine. Here is an example. Dr. de Meer asserts that eating meat is okay because nature is comprised of organisms eating other organisms. Certainly a scientist knows the three categories—animal, vegetable, and mineral—and that the vegetable does not include sentient beings, so that including plants in the discussion is irrelevant. Yes, animals eat plants, and I suggest he do so as well.  As for the fact that animals eat animals, of course only some do and many don’t, and humans thrive without eating flesh. What relevance is there between a lion that must kill to eat to and a human ordering dinner? If such an example of another species does count, then why take our culinary cue from the lion more than the elephant who eats only plants?  Professor de Meer is not alone in not seeing what is right in front of his eyes. Carl Safina spent all that time wondering what animals “think and feel,” yet he can’t think about what they think and feel when they are being confined and slaughtered?  When Dr. Safina’s book came out, I wrote him to ask if his familiarity with animals had caused him to think twice about eating them.  Although he professed to not be a big fan of flesh, he also had not formed any connection between the rich natural lives of animals and our depriving them of that life.

None of this research is at all necessary. Who could really be around animals and not see that they have their own interests and live social lives; most importnalty, intellect aside, whether they enjoy mirrors or finding grapes under cups in the lab, they all suffer. Any kind of instinctive compassion and the most fundamental notion of morality get you exactly to the right conclusion—we are all animals. There are distinctions among the species, but so what.  If we have any “special” gift it is, as Seneca says, the ability to reason, which I wish we would not abdicate so readily in the face of culture and error.