They Can Be Heroes

Lynne McTaggart

The other day my husband Bryan shared with me a video of one dog risking his life, crossing a busy highway to save another dog, which had been hit by a car. If you haven’t seen it on my Facebook site, here it is:


The other day my husband Bryan shared with me a video of one dog risking his life, crossing a busy highway to to save another dog, which had been hit by a car. If you haven’t seen it on my Facebook site, here it is:


I also came across a National Geographic video of a small tiger, who’d made an audacious kill of a mother baboon, only to discover a newborn baby underneath the mother. The tiger then ignores his kill in order to protect the infant baboon from dying of the cold:


For a number of years, I’ve been interested in animal emotions – particularly random acts of kindness – and to my mind, these two videos alone completely demolish many existing theories about animal emotion.


Kindness equals pragmatism

As you know, scientists have attempted to shoehorn acts of altruism into current biological theory by reducing unselfishness in animals and humans to a pragmatic genetic imperative: acts of self-sacrifice that occur only as a way of perpetuating the family line. In other words, birds feed the young of relatives or carry out acts of kindness on behalf of its family’s gene pool because that behavior increases the number of their shared genes in future generations.


The problem with this theory, and indeed all theories attempting to rationalize altruism from the point of view of survival, is the vast number of exceptions to the rule, as these two videos show.


Research of every variety offers instances in which animals carry out acts of extraordinary self-sacrifice, compassion, courage, and generosity toward members of their own species, members of other species and even toward humans, often to their own detriment. Neither the hero dog or the tiger were obviously related to the animals they helped.


Animal consciousness

So this raises a more interesting issue, to my mind – namely, how conscious are animals? And much do they feel?


Marc Hawser, a psychologist and biological anthropologist at Harvard, typifies the majority of scientists when arguing that certain factors account for what he calls ‘humaniqueness’ – the cognition that makes us special.


According to Hawser, animals have ‘laser beam’ intelligence, using a specific solution to sort out a specific problem, whereas humans have ‘floodlight’ cognition, which enables us to apply certain thought processes to produce novel solutions – for instance, applying a tried and tested solution to problem A to sorting out problem B.


Increasing numbers of scientists, however, are coming to believe that animals have sentience — the ability to have a conscious experience, to compare and understand experience, to have an internal representation of what is going on in their lives — in effect, to know that they know.


Brains like humans

New evidence shows that animals have an array of ‘human-like’ abilities, such as episodic memory, mathematical ability and a sophisticated navigational ability to read landmarks and other topographical ‘signs.’ And recent research by University of Iowa psychologist Ed Wasserman shows that baboons and pigeons can even determine whether two or more items are the same or different – what psychologist William James considers the ‘very backbone’ of human cognition.


Wasserman’s studies showed that both baboons and pigeons also understand the relations between relations – the fact that, say, A – A is similar to B – B but different from C-D. To figure out which relations are similar and which are different is a mark of relationship learning of a high order.


As for emotion, a number of scientists, in studying the brains of both animals and humans, have discovered remarkable similarities in neurological makeup.


At the forefront of this underexplored field of research is Jaak Panksepp, professor emeritus of the department of psychology at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, who developed ‘affective neuroscience,’ the science of how emotion develops at the neural level of the brain.


According to Panksepp, the brain biochemistry connected with certain sophisticated human feelings is found in a range of other species, and that the same emotions also cause the same measurable chemical changes in their brains, too.


Animals, like we humans, have all the basic emotions, like fear and rage, but also develop sophisticated secondary ‘social’ emotions: separation distress; sexual attraction and lust; social attachment and bonding; and play.


If animals could talk

These secondary emotions are of the more complicated variety as they require reflection and choice — a weighing up of the effects of different actions. But without human speech, animals cannot prove to us that they think the same way we do about a certain situation.


Consequently, Panksepp and others have inferred that secondary emotion is not a uniquely human trait.


The difference between animal and human emotions is only, as noted animal scientist Temple Grandin put it, a matter of degree, rather than of kind.


This is profoundly evident in the few animals that can talk in human language. Psychologist Irene Pepperberg recounted a good deal of the emotion expressed by Alex, her African grey parrot, a species known for their ability to use cognitive language.


Alex needed a lung operation, but when Pepperberg turned to leave after handing him to their veterinarian, Alex cried after her, “Come here. I love you. I’m sorry. I want to go back.” Like a child, he felt that he was being abandoned and, more to the point, that it was his fault.


The big questions

These discoveries that animals feel virtually as much as we do – and possibly more (after all, the humans on the highway continued to drive over the injured dog) raise a host of essential moral questions.


For instance, what is our relationship with animals and our obligation to them? What are their rights? Do we have the right anymore to ‘colonize’ them, experiment on them, separate them from their children and their loved ones, and inhumanely kill them to eat or wear them? Are we not treating them like Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz or blacks in the Colonial South­­ – unworthy of respect because they aren’t, to the minds of the majority, ‘human enough’?


An international group called The Great Ape Project is lobbying the New Zealand government to pass a bill affording some human rights to chimps, gorillas and the other great apes and are also pressing the United Nations to adopt a declaration of ape rights modelled on the UN declaration of human rights. A bill like that would offer certain inherent protection, such as a right to life and freedom from imprisonment or torture.


The real point here is that if a dog will risk life and limb for a stranger and a small tiger stop eating its hard-won dinner in order to take care of the infant of its prey, that speaks legions about the existence of a superior ethical framework. It also strongly points to the fact that we humans must stop treating animals like. . . well, animals.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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