Skip to content

Animal Emotions

May 6, 2019

Rats, dogs, crows, apes–they all have surprisingly human-like emotions. So claims Frans de Waal in his recent book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves. De Waal, who has spent four decades doing cutting-edge animal research, sweeps away the notion that humans are the only creatures that cry, smile, laugh, have friends, use conflict mediation, express disgust, express guilt, have a sense of fairness and morality, use tools, use imagination, plan ahead, and mourn the dead.

De Waal admits we have limited access to the inner thoughts and feelings of animals, but an impressive array of elegant tests and observations and brain scans reveal that the bodies and brains of animals work pretty much like ours do, and respond in the same ways to various situations. We humans have spent thousands of years convincing ourselves that we are essentially different and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our big brains and frontal lobes supposedly give us qualities fundamentally absent from other creatures. De Waal, I think, makes a convincing case that this is not true. He explodes the old view that animal behavior is based on “instincts”–automatic responses devoid of thought or emotion. Rather, animals do what they do based on complex emotions and decision-making processes–just like us.

Such conclusions lead to an ethical crisis: How can we continue treating animals, particularly livestock, the way we do if they have emotional lives quite similar to our own and are therefore suffering terribly from our mass-production practices? The case for vegetarianism and veganism becomes much stronger. At the least, we must adopt free-range approaches to raising livestock that recognize their social and emotional needs. Making a vegetable-based burger that tastes like beef can’t happen soon enough.

The conclusions of this book also lead to a spiritual challenge. For over a thousand years Christian theologians have been concerned with the ultimate well-being and destiny of human beings, not animals. Human identity was located in a disembodied soul–something animals supposedly do not have. So humanity’s ultimate well-being was separated from our bodies and the animal kingdom and from nature itself. All that mattered was a spiritual paradise for our souls.

But the biblical writers have a much richer vision of what our ultimate well-being means. All of nature is pronounced “good” in Genesis 1, and the arc of the biblical narrative is the story of how to get us back to that primordial goodness. God is depicted as delighting in and caring for the entire animal kingdom in such passages as Psalm 104 and Job 39-41; and Romans 8:19-23 proclaims that all of creation groans for an ultimate healing, waiting for the day when it “will be set free.” The well-being of humanity and the animal kingdom and nature itself are all bound together. Disembodied human souls being freed from nature is a gnostic idea, not a biblical one.

If animals are emotional creatures like us, and at least some of them are moral beings making moral choices, then we must be seeking the welfare of them all, and our ultimate fulfillment as human beings is bound up with theirs. My own intuition is that all living organisms are on a continuum of making moral choices; cooperation and altruism are embedded in life itself and are always seeking greater unfolding. This, I believe, is nature’s destiny.

From → Topics

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: