Kindness–an animal instinct

Quick—who said this?

Animals [are] our fellow brethren in pain, disease, death & suffering, & famine, our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements. They may partake from our origin in one common ancestor; we may all be netted together.

It has a nineteenth-century ring—maybe a nature writer with a romantic notion of all beings as one—Thoreau? Or this:

Man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, intuitions, and sensations—similar passions, affections, and emotions, even the complex ones; they feel wonder and curiosity; they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, memory, imagination, and reason, though in very different degrees.

If you didn’t say “Darwin”—both times—you’re likely as surprised as I to find out that the Father of Evolution himself talked boldly about kinship between humans and other animals, especially in emotions and feelings. The first quote is from his  Notebooks (1838) and the second from The Descent of Man (1871).

Darwin believed that animals have feelings, and he wasn’t afraid to say it, unlike many people today, who have been taken in by a neo-Cartesian separation between humans and other animals that became fashionable after Darwin’s time. The fashion took shape as a caution against anthropomorphizing. This could have been a good thing if it had allowed animal observers to train their vision so they could see animals more clearly.

Unfortunately, too often the caution against anthropomorphizing was used throughout the past century to cast doubt on anyone who dared to suggest animals have feelings, much less use emotions to explain behavior. (Those suspicions continue. For a current example, see the comments section of one of my recent posts.)

The reasoning went like this: in science, the simpler explanation is usually the better one. It’s known as Occam’s razor, or the principle of parsimony. If animal behavior can be explained without resorting to a complex explanation like emotion, why not use the simpler explanation? Scientists after Darwin, possibly reeling from the implications of being so closely related to “beasts,” backed quickly away from Darwin’s open discussions of feelings in animals. In 1927, Pavlov would set the tone for the rest of the century. Animals, he said, should be studied “as physiological facts, without any need to resort to fantastic speculations as to the existence of any possible subjective states.”

But, as primate researcher Frans de Waal observes, this ignores another kind of parsimony: evolutionary. That is, if two species are closely related on the evolutionary tree, and they exhibit similar behavior, the simpler route is to explain the behavior in the same way. The alternative is much more complicated—two species separated by only a few million years developing the same behavior through widely different paths. So if humans put their arms around someone who was just in a fight, and we call it “consoling” behavior, it is simpler to call it “consoling” behavior when a chimpanzee does it too. Otherwise we are likely bringing preset beliefs and prejudices into animal studies—in this case, the belief that humans are qualitatively different from other closely related species.

Primatologist Frans de Waal calls it anthropodenial:

a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves.

To ignore the similarities between human behavior and the behavior of many other animals is to fly in the face of what we know—what Darwin knew—about evolution. If we come from the same source and we have a similar physiology, then we’re likely to experience similar reactions and feelings. Darwin again:

The following proposition seems to me in high degree probable, namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts and filial affections, . . . would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers have become as well or nearly as well developed as man.

Note the caveat here—any animal who is raised by parents and who lives in social groups. Animal scientists are proving him right, as they discover altruism among chimpanzees, a sense of fairness among dogs, clear rules of play among wolves and coyotes, and empathy in mice.

What this means is that our “animal instincts” include fairness, justice, and even—Darwin said—kindness. He argued that altruistic motives are part and parcel of evolution. Yes, Darwin himself, who championed natural selection—an often ruthless process—as the principal evolutionary mechanism, saw that it also equipped animals (including humans) with the ability to feel others’ pain.

Primatologist Frans de Waal says it is time to recognize that kindness is “part of the larger scheme of nature.”

We are facing the profound paradox that genetic self-advancement at the expense of others—which is the basic thrust of evolution—has given rise to remarkable capacities for caring and sympathy.

Or, as he says elsewhere,

To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.

For more information:

Update 10 October 2010: Thanks to my friend Sandy Hockenbury for alerting me to a just-published article by psychologist Paul Ekman: “Survival of the Kindest,” in the November 2010 issue of Shambhala Sun (name later changed to Lion’s Roar).

Update: The book I was working on that spurred this post became Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature, published by Counterpoint Press in 2012. More about the book at kissedbyafox.com.