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.


25 Responses to Kindness–an animal instinct

  1. Shelley says:October 3, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Very thought-provoking post. Another relevant quote, by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham: “The question is not, Can they [animals] reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

    Have you read “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee? It’s a very thoughtful and affecting meditation, in the form of a short novel, on human attitudes toward animals.


  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 4, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Hi, Shelley, thanks for stopping by. No I haven’t read Coetzee, but I’ve heard of it and I’ll look it up. We would have a more humane world if we followed Bentham here, yes?

  3. Lynda Hilburn says:October 5, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Lovely post. Watching my adult son and his two dogs has given me clear evidence that my furry grandchildren have and express wide-ranging emotions. In fact, I often wonder if their versions of the emotions aren’t somehow even more subtle and complicated than our own.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 5, 2010 at 8:04 am

      Lynda, I wonder that too. It’s clear that they care about different things than humans, so that lends a different quality to their emotions–subtle qualities that may not be accessible to humans.

  4. Jerrie Hurd says:October 5, 2010 at 8:08 am

    One of my dogs doesn’t like German Shepherds because one picked on her at a dog park when she was a puppy. She avoids them, except when one approaches me. Then she will consistently step between me and what, in her opinion, is a “nasty” dog, which also indicates she has long term memory–something dog experts seem to dispute. My dogs also worry about each other. Sometimes I know one of them is not feeling well because of how the other one acts. Noticing things like that, is not making them human, it’s paying attention. Problem is, we, humans, don’t pay as much attention as we should. Darwin’s genius was that he noticed things–little things, big things and thought about what he was seeing. Nice blog entry.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 5, 2010 at 8:17 am

      Jerrie, I think you’ve nailed it–paying attention. And then believing what our attention tells us. Marc Bekoff talks about his animal behavior science colleagues who regale him with dog stories–all about their pet’s feelings and the intimacy of the relationship–then challenge Bekoff’s claims about animal perceptions and feelings in a professional meeting. That split is unhealthy. Not to mention unscientific.

  5. Marian Thier says:October 5, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I like your idea about separating human and animal responses, while accepting the similarities. The expression of emotions might not be exactly the same, but it does seem that there are recognizable underlying feelings.

    My daughter and family rescued a most adorable dog from the shelter. Watching him integrate into the household reinforces your post–he shows gratitude daily.

    Thanks for your interesting combo of science and common experience.

  6. Rosemary Carstens says:October 5, 2010 at 9:25 am

    I’ve often thought about this topic as I’ve observed both domestic and wild animals. We have four dogs just in my immediate family (each child has two) and the difference in personalities, concerns, and attachments are fascinating to watch. I’ve been in situations where I had the opportunity to watch some animals in the wild pretty extensively and there’s not a doubt in my mind that there’s a lot more going on than we can even begin to guess. Thanks for the post and the discussion, Priscilla–

  7. Gail Storey says:October 5, 2010 at 9:38 am

    You make a number of fascinating points here (and raise good questions) about the kinship between humans and animals. What it is about seeing a red fox sunning in our meadow that speaks directly to a shared truth? Yesterday I hiked up Flagstaff Mountain and was more alert than usual to the (imagined?) presence of a mountain lion, even as I longed to see it. Two deer watched, one standing attentively, the other sitting in repose.

  8. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 5, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Marian, I like your comment about recognizable underlying feelings, even if they aren’t expressed the same. My experience too has been that the reactions and emotions of my dogs were similar to mine–after all, we’re both mammals with limbic (emotional) brains–but the dogs cared about different things than I did. (I haven’t fussed at squirrels lately.) Similar reactions, often different triggers. Some reactions, however, we shared, such as loving to be loved.

    Rosemary, tell us sometime about your wild animal observations. I’d love to hear!

    Gail, I like the equation: red fox sunning -> shared truth. Lovely!

  9. Laurel Kallenbach says:October 5, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Ha! Just this weekend my husband and I were having a conversation about whether “psychology” applies to our cat. When I pointed out that she looks depressed when we pack our suitcases, he was somewhat convinced. And when I reminded him how she “fake” purrs when she’s trying to get something–such as more kibble!–he agreed absolutely that our kitty knows how to manipulate us to get what she wants.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 5, 2010 at 10:52 am

      Laurel, your kitty has social smarts! She learns what works in a family, just like kids do.

  10. Verna Wilder says:October 5, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Priscilla, I love this conversation! Do you know the books by Temple Grandin? She’s a woman with autism who has focused her life on animal behavior. The movie about her is also wonderful.

    I love your blog!

    “I believe that the best way to create good living conditions for any animal, whether it’s a captive animal living in a zoo, a farm animal or a pet, is to base animal welfare programs on the core emotion systems in the brain. My theory is that the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary. If we get the animal’s emotions rights, we will have fewer problem behaviors… All animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain.”
    — Temple Grandin (Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals)

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 5, 2010 at 11:36 am

      Temple Grandin is great, isn’t she? I love her unswerving commitment to seeing animals clearly and creating more humane living conditions for them. It’s wonderful to see a person with her credentials asserting our common heritage of emotions. Thanks for this quote–perfect.

  11. Kathy Kaiser says:October 5, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    What a fascinating theory about evolution and compassion. I’ve always wondered if humans wanted to deny that animals had feelings because then it would be harder to kill them for food.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 6, 2010 at 1:30 pm

      In many hunter-gatherer societies, the very eating is made possible by a relationship based on humans trusting and respecting the animals. In modern Western culture, eating has often been another way controlling animals–and controlling nature in general. So yes, I agree that deep issues about eating are involved here, and I think it’s more general than that–an insane urge on the part of this culture to try to control the environment in general.

  12. dana says:October 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    the evolving attitudes toward animal behaviors/feelings and evolution are so interesting. i just finished a terrific book that made it clear to me how far we have come in the past 200 years. you might be interested in it too – remarkable creatures by tracy chevalier.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 6, 2010 at 1:40 pm

      Wow–that book is hot off the press! Sounds like a great novel, from an enjoyable author. I’ll look for it. Thanks, Dana.

  13. Kathleen Christensen says:October 6, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    My 11-year-old is studying genetics in science right now. Yesterday, she informed me that we humans share 98 percent of our genes with chimps. It reminded me of watching films of the chimps Jane Goodall studied at Gombe. (Goodall was one of my professors–lucky me!) I was always so struck by how human many of the chimps’ behaviors appeared. Yes, not likely coincidental!

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 6, 2010 at 3:01 pm

      YES–lucky you! I would love to meet Jane Goodall. One of the animal researchers above, Frans de Waal, is known for studying bonobos, who have an entirely different social system than chimps. I believe I heard we’re as closely related to the bonobos as to the chimps. Lots to learn from our primate cousins!

  14. Sandy Hockenbury says:October 8, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Darwin is so misunderstood – and misrepresented in the popular media. He wrote a marvelous book titled “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” which was published in 1872. It’s marked by his usual careful, painstaking observations of humans and animals, many charming line drawings to illustrate expressive behavior in dogs and cats, and many black and white photographs of human facial expressions. There’s a wonderful new edition, published in 1998 that is edited by (of course) Paul Ekman that is worth a look. Ekman provides a running commentary that also makes it clear that Darwin was both perceptive and far ahead of his time in his views of the non-human animal world.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm

      Thanks, Sandy. Until I did this post I wasn’t aware either of Ekman’s work cataloging human facial expressions. I continue to be impressed with Darwin’s ability to simply trust his perceptions–which a lot of scientists after him did not.

  15. Craig Strobel says:October 27, 2010 at 10:01 am

    One of the interesting aspects of Darwinian natural selection has to do with the fact that Darwin wrote at a time in which England was asserting its political hegemony and imperial dominance in the world. Part and parcel of that domination was the notion of the fittest rising to a place of dominance – the top, the cream, the most advanced, etc. It is just as possible to interpret natural selection in terms of survival of the most cooperative or most successfully inter-connected and interdependent, which in a systems approach – and a truly ecological perspective – is closer to the data-based reality. the point of this is that even Darwin’s metaphors – or the metaphors imparted by society to the interpretation of his theory – are tainted by a society’s prejudices and prevailing opinions and self-appraisals. Having been trained in Biology as an undergraduate, I think it is time to discard the “nature red in tooth and claw” approach of survival of the fittest and acknowledge and embrace the cooperative, altruistic and communal nature of Nature.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 27, 2010 at 10:08 am

      I’m with you, Craig! From the reading in evolutionary theory that I’ve been doing recently, it appears that the field of genetics is pushing the modern evolutionary synthesis in this direction. Are you familiar with the book The Mermaid’s Tale by Kenneth Weiss and Anne Buchanan? The subtitle is Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things. They also write a blog called The Mermaid’s Tale.