In defense of animal mind

We have been following Jonathan Balcombe‘s compassionate journey into the soul of the animal kingdom with deep interest. His efforts to reveal the emotional depth of the lives of animals deepen our connection to all of life, and enhance our ability to experience the shared delight of being.

Today, he shares with us a recent article in which he finds himself having to defend what he has learned about animals against commonly held misconceptions by some of our key opinion-makers. Even in his attempts to correct a deep wrong, he touches us with the depth of his compassion, his understanding, and his love for life.

As an expert in animal behavior I regularly find misinformation, or vital missing information, in the news. Last month, New York Times columnist David Brooks drew an unfair line between humans and other animals in an article titled “Nice Guys Finish First.

Brooks portrayed chimpanzees as selfish animals that rarely even offer food to their own offspring. I rebutted, citing studies of chimps showing spontaneous helping behavior toward humans and fellow chimps, adding that chimps also console victims of violence, demonstrate empathy, and show gratitude for favors (and return them). I pointed out that—contrary to the content typically offered up by predator-saturated television wildlife shows whose primary viewer target is twenty-something men—virtue is in fact widespread in nature. Chickens, prairie dogs, songbirds and others sound the alarm at an approaching predator, heightening personal risk by drawing attention to themselves. Vampire bats share blood meals with non-relatives who are unable to forage because they are sick or giving birth. Sparrows, seals, monkeys, orangutans, chimps, rats and hens have all been shown to demonstrate restraint. Why wasn’t this mentioned in Brooks’s piece?

And again:

Here’s one last example of animals getting the short end of the media stick. In an otherwise fairly positive review of my new book The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, science writer Stuart Blackman suggests in BBC Wildlife magazine that I am too credulous for “attributing chickens with an understanding of the motivations and intentions of other individuals, when it remains contentious whether even great apes have such an ability.” Here, both chickens and chimps get the stick. In my previous book Second Nature I marshal evidence from scientific studies that suggest chickens have a lot more going on upstairs than they are traditionally given credit for. Chickens use and recognize referential calls, they quickly learn the value of restraint, they make self-sacrifices, and they sometimes deliberately deceive others. As for chimps, the evidence for their having a theory of (another’s) mind is so strong that denying it is to use the solipsist crutch that one’s own mind is the only certain thing in the universe. We can always claim an absence of proof in such private matters as another species’ conscious experiences, but the onus of proof is now squarely on those who would deny animals these capacities.

It is unfortunate that there are so many misconceptions that need to be addressed. It is fortunate that we have someone like Dr. Balcombe to address them with such deep empathy.

1 Comment

  1. Lily Belland on June 25, 2011 at 10:44 am

    I just want to say that chickens get a bad rap because they are observed in situations of overcrowding and insufficient nutrition. In similar situations, human beings can be observed to have some pretty horrific behaviour that should put us a little further down the totem pole as well. I whole-heartedly agree that when you observe animals in their natural environment, you learn all kinds of things about their social connections.

    Thank you Bernie, and Dr. Balcombe for continuing to educate on this topic.

    Love and laughter,

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