“Does my dog love me, or does she just want a treat?” I’m often asked this question, and I’ve asked it myself. Hasn’t any dog-lover?
It says something about our insecurity that our main question about them is whether they love us; it’s always about us. But what do they feel? What emotions do they experience? Can we even know?
When someone says you can’t attribute human emotions to animals, they forget the key leveling detail: Humans are animals. (We have to keep reminding ourselves, because we’re only human.) Human sensations are animal sensations. Inherited sensations, using inherited nervous systems.
All of the emotions we know of just happen to be emotions humans feel. But our emotions help us understand other animals’ pleasure, pain, sexuality, hunger, frustration, self-preservation, defense of territory and of young.
But OK; doesn’t that lead us right back to old assumptions? Not if we incorporate all we’ve learned. Consider romantic love. It is obvious that elephants, with their matriarchal families, wandering males, absence of male-female pair bonds, and no male care of young, don’t have romantic love. So, evidence and logic can be trustworthy guides. In fact, the word for evidence plus logic is: science.
We never seem to doubt that an animal acting hungry feels hungry. What reason is there to disbelieve that an elephant who seems happy, is happy? We can’t really claim scientific objectivity when we recognize hunger and thirst while they’re eating and drinking, exhaustion when they tire, but deny them joy and happiness as they’re playing with their children and their families. Yet the science of animal behavior has long operated with that bias—and that’s unscientific. When they seem joyous in joyful contexts, joy is the simplest interpretation of the evidence. Their brains are similar to ours, they make the same hormones involved in human emotions—and that’s evidence too. So let’s not assume. But let’s not insist on wearing blinders and ignoring all the evidence.
Brain scans show that core emotions of sadness, happiness, rage or fear, and motivational feelings of hunger and thirst, are generated in “deep and very ancient circuits of the brain,” says the noted neurologist Jaak Panksepp. Rage, for example, gets produced in the same parts of the brains of a cat and a human. Many species apparently share ancient brain-chemical systems largely unchanged during evolution. Makes sense; being afraid of lurking danger has obvious survival value for all kinds of animals. Humans might sometimes have “nothing to fear but fear itself,” but we still feel it, because fear runs deep.