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Animal emotion: When objectivity fails

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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There seems to be an explosion of concern over animal welfare these days. With growing awareness to factory farming conditions, Americans are at last faced with the recent histories of their burgers, their nuggets, their pork chops. What we see makes us viscerally uncomfortable, and reasonably so.

Pig_gestation_crateThose of us who are sympathetic to animal issues find it wretched to consider that our dinner might have had emotions. Whatever your beliefs or feelings are toward nonhuman animals and their emotions, it’s not an easy thing to witness, a full-grown pig in a gestation crate, a chicken with only half a beak.

The problem is, we can’t say for certain that nonhuman animals feel anything at all.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not an animal rights activist. I respect what animal welfare activists do, but I eat meat. I wear leather. To contradict myself, I also love animals (far better writers than I, like Jonathan Safran Foer [1] and Hal Herzog [2], have recently explored our weird relationship with animals). Although I don’t identify as an activist, I deeply support the efforts for greater welfare for the animals we "use" for meat, research, and entertainment.

Chicken at Farm SanctuaryThat affinity for animals initially drove me to visit Farm Sanctuary [3], a rescue center for factory farm survivors, late last year in Watkins Glen, New York to do research for my Master’s thesis. I chose to cover nonhuman animal intelligence, both emotional and cognitive, and figured that the farm animal shelter would be a great place to set a scene.

I met lots of chickens, bred for both meat and eggs. When confined to a factory-farm poultry house, the birds are debeaked, which means that about a third-to-half of their beaks (appendages with nerve-endings) are clipped off as chicks. This process prevents them from inflicting injury on other birds, and also discourages cannibalism, a rare act that occurs with higher frequency when the birds are stuffed tightly together.

Cow at Farm SanctuaryAt the Farm, the birds roamed freely, pecking idly and gathering in their little bird-cliques. My host for the day, the visitor program manager Don Walker, explained to me that these birds wouldn’t live very long here, no matter how ideal their feed or space. Chickens have been bred to be giant-breasted echoes of what they once were—flying, perching, foraging birds that actively seek out sunlight and social interaction. Because they grow so quickly, their enormous chests fracture their bones, and when they can no longer walk, they are trampled by the thousands of other birds in their houses.

The stories were the same for the pigs, cows, and goats living on the Farm; all the animals suffered from any number of maladies stemming from past malnutrition and growth-specific breeding. Many, especially the pigs, had scars from stress-induced injury. Stereotypic behavior—characterized by obsessive repetition, sometimes to the point of self-destruction—is common among farm animals confined to tight spaces, and some still wore on their faces and limbs the reminder of their prior living conditions.

I took many notes while I watched the animals go about their business that day. Pigs snorted, grunted and rummaged, occasionally pacing in their large pens. Chickens trotted casually around the yard, bolting and stopping, pecking around, and setting themselves down, tired from the excessive weight they couldn’t shed. Several of the cows I met didn’t stand at all, instead preferred to lie lazily and comfortably in the grass fields.

Goat at Farm SanctuarySo the day went at Farm Sanctuary, watching the meandering residents. My observations inevitably led to a troubling concern: if nonhuman animals experience emotions, then what of these pigs, chickens, and cows? What of all the others, the billions slaughtered in the U.S. each year? [4] Although science looks to find the answer to the perplexing question "do nonhuman animals have emotions," it consistently comes up empty-handed.

The search for nonhuman animal emotion is ongoing and pervasive, regularly making science and political headlines. Even in a recent post here called "Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier?",[5] author Christie Wilcox tackled one angle of the question, though her assumption included nonhuman emotion as at least basically acceptable. And I agree with that assumption, as do many of the most prominent scientists trying to pin down conscious phenomena in other animals.

Chicken at Farm SanctuaryTheir beliefs and feelings toward the matter, however, are intuitive rather than scientific. Subjective rather than objective. This is a big no-no for classical Cartesian reductionism; after all, the scientific method depends on observable, replicable results. In the words of David McFarland, a former Oxford animal behavior professor, "A scientist’s hunch is acceptable as a start, provided that it leads to a theory that can be rejected in the face of evidence."[6] It’s the "evidence" part that’s the problem.

Emotion in humans is difficult enough to gauge empirically and often depends on subjective rating systems; you can imagine how much worse the problem gets when an insurmountable language barrier comes into play. A psychologist can ask her human patient outright what he is feeling, and he can tell her about his depression or anxiety. She can then compare her patient’s response with established diagnostic criteria.

Turkey at Farm SanctuaryIn nonhuman animals, science is forced into a world of inference. When tightly confined, pigs will bang their heads on crates, chew on cage bars, and bite other pigs’ tails. Chickens turn to abnormal behavior like cannibalism and feather plucking. Off the farm, dogs respond similarly to humans when taking psychiatric medicine;[7] rats emit high-pitched chirps when tickled;[8] an experiment can show that lab mice exhibit empathy when their cage-mates are subjected to painful injections,[9] judging by basic stress responses and reactions to future pain.

But whether or not these animals are responding with conscious emotions or simply with unconscious and automatic self-survival mechanisms is a mystery to scientists everywhere, no matter what their intuitions tell them. Instead, all that can be done is to interpret abnormal behaviors that coincide with either high levels of stress or pleasure. In this realm, scientists tend to operate in the extremes.

But what if there existed some standardization for identifying nonhuman animal emotion? What if, like with psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), some general criteria were collected and used in observation for cognitive ethologists who wish to see which animals are feeling, and which may not be? Such a test would have to be based upon human experience, as understanding a radically different concept of emotion is, as of yet, beyond our scientific reach. The test and the criteria might resemble something of an emotional Turing test, with a pig, chicken, or cow, for instance, in place of the machine.

In some scientific cases, more credence seems to be given to machine capabilities than to those of nonhuman animals. For machine behavior, the Turing test has been used for nearly six decades. Developed by British mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing, the test arose out of a simple question: can machines think? Turing developed a method to attempt to answer his question.

In its most basic manifestation, a Turing test involves two humans and a computer. Person A sits before a computer screen; person B and the computer sit behind a barrier, out of Person A’s view. Once this is all set up, Person A types questions into a computer, and both Person B and the computer respond. This exchange continues for a while as a casual conversation, and in the end, Person A is left to figure out which of her correspondents is human, and which is computer. If the computer tricks Person A into thinking it’s human, then that computer "passes" the test and is considered potentially intelligent (it’s important to note that the goal isn’t to get a computer to "trick" a human. The goal is to develop a machine that can function similarly to a human brain, at least at a basic level).

Though it has evolved into many variations, each type of Turing test runs on the basic principle of judging artificial intelligence based on human intelligence. In other words, if it communicates intelligently and reasons intelligently, as judged by a human being, then the machine is granted the title of "artificially intelligent." The search for AI has been long, and the Turing test has yet to be successful—which is not to say scientists aren’t still trying.[10]

Cow at Farm SanctuaryWhile there are obvious issues with a direct comparison between a machine Turing test and an animal Turing test (with machines, we’re testing our own creation; animals are a different story altogether), the analogue isn’t without justification. Adapted and applied into cognitive ethology, an emotional Turing test would take a third-person approach to what has long been a first-person problem; it would increase objectivity in an otherwise subjective experience.

The first step in developing such a test would require that a set of basic, standardized criteria be developed; if measures for emotionally or consciously motivated behavioral responses are standardized, then judging behavior against those criteria becomes possible. In other words, if a pig chews needlessly on cage bars and her bodily responses (cortisol levels and skin temperature, as well as other indicators of stress in the mammalian central nervous system) correspond, then that pig can be said to be experiencing anxiety.

Tufts University professor and eminent theorizer of consciousness Daniel Dennett has proposed something similar for use with humans, a practice he refers to as "heterophenomenology." This practice, he argues, is "the sound way to take the first-person account as seriously as it can be taken." In a nutshell, Dennett says that if the researcher both listens to a subject’s inner account of a situation, and then observes the environmental factors, an objective conclusion can be reached about the inner-workings of the subject’s conscious thought processes.

He writes in an article on the subject: "a more constructive approach recognizes the neutrality of heterophenomenology and accepts the challenge of demonstrating, empirically, in its terms, that there are marvels of consciousness that cannot be captured by conservative theories."[11] The conservative theories to which Dennett refers hold back the study of consciousness in general, in humans and nonhumans alike. And though his proposal is meant for human consciousness, the principals could easily be applied to nonhuman animal emotion (Dennett, who is also a cognitive scientist, sometimes turns to the discussion of nonhuman animal consciousness).

Turkeys at Farm SanctuaryIt’s a bold proposal, one that many will emphatically argue requires too great a leap of faith. The prospect is arguably rife with anthropomorphism, the supposed bane of all nonhuman animal consciousness studies. But approaches based on sweeping subjective generalizations are common throughout many areas of human psychology. Consider a hypothetical (and oversimplified) therapy session between Jane Doe and Dr. M. A set of criteria for emotion (in disorder form) is already accepted in the psychiatric field—the DSM—and judging by these formerly laid out, generalized criteria, Dr. M can determine by Jane Doe’s verbal explanation of her experience whether or not his patient is experiencing anxiety. Dr. M makes a leap to believe his patient, thereby prescribing a medication that will alleviate her suffering. This trust in Jane and how well she knows her own emotion is subjective, but is nevertheless generally accepted. Take the language out of the equation—Jane’s ability to tell Dr. Z about her anxiety—and all we’ve left to go on is inference.

Is it so extreme an idea to suggest that nonhuman animals experience some form of emotion? It’s ethically easier to assume, as did Rene Descartes, that nonhumans are simply mechanized automatons, more like Turing’s machines than like us. I know my visit to Farm Sanctuary would have been much easier if I believed none of the residents had suffered any pain or anxiety.

But I think we (scientists included) know better. The question is, really, can we ever prove it? One Oxford psychology professor, Cecilia Heyes, has hope: "I assume on nonscientific grounds that many animals experience phenomenally conscious states – that they are not ‘beast machines’ – and I find it plausible that, at some time in the future, the presence and character of these states will be discoverable by scientific methods." [12] Without some standards like those outlined above, however, I doubt that Heyes’ future is anywhere near.

The need for objectivity in science is understandable. As a student about to graduate with a degree in science writing, I fully appreciate that the scientific method helps weed out bad science, keeping the wolves out of the proverbial henhouse.

But when inherently subjective issues like emotion are on the table—with deep ethical implications hanging in the balance—I can’t help but feel that objectivity is failing in this case. At some point, it might be that we should, in the words of cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff, "get over the issue of anthropomorphism and move on—there’s important work to be done." [13]


1) "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer

2) "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat" by Hal Herzog


4) National Agriculture Statistics Service. "Livestock Slaughter." 21 4 2011. USDA Economics, Statistics, and Market Information System.

5) Wilcox, Christie. "Bambi or Bessie: Are wild animals happier?"

6) McFarland, David. Problems of Animal Behavior. Longman Sc & Tech, 1989.

7) Dogs and psychiatrics: "Reconcile." 18 3 2011. Drug Information Online. 2011.

8) Panksepp, Jaak and Burgdorf, Jeff. ""Laughing" rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?" Physiology and Behavior 79 (2003): 533-547.

9) Langford, Dale J., et al. "Social Modulation of Pain as Evidence for Empathy in Mice." Science 312.5782 (2006): 1967-1970.

10) See the Loebner Prize Competition for more details on the ongoing pursuit for Turing’s AI.

11) Dennett, Daniel. "Who’s on First? Heterophenomenology Explained." Journal of Consciousness Studies 10 (2003).

12) Heyes, Cecilia. "Beast Machines? Questions of Animal Consciousness." Frontiers of Consciousness. Ed. M Davies and L Weiskrantz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

13) Bekoff, Marc. The Animal Manifesto. New World Library, 2010. p. 76.

Image credit: Kristina Bjoran

About the Author: Kristina Bjoran is a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, where she writes about technology, environmental studies, and nonhuman animal intelligence. During her down time, she volunteers with animal shelters, writes for nonprofits, and dabbles in photography and skydiving. Follow Kristina on Facebook and Twitter, and visit her page on MIT Scope.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 23 Comments

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  1. 1. AdrianaH 9:52 am 04/28/2011

    Antkropomorphism only becomes non-objective when it is exaggerated, mostly by the popular press. As a scientist working on human genomics, I can attest to the successful use of comparisons with other species: we may not know exactly what a gene or protein does in species X, but we can infer function from conservation of residues, etc. We do this all the time, in all fields of biology. Animal behavior should be no exception. The dread of anthropomorphism in animal behavior research is in part a vestige of Kantian (as well as religious) ideas of human uniqueness. It an animal’s behavior looks like suffering or stress or depression/sadness, it is safe and scientifically valid, to assume it is indeed suffering. Another reason for not wanting to acknowledge the minds of non human animals is that it is easier to exploit them if we think they are not like us, especially if we think they can’t suffer like us. Frans de Waal, a hard core biologist who certainly adheres to the scientific method, coined the term "anthropodenial", meaning the denial on principle, of human-like qualities and n=behaviors in other species and our own animal nature. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, why would we go to great pains to not call it a duck?
    There is no scientific reason whatsoever to think or hypothesize that farm animals do not experience suffering or do not have emotions. It makes no sense scientifically to assume that emotions, which are a key component of the workings of the central nervous system and the maintenance of homeostasis in mammals, birds, and possibly other vertebrates (I highly recommend reading neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s articles and books) arose from scratch in our species. The only reason for such an assumption is that we actually lost all objectivity in favor of constructing excuses for the unethical treatment of sentient beings who are not human.

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  2. 2. totoro75 10:01 am 04/28/2011

    I appreciate the author’s attempt to wrestle with an uncomfortable topic. I think attempting to understand and document the internal lives of nonhuman animals is fascinating and important. However, from a standpoint of moral and philosophical rigor, I found the dichotomy between the "proven fact" of human consciousness and emotion and the "subjective possibility" of nonhuman animal consciousness and emotion troublesome. In fact, it’s downright intellectually lazy. This isn’t an attack on the author, but on the broader scientific community cited in the piece.

    How has human emotion been proved to exist in any scientifically responsible way? It hasn’t. We can cite our own subjective experiences, but that proves nothing about any other human. We can observe physiology and behavior, but that’s only as much proof as animals give us, and that it not enough. Humans can say they have emotions, but a clever computer can do that, too. Another problem with linguistic reporting of emotion or other internal mental state is that there are people who we commonly assume to have internal states, but who speak a different language than the observer. If I were to rely on that, I couldn’t be certain Czech speakers have internal states because I don’t speak Czech. And poor kids raised entirely language-less in Skinner Boxes may as well have no internal states either.

    I think it’s scientifically and logically much safer to conclude that there is no definitive scientific proof that humans have emotions or internal states. Yes, you are certain of your own internal and emotional life, but nobody else.

    Luckily, most folks take a subjective leap and intuit that other people probably have emotions and internal states. They intuit that their beloved pets have emotions and internal states. They conveniently forget this when the tasty burger arrives or when they wear shoes made by child labor.

    Let’s be honest and consistent. Let’s not let the noble quest for good science be an excuse to be cruel.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 10:09 am 04/28/2011

    There are us non-science humans, who without a shadow of a doubt, know that the animals we hang around with have feelings and emotions; they love, hate, dream and exhibit different attitudes. Anyone who believes that non-human animals have no feelings or emotions…have none themselves.

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  4. 4. KristinaBjoran 10:13 am 04/28/2011

    @totoro75 Thanks for that excellent response. I agree 100% with your take on the present state of the scientific pursuit of these issues, as do, in fact, many of the ethologists that are seeking out the so-called "proof" of nonhuman animal sentience.

    I’ve just finished writing my master’s thesis on the broader topic of cognitive intelligence and emotion in animals, and you’re absolutely right in that, as strict as some cognitive scientists are when it comes to the topic, many humans wouldn’t qualify as thinking, feeling beings. It’s troublesome to most of us because, as intuitively, it’s so obvious. And you’re dead on, as well, with the whole "lazy thinking" idea. I’ve spoken quite often with cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff, and he argues the exact same thing–passionately so–in response to this so-called problem.

    But again, there’s so much pressure in the scientific community to be objective and reductionist, even within the paradoxical field of human psychology and cognitive studies. Ethically, it’s safest to assume (and completely logical) that other humans have mental states, so we do–not because it’s scientifically proven, but because it would allow for too many injustices if we were to think otherwise. And in spite of many scientists who argue that the neurological continuity between humans and *at least* other vertebrates (drawing that so-called "line" makes things tricky) warrants consciousness, there are many interests groups out there that would take a huge hit if nonhuman animal emotion were "proved."

    Anyway, thanks so much for your input here. It’s been interesting, trying to tackle these questions for the past year, not to mention infuriating.

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  5. 5. totoro75 10:28 am 04/28/2011

    Thanks for your response. I’m a philosopher by training, not a scientist – so I’ll admit in some regards, I’m completely out of my depth. But you wrote:

    "Ethically, it’s safest to assume (and completely logical) that other humans have mental states, so we do–not because it’s scientifically proven, but because it would allow for too many injustices if we were to think otherwise."

    Where did this "ethically" and "injustice" come from? We invented it from moral imperatives we perceive with our gut/spirit/intuitive mind etc. As you say, "drawing the line" is tricky.

    In any case, leaving aside the moral/industrial implications, the study of brains and behavior is darned interesting! I wish I’d met Alex The Parrot. He seemed like a nice guy.

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  6. 6. cniggeler 10:59 am 04/28/2011

    Irrespective of animal feelings, one must conclude that the treatment of food animals is deplorable. The reason? We no longer establish the cognitive link between "warm furry critter" and "meat under the plastic wrap". Tyson, for example, had an ad campaign a couple years back: "Have you had your Tyson protein today?"

    What if every fifth grader in the country were required to make a field trip to a slaughterhouse? I would imagine our regretful attitudes of today would change in just one generation!

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  7. 7. msizer 11:15 am 04/28/2011

    Ms. Byoran’s position that objectivity is lacking in certain peoples’ view of animal treatment is defeated by common-practice experiments in neuroscience. If our inability to know the mind of anther creature negates all assumptions of commonality, then why not toss out Candace Pert’s discovery of the opiate receptors in 1972 using pig brains? Are you Ms. Byoran prepared to argue with people whose lives are rendered tolerable by pain medication that their drugs should be withheld since no doctor can know for sure that they are actually in pain?

    What about the evolution of the central nervous system? It is clear by our anatomy that brains and nervous systems are those of previous simpler species except with add-ons. Whenever we see a creature with regulated cardiovascular functions, autonomic responses to external stimuli and endocrine regulation, we find a brain stem. Furthermore, whenever damage to a brain stem in such a creature results, those functions cease. Does it make any sense to conclude that "we can’t know for sure" that it’s the brain stem in all of those creatures that affords them the associated capacities? Humbug.

    Finally, given the potential degree of suffering at stake by our conclusions on such matters, how can you possibly have any claim here to moral responsibility given your stance. Or do you care? If you were told that a large sum of money were behind a wall, and you were welcome to have the money if you simply ram through it with a vehicle. However, there is a 3% chance that a person is hiding inside the wall. Would you reach immediately for your keys? I should hope not.

    Ms. Byoran, I strongly believe you would be well served by some education in philosophy, as judging by your article above, you appear educated in science but lacking in critical thinking.

    Michael Sizer,
    Cambridge Ontario.

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  8. 8. HankFox 11:21 am 04/28/2011

    I’ve felt for years that biology is harmfully tainted by religious origins.

    Looking out over a landscape of diverse species, with humans included, the initial assumption “They’re a lot like us in many ways” is at least as arguable as the one we went with, “They’re nothing like us in any way.”

    I’ve thought more than once that a biology that arose out of Native American or African cultures, people who lived with wildlife and got to observe it at close range over lifetimes, seeing its many differences AND samenesses with us, might have chosen the first one rather than the second, and had an easier time of it in understanding both human and “animal” nature.

    But once you accept that second one as your prime fact – No “animal” has anything in common with human beings. – the entire rest of animal-study history (and probably all the human studies – psychology, physiology, etc. – as well) is a litany of casting automatic doubt on any sameness you might notice.

    The mother bear doesn’t feelingly “care” for her cubs. Instead, she – like a clockwork mechanism – “exhibits instinctive protective behavior.” Yet we have no more reason to suppose bears are wind-up toys than we do to imagine that we are. Yes, we exhibit all these automatic behaviors. But while we’re doing it, we NOTICE that we’re doing it, and that noticing is realized as feelings. Emotions arise out of strictly mechanical/chemical processes, but they’re still, from our less-exclusive, more intimate viewpoint, emotions.

    To consider as your first fact of animal study that this same process absolutely does not and cannot take place in any non-human species is … silly.

    Animal studies are a keystone of human medical research. Yes, animal researchers must be aware of human physiological and biochemical (and, I have to imagine, even psychological) differences, but they seem to go into each study confident that assuming some sameness between humans and beastly study subjects will produce useful results.

    Yet when the subject is emotions, suddenly we all seem to be frantically backing away, claiming “No, no! They’re nothing like us! There’s no PROOF!”

    A “separation bias” was built into biology from its first days, when it might just as fruitfully have been a “sameness bias.” We label the assumption of sameness as the dreaded, tainted “subjective,” the assumption of difference as the virtuous “objective,” when they could just as easily, outside a random artifact of our own history, have been reversed.

    At base, this separation bias is a creationist idea.

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  9. 9. KristinaBjoran 12:05 pm 04/28/2011

    Hi Michael,

    I fear that you’ve misunderstood what I’m getting at with this discussion; I argue here that the need of many cognitive scientists (Daniel Dennett, Cecilia Heyes, David McFarland–I can provide many links to references) for objective proof of emotions in nonhuman animals is harmful to our responsibilities towards the animals. Much of my research into nonhuman animal cognition lies strictly in the evolutionary continuum of which you speak (and rightly so), and given our similarities, it seems silly and unfortunately anthropocentric to suggest that sentience is a human-only phenomenon. I don’t make this claim at all.

    Instead, I only hope to point out that, at some point (as echoed in the Bekoff quote at the end), the fears of anthropomorphism in the scientific pursuit of nonhuman animal emotion are hindering the study, and sponsoring our ongoing mistreatment of animals.

    Do I believe that animals feel and think? Without a doubt. Even the researchers that are looking for "proof" know it intuitively (which I also point out in my post). However, intuition and philosophy isn’t enough for scientists, and sure isn’t enough for legislating animal welfare. The "work" that needs to be done is finding that proof, whether we all know it to be true or not.

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  10. 10. Shade1974 12:09 pm 04/28/2011

    My pseudo-scientific opinion is that if we currently infer enough of a correlation between human and animal emotions to use them as human analogs for product testing, then either we must contend that mistreatment of any animals has similar consequences on their psychological state to what those treatments would have on humans, or else we must discard the validity of using unthinking animal robots as human substitutes for product testing. On the other hand, we probably don’t need to get too carried away. Remember, the bulk of humans spend most of our lives trapped in a cubicle not much bigger than us, pecking away in an obsessive compulsive manner at a keyboard. Many exhibit stress behaviors like chewing fingernails or arguing with coworkers. Farm lifestyles are not paradise for the animals, certainly, but might be less stress overall than spending every day of your life either starving to death or running for your life from lions. Packing animals together seems cruel to us because we are more predators than prey, but prey animals do it naturally. They get very stressed when alone. Our domesticated animals know a comparatively easy life compared with the existence of prey animals in the wild. Could we do better than we are doing now? Yes. Is it the worst these animals could experience on planet earth? Probably not. Eventually, there won’t really even be a prey animal involved at all. We will simply grow the raw meat compounds in mass-production vats that can grow ten times faster, taste better, and require fewer resources to produce. Once there are no nerves involved in the process at all, there won’t be much scientific basis to worry about emotions anymore.

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  11. 11. KristinaBjoran 12:11 pm 04/28/2011

    You’ve summed this up quite well. It certainly does seem that the prejudice against admitting these qualities in nonhuman animals is religiously based–the whole "we’re at the center of everything" idea. The automaton animal, stemming back to Descartes and certainly earlier, is harming the field of study.

    The fields of cognitive ethology, comparative psychology, and behavioral neuroscience (not to mention the many other areas addressing the inner lives of animals) are abound with this particular debate: objectivity versus subjectivity, intuition versus scientific method. What does seem to be emerging, at least a little bit, is the realization (slow, indeed) that these apparent dichotomies aren’t necessarily exclusive of each other. From the researchers I’ve spoken with, the skepticism is really decreasing. But it’s not there yet.

    Thanks for the discussion!

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  12. 12. bushwaala 12:39 pm 04/28/2011

    At first let me say that attacking someone for the benefit of making your argument seem just is dirty pool. The people that submit these works are being as objective as possible and are not slighting one person’s opinions over another’s due to ineptitude or malice. I would say that Mr.s Bjoran’s article is insightful without being biased, which is what mires creative professional writing. Choosing sides in a paradoxical debate is foolhardy and ignorant. Having said that, my objective opinion is that humanity survives on its existential understanding of the individual self. Descartes did proffer that humans could be fooled into believing that life was an illusion. However his end result was that if humanity existed for no other reason than to be fooled and tricked, then the universal "I" does exist. So trying to rely on human suffering and achievements as being a factor of causality is to ignore the feelings one has every day. And to ignore that others feel the way "I" can feel is denying what is self evident. Now to the big finish. What does philosophy have anything to do with this? Because science does have a history and a current practice to prove itself against Socrates philosiphy for absolute truth and Einstein’s declaration that truth without proof is not truth. In this vein there exists a great deal of studies that are harmful and terminal to many lab animals that are funded to discover what is fundamental but as of yet proven. Like teaching a chimp to smoke or disecting the brain of a parrot to understand the basics of avian flight neural response patterns.
    Subjectively, I would contend that there need be consideration for animals of non essential studies, if only to assure that one day others in the community of human evolution consider the implications of championing science and abusing human rights as we did in the german occupation.

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  13. 13. wolfkiss 1:49 pm 04/28/2011

    Ironically, it is anthropocentrism that stands in the way of moving forward the project of understanding human cognition. Our inherited desire to be special invades even the ranks of secular science.

    However, bees and even bacteria make decisions in complex environments. Even communication among individuals is common; bees dance to convince other bees of potential nectar and hive, while bacteria “stink” to incite a joint attack. I’m glad Bjoran brought up Turing and the machine comparison, because it highlights our species’ tendency for overextending a metaphor at best, and solipsism at worst. The daemon we are familiar with is too often provided hospitality over the one we aren’t. This would be natural for bronze age speculations. But the closed system machine analogy, too often used for open systems, should have perished decades ago with Bertalanffy’s book General System Theory. Alas, some memes require more direct inoculation.

    Machines are functional, all ‘sentient’ animals (and likely all living things) are not; and by ‘sentience’, I mean its root sentire, i.e. to feel. Functionalism means that all the parts of the system are fixed in their relationship to all other parts. Each part, and the machine as a whole, serve a very specific function. Evolution does not rely so heavily on such narrow utility, because these systems are extremely brittle. If one part, and thus its function, fails, then the entire system is significantly crippled. Machines need ‘Sentient’ beings, who stipulate the hierarchy of functionality, to render them meaningful. And by ‘Sentient’, I move closer to its cog sci sense, namely, that feelings have meaning to the agent that is experiencing them.

    This, of course, begs a lot of questions, which I’ll expound upon in PART II.

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  14. 14. wolfkiss 1:50 pm 04/28/2011


    Someone can rightly claim that machines can cleverly be made to behave similarly to some arbitrary stimulation right down to the autonomic internal responses, and even be sentient in its first order sense. But the functional machine, e.g. digital computer, will never be Sentient, because this requires that the agent simultaneously assimilate internally external stimulation, AND attribute survival meaning to it. Functional machines are specifically designed to deny this simultaneity, which is often called “noise” in biological systems. Much to the surprise of many, organic "machines" on the other hand are not precluded from simultaneity via the ubiquitous physical phenomenon of superposition. In other words, the neuron – via LFP, chemical gradients, etc. – both molds and is simultaneously molded by the higher order physical terrain that is the superimposition of all locally ‘emoting’ neurons. And by ‘emoting’, I mean externally expressing physical behaviors in causal reaction to internal states. But of course the notion of external and internal is shown to be blurred at this scale, because the potential gradient across the cell membrane is the result of both internal and external phenomena, again, simultaneously. We, as Sentient agents in open systems, are not as discrete as we might be led to believe by our own “consciousness”, whatever this concept means. In any case, the behavior of neurons defies functional description because of their sensitivity to their very complex and dynamic environment, which is molded by a symphony of all local neurons. And this is a good thing, in an evolutionary sense, because an agent’s relevance to their environment matters for survival. Therefore, survival has evolved to matter to the agents that have survived evolution. Evolution is self-caused.

    So, if we define ‘suffering’ as not just a reactionary response to stimulation (sentience), but the high-order state of existential anxiety based upon assimilation of stimulation (Sentience), then everything that has a nervous system suffers. Because neurons in nervous systems evolved not to be fixed functions, but to superimpose many topographies of matter and energy into higher-order patterns. And these patterns embody, at the very least, both stimulation and the relevance of that stimulation to the existence of the Sentient agent, simultaneously.

    But can’t functional machines emulate superposition?…PART III

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  15. 15. wolfkiss 1:51 pm 04/28/2011


    Surely, someone will cling to functionalism, claiming that Sentience will “emerge” from enough closed feedback loops. But, no matter how many loops, higher-order phenomena, as found in open systems via superposition, are specifically denied by closed functional systems. This desire to advocate functionalism is understandable, because it works in so many domains and offers a semblance of control. But for questions regarding any open system – like the biosphere, weather, humans, or animals – the functional model is a weak description, and not the system itself.

    The functional parts of the functional machine cannot be made to adapt their functionality without still further functions, all of which have been defined a priori by the designer. But nature isn’t designed. It has evolved in a sea of superimposed topographies of causal matter and energy. Any chemistry class will attest to the veracity of this claim. Life is built upon superimposed dynamic tendencies, not fixed functional parts and rules. Therefore it is reasonable to better understand superimposed phenomena in the realm of cognition before continuing in circles wondering if animals are just functional machines. Start with the basic sciences and challenge the preconceptions of our reductionist heritage. It worked great for a while, but all good things must end.

    Thanks for reading,

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  16. 16. EvolvingApe 2:21 pm 04/28/2011

    It is silly to believe that there is some sort of clear "emotion" bright line separating humans from other animals, rather than a continuum spanning different levels of complexity (which may or may not correlate with intensity).

    Unless, of course, one’s foundation for understanding the universe is Genesis (I or II, take your pick), or some other mythology construct. Which is also silly.

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  17. 17. KristinaBjoran 2:24 pm 04/28/2011

    Excellent discussion, Wolfkiss. The open versus closed systems is certainly at the heart of this discussion, on the most basic of levels. The clinging to reductionism, the adherence to the emergent property of consciousness becomes the most fascinating aspect of the discussion because of the inevitable comparison between judging nonhuman animal Sentience in regards to computer/machine "sentience" (in the sense that a machine can, presumably, never actually be Sentient).

    And yet as the study of human cognition treads on, it is still deeply rooted in philosophy rather than the so-called "harder" scientific rigor. I think, as you mentioned, it will continue to be so until we abandon that we are as unique as we think we are.

    I wish I could put more into this response, but time constraints are pressing at the moment. Thanks again, Wolfkiss, for this response. I will certainly be pondering more on this later (and I hope to see I for Am further develop in the near future.)

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  18. 18. BlakeJustBlake 3:46 pm 04/28/2011

    Something that, I believe, was hinted at by totoro related to the point you’ve brought up about "…whether or not these animals are responding with conscious emotions or simply with unconscious and automatic self-survival mechanisms…" Which I think can be reflected on ourselves. I wonder how we can even say that what we believe to be our conscious emotions aren’t unconscious and automatic self-survival mechanisms? Our cognitive abilities are the result of a long phylogeny subject to particular selective pressures, much like any other species. Even unconscious and automatic self-survival mechanisms were selected for a purpose and display a tendency for preference. The reactions that animals have which were reported in this article display that – even if it is an automatic self-survival mechanism – the animals have a preference. For an automatic self-survival mechanism to even work it must instill in an animal that a situation is either desirable or undesirable.

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  19. 19. Lishka 5:31 pm 04/28/2011

    They feel pain and fear and it’s obvious if they are comfortable/happy or not. That’s enough for me to realise that they shouldn’t be treated badly. I do believe they feel more than these things, some animals anyway, but it is these three things, especially the pain, that should be the defining factor in how animals are treated.

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  20. 20. Tom Grady 6:02 am 04/29/2011

    As someone who has fully believed in and studied self-awareness and state of consciousness in animals for some time now, I can safely report animals do indeed feel and experience emotion.
    Too often people use the term anthropomorphism without applying logic to term. Anthropomorphism is the act of applying human qualities to non-human entities or objects.
    But when we understand there are indeed shared qualities and emotions between humans and animals, we come to the understanding and realization that we not applying exclusively human qualities to animals at all. We are in these cases noting and observing our shared qualities.
    Observation is the key to studying human behavior and animal behavior. If it is suggested that we have no way of "scientifically proving" that animals experience emotion, then we have no way of similarly proving humans experience emotion.

    And I’d suggest that the real hurdle here for some on this subject is the wall put up that attempts to apply human standards to animals.
    So it’s not so-called anthropomorphism that is the problem, it is the inaccurate assumption that our emotional state is the only possible emotional state we can apply to animals.
    It actually blocks scientific research to put up this wall. It starts the process off from a position of a false assumption.

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  21. 21. AdrianaH 11:33 am 04/30/2011

    I must admit that I also interpreted your post in the same way as msizer. I think perhaps one reason is that you use the term "emotion" and not "consciousness". The fact that animals have emotions is not in discussion by scientists, emotions are the reactions to complex internal (physiological) and external, or environmental stimuli); what some scientists such as Dennet dispute is whether animals are conscious of their emotions in a way akin to our human awareness of our emotions. I do not deny that this is a very interesting question, but from the point of view of the treatment of animals, it is not really relevant, and in the end it boils down to how "consciousness" is defined. Animals respond to fear and stress and pain and physiologically the same ways humans do, and this should be no surprise to anyone, given that humans are animals. We can study animal behavior objectively and measure stress and pain in animals by studying their physiological responses (neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s book "Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers" is a must-read, in my opinion). It is not scientifically objective to assume that the animal’s pain and stress is so different than ours, that it grants an exception in the way they should be treated in ethical terms. In fact, the tendency even in strictly scientific, experimental circles, is to tightly control experimental animal research in order to avoid senseless waste of life, but, most importantly, pain and psycho-physiological stress.
    Lastly, I think that scientists are not the greatest impediments to achieve ethical treatment of animals, and many, such as Temple Grandin, have greatly contributed to alleviate the suffering of farm animals using solid research. The greatest obstacle stems from the industry’s greedy opposition to regulations that could jeopardize their enormous profits, and from the public’s callous lack of interest in learning where their food comes from.

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  22. 22. timgier 6:33 pm 05/1/2011

    Hi Kristina:

    Given that you admit that when it comes to other human beings, whether or not they are creatures with "emotion is subjective, but is nevertheless generally accepted," and given that we also generally accept therefore that human beings are the sort of beings who ought not to be routinely used against their will as the means to someone else’s ends, on what non-arbitrary basis are we justified in denying the same to consideration to nonhuman animals? Moreover, irrespective of any perceived need of objective evidence of animal emotion and cognition to create legislation protective of nonhumans, given your own experiences with and understandings of animal emotion and cognition, is there something else which prevents you from opting out of the systems and practices which routinely and irrevocably harm nonhumans?

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  23. 23. cerronevado 9:42 am 10/17/2011

    This article is yet another absurd “scientific” attempt to deny all the behavioural evidence we have that higher order animals have emotions – they feel pain, pleasure, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, contentment – and show all manner of behavioural responses and visual and tactile indicators in this regard. This includes all typical farm animals, not just cats and dogs. In any other field of argument, this would be regarded as a clumsy and over-wrought exercise in hair-splitting and even denial. But when solemnly presented as “science” it is expected to be taken seriously. “Scientific American,” stop labouring the science and publish something we think is clarifying or opening up knowledge. Everyone knows animals have emotions. They just can’t talk about them. Writers like this one want dogs, cats, pigs and horses to converse with us and maybe write blogs about their feelings first before they will acknowledge that they feel acute pleasure and pain and respond emotionally to these feelings.

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