Human animals?

It’s difficult to even ask the question ‘do animals have feelings?’ without getting caught up in the hierarchy that places humans at the top of the heap and ‘animals’ below. The English language immediately traps you into using ugly phrases like ‘non-human animals’ to show that you’re aware that humans aren’t so different from all the others.

Last week’s news that chimpanzees had been filmed showing behaviour that looked very much like human grieving brought this question into the news agenda again. It made me wonder how long it will take before humans stop viewing themselves as being outside the definition of ‘animal’.Animals often behave in ways that suggest they share some of our ‘human’ emotions – anyone who’s had a pet has got an anecdote to back this up. But this shouldn’t be very surprising given that we know just how closely related we are to other mammals, and especially to great apes like chimpanzees.

You might even argue that it would be sensible to assume some animals (like great apes) share some or all of our emotions. But instead it’s clear that our thinking on this subject is biased in the opposite direction, under the influence of religious attitudes that place humans at the centre of the universe.

Why else would it be such big news that animals so closely related to us might experience some of the same feelings that we have every day? It’s because so much of Western society is pervaded by the idea that animals are by definition inferior and inhuman.

This is made even more obvious by the common reaction to anecdotal evidence like the chimp video  – critics are always quick to caution against ‘anthropomorphisation’. This seems to imply that we shouldn’t give our ‘human’ qualities away so freely.

It’s true that the evidence so far can’t prove that chimps feel similar emotions to humans. But it’s a classic philosophical argument that it’s impossible to prove that any other human is conscious in the same way as you are, let alone any other animal. Science is nowhere near telling us what it’s like to be in someone (or something) else’s head, so why do we assume animals feel so little? We certainly don’t assume this with other humans, even tiny babies or foetuses that can’t describe their emotions.

The more important question is, why do animals have to have emotions for us to treat them with respect? Measuring other life by its nearness to humanity ignores the wonders of the other species on earth. Animals aren’t less than human, they’re just different.

Science rightly concentrates on exploring and understanding these differences. It’s a shame we can’t be more rational about the way we view animals outside the realms of research.

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