Can Humans Know What Animals Experience?

A few decades ago the idea of animal consciousness was radical. Today, the idea that animals have emotions, feelings, awareness is an idea that is changing our understanding of the relationship between humans and non-human animals. But Jeff Warren goes on to argue that we can go even further, that we can find points of connection to non-human animal experience:

“A feeling for the organism” is how the famous geneticist Barbara McClintock described her own intuitions about life. Empathy as a capacity needn’t end at the human genus. It seems to be more a question of how much energy and intelligence and openness you bring to the inquiry. Obviously, the further away you get from the human, the more room for fantasy – this is a genuine risk – but this doesn’t mean there isn’t also a real sensitivity that can be cultivated.

And indeed, when you pan out to the big picture of human knowledge, what you see are multiple lines of inquiry converging on this exact point. From the scientific world, we have the study of animal cognition and communication, as well as more cutting-edge domains like the study of animal sense worlds (or “umwelts”) and embodied cognition. From the philosophical world, investigators are beginning to elaborate a whole series of intriguing approaches, from “affordances” to the phenomenology of “interbeing,” to name just two ideas. All of these lay the groundwork for a kind of radical perspective-taking; they are different ways of illuminating sensibilities we once dismissed as opaque.

And he celebrates the many ways in which art and literature are finding ways to make the connection:

We can and should learn to trust this more free-form style of awareness – it is the means by which we’re able to dramatize any interior, as every novelist and filmmaker and artist knows (even Nagel admits as such in one of his paper’s footnotes: “imagination is remarkably flexible”). Art opens new channels of intimacy and helps us formulate fresh questions and avenues of exploration. Animals are the next frontier, the next concentric circle out.

We are seeing many new examples of this. Novelist Barbara Gowdy is working on a film adaptation of her brilliant novelThe White Bone, which is written entirely from the perspective of a herd of African elephants. Benjamin Hale’s recent The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore tells the story of a young chimpanzee’s acquisition of language. These books are not in the same tradition as Animal Farm and Watership Down, where animals are clearly stand-ins for human characters. Rather, they are infusions of imagination and science, informed attempts to wrestle with very different sensibilities. We can find many recent nonfiction expressions of this too, for example in psychologist Alexandra Horowitz’s bestselling Inside a Dog, zoologist Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense, journalist John Vaillant’s The Tigerand filmmaker Liz Marshall’s new documentary,The Ghosts in Our Machine.

Grasping the full extent and majesty of the interior lives of animal, as well as the degree to which we are connected, rather than set apart, from the non-human animal world is the critical step to completely revolutionizing the human relationship to non-human animals. Very interesting stuff.

2 thoughts on “Can Humans Know What Animals Experience?”

  1. A novel written from the perspective of orcas, both captive and free:
    Togetherness is Our Home
    by Astrid Maria van Ginneken

    Think of orcas, and you may instantly imagine the killer whales prowling the high seas in search of prey. Yet, these predators are much more than ruthless killers, and are in fact, complex creatures that feel and love within the groups they live. In pitch-perfect prose, orca expert Dr. Astrid M. van Ginneken puts the reader into the orca’s mind as she tells the story of the young killer whale Tuschka. Born in the wild, Tuschka learns the ways of her pod of fellow creatures and experiences the never-ending search for food, the joy of play, and the sadness of loss. But then Tuschka is mercilessly taken from her home waters and transferred to a marine park, where her only solace is a trust in her human trainers. Will she ever again join her family in the wild? Fascinating and heartfelt, this is a novel that is an astonishing account of the bonds between whales, and the relationship of man and orca.

    Astrid van Ginneken has co-directed research at the Center for Whale Research with Ken Balcomb each summer for nearly 20 years. Her expertise, attention to detail and effervescent personality have proved invaluable for maintaining the essential continuity of the photo-identification studies of the Southern Resident orca community. The resulting demographic information keeps us all aware of the overall health and welfare of this extended orca clan, and was crucial to the orcas’ “endangered” listing under the ESA in November, 2005.

    Togetherness Is Our Home tells the story of an orca in the course of her daily life, in her relationships with her family as they face the challenges of surviving in their habitat. Eventually her life intersects with humans who capture and train her for display in a marine park. When the time comes to return Tuschka to her home and family, the soul-searching and conflicts among the humans, and between the orcas, are intensely dramatic and brilliantly clarify the issues involved in reuniting a captive orca with the togetherness of her pod. The parallels with the continuing controversy about returning Lolita, the only surviving captive orca from the Southern Resident community, are clear and present on every breath-taking page. –Howard Garrett

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: