Have you ever wondered what animals think and feel? Let's start with a question: Does my dog really love me, or does she just want a treat? Well, it's easy to see that our dog really loves us, easy to see, right, what's going on in that fuzzy little head. What is going on? Something's going on.
But why is the question always do they love us? Why is it always about us? Why are we such narcissists? I found a different question to ask animals. Who are you?
There are capacities of the human mind that we tend to think are capacities only of the human mind. But is that true? What are other beings doing with those brains? What are they thinking and feeling? Is there a way to know? I think there is a way in. I think there are several ways in. We can look at evolution, we can look at their brains and we can watch what they do.
The first thing to remember is: our brain is inherited. The first neurons came from jellyfish. Jellyfish gave rise to the first chordates. The first chordates gave rise to the first vertebrates. The vertebrates came out of the sea, and here we are. But it's still true that a neuron, a nerve cell, looks the same in a crayfish, a bird or you. What does that say about the minds of crayfish? Can we tell anything about that? Well, it turns out that if you give a crayfish a lot of little tiny electric shocks every time it tries to come out of its burrow, it will develop anxiety. If you give the crayfish the same drug used to treat anxiety disorder in humans, it relaxes and comes out and explores. How do we show how much we care about crayfish anxiety? Mostly, we boil them.
Octopuses use tools, as well as do most apes and they recognize human faces. How do we celebrate the ape-like intelligence of this invertebrate? Mostly boiled. If a grouper chases a fish into a crevice in the coral, it will sometimes go to where it knows a moray eel is sleeping and it will signal to the moray, "Follow me," and the moray will understand that signal. The moray may go into the crevice and get the fish, but the fish may bolt and the grouper may get it. This is an ancient partnership that we have just recently found out about. How do we celebrate that ancient partnership? Mostly fried. A pattern is emerging and it says a lot more about us than it does about them.
Sea otters use tools and they take time away from what they're doing to show their babies what to do, which is called teaching. Chimpanzees don't teach. Killer whales teach and killer whales share food.
When evolution makes something new, it uses the parts it has in stock, off the shelf, before it fabricates a new twist. And our brain has come to us through the enormity of the deep sweep of time. If you look at the human brain compared to a chimpanzee brain, what you see is we have basically a very big chimpanzee brain. It's a good thing ours is bigger, because we're also really insecure.
But, uh oh, there's a dolphin, a bigger brain with more convolutions. OK, maybe you're saying, all right, well, we see brains, but what does that have to say about minds? Well, we can see the working of the mind in the logic of behaviors. So these elephants, you can see, obviously, they are resting. They have found a patch of shade under the palm trees under which to let their babies sleep, while they doze but remain vigilant. We make perfect sense of that image just as they make perfect sense of what they're doing because under the arc of the same sun on the same plains, listening to the howls of the same dangers, they became who they are and we became who we are.
We've been neighbors for a very long time. No one would mistake these elephants as being relaxed. They're obviously very concerned about something. What are they concerned about? It turns out that if you record the voices of tourists and you play that recording from a speaker hidden in bushes, elephants will ignore it, because tourists never bother elephants. But if you record the voices of herders who carry spears and often hurt elephants in confrontations at water holes, the elephants will bunch up and run away from the hidden speaker. Not only do elephants know that there are humans, they know that there are different kinds of humans, and that some are OK and some are dangerous.
They have been watching us for much longer than we have been watching them. They know us better than we know them. We have the same imperatives: take care of our babies, find food, try to stay alive. Whether we're outfitted for hiking in the hills of Africa or outfitted for diving under the sea, we are basically the same. We are kin under the skin. The elephant has the same skeleton, the killer whale has the same skeleton, as do we. We see helping where help is needed. We see curiosity in the young. We see the bonds of family connections. We recognize affection. Courtship is courtship. And then we ask, "Are they conscious?"
When you get general anesthesia, it makes you unconscious, which means you have no sensation of anything. Consciousness is simply the thing that feels like something. If you see, if you hear, if you feel, if you're aware of anything, you are conscious, and they are conscious.
Some people say well, there are certain things that make humans humans, and one of those things is empathy. Empathy is the mind's ability to match moods with your companions. It's a very useful thing. If your companions start to move quickly, you have to feel like you need to hurry up. We're all in a hurry now. The oldest form of empathy is contagious fear. If your companions suddenly startle and fly away, it does not work very well for you to say, "Jeez, I wonder why everybody just left."
Empathy is old, but empathy, like everything else in life, comes on a sliding scale and has its elaboration. So there's basic empathy: you feel sad, it makes me sad. I see you happy, it makes me happy.
Then there's something that I call sympathy, a little more removed: "I'm sorry to hear that your grandmother has just passed away. I don't feel that same grief, but I get it; I know what you feel and it concerns me."
And then if we're motivated to act on sympathy, I call that compassion.
Far from being the thing that makes us human, human empathy is far from perfect. We round up empathic creatures, we kill them and we eat them. Now, maybe you say OK, well, those are different species. That's just predation, and humans are predators. But we don't treat our own kind too well either. People who seem to know only one thing about animal behavior know that you must never attribute human thoughts and emotions to other species. Well, I think that's silly, because attributing human thoughts and emotions to other species is the best first guess about what they're doing and how they're feeling, because their brains are basically the same as ours. They have the same structures. The same hormones that create mood and motivation in us are in those brains as well. It is not scientific to say that they are hungry when they're hunting and they're tired when their tongues are hanging out, and then say when they're playing with their children and acting joyful and happy, we have no idea if they can possibly be experiencing anything. That is not scientific.
So OK, so a reporter said to me, "Maybe, but how do you really know that other animals can think and feel?" And I started to rifle through all the hundreds of scientific references that I put in my book and I realized that the answer was right in the room with me. When my dog gets off the rug and comes over to me — not to the couch, to me — and she rolls over on her back and exposes her belly, she has had the thought, "I would like my belly rubbed. I know that I can go over to Carl, he will understand what I'm asking. I know I can trust him because we're family. He'll get the job done, and it will feel good."
She has thought and she has felt, and it's really not more complicated than that.
But we see other animals and we say, "Oh look, killer whales, wolves, elephants: that's not how they see it."
That tall-finned male is L41. He's 38 years old. The female right on his left side is L22. She's 44. They've known each other for decades. They know exactly who they are. They know who their friends are. They know who their rivals are. Their life follows the arc of a career. They know where they are all the time.
This is an elephant named Philo. He was a young male. This is him four days later. Humans not only can feel grief, we create an awful lot of it. We want to carve their teeth. Why can't we wait for them to die? Elephants once ranged from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope. In 1980, there were vast strongholds of elephant range in Central and Eastern Africa. And now their range is shattered into little shards. This is the geography of an animal that we are driving to extinction, a fellow being, the most magnificent creature on land.
Of course, we take much better care of our wildlife in the United States. In Yellowstone National Park, we killed every single wolf. We killed every single wolf south of the Canadian border, actually. But in the park, park rangers did that in the 1920s, and then 60 years later they had to bring them back, because the elk numbers had gotten out of control. And then people came. People came by the thousands to see the wolves, the most accessibly visible wolves in the world.
And I went there and I watched this incredible family of wolves. A pack is a family. It has some breeding adults and the young of several generations. And I watched the most famous, most stable pack in Yellowstone National Park. And then, when they wandered just outside the border, two of their adults were killed, including the mother, which we sometimes call the alpha female. The rest of the family immediately descended into sibling rivalry. Sisters kicked out other sisters. That one on the left tried for days to rejoin her family. They wouldn't let her because they were jealous of her. She was getting too much attention from two new males, and she was the precocious one. That was too much for them. She wound up wandering outside the park and getting shot. The alpha male wound up being ejected from his own family. As winter was coming in, he lost his territory, his hunting support, the members of his family and his mate.
We cause so much pain to them. The mystery is, why don't they hurt us more than they do? This whale had just finished eating part of a grey whale with his companions who had killed that whale. Those people in the boat had nothing at all to fear. This whale is T20. He had just finished tearing a seal into three pieces with two companions. The seal weighed about as much as the people in the boat. They had nothing to fear. They eat seals. Why don't they eat us? Why can we trust them around our toddlers? Why is it that killer whales have returned to researchers lost in thick fog and led them miles until the fog parted and the researchers' home was right there on the shoreline? And that's happened more than one time.
In the Bahamas, there's a woman named Denise Herzing, and she studies spotted dolphins and they know her. She knows them very well. She knows who they all are. They know her. They recognize the research boat. When she shows up, it's a big happy reunion. Except, one time showed up and they didn't want to come near the boat, and that was really strange. And they couldn't figure out what was going on until somebody came out on deck and announced that one of the people onboard had died during a nap in his bunk. How could dolphins know that one of the human hearts had just stopped? Why would they care? And why would it spook them? These mysterious things just hint at all of the things that are going on in the minds that are with us on Earth that we almost never think about at all.
At an aquarium in South Africa was a little baby bottle-nosed dolphin named Dolly. She was nursing, and one day a keeper took a cigarette break and he was looking into the window into their pool, smoking. Dolly came over and looked at him, went back to her mother, nursed for a minute or two, came back to the window and released a cloud of milk that enveloped her head like smoke. Somehow, this baby bottle-nosed dolphin got the idea of using milk to represent smoke. When human beings use one thing to represent another, we call that art.
The things that make us human are not the things that we think make us human. What makes us human is that, of all these things that our minds and their minds have, we are the most extreme. We are the most compassionate, most violent, most creative and most destructive animal that has ever been on this planet, and we are all of those things all jumbled up together. But love is not the thing that makes us human. It's not special to us. We are not the only ones who care about our mates. We are not the only ones who care about our children.
Albatrosses frequently fly six, sometimes ten thousand miles over several weeks to deliver one meal, one big meal, to their chick who is waiting for them. They nest on the most remote islands in the oceans of the world, and this is what it looks like. Passing life from one generation to the next is the chain of being. If that stops, it all goes away. If anything is sacred, that is, and into that sacred relationship comes our plastic trash. All of these birds have plastic in them now. This is an albatross six months old, ready to fledge — died, packed with red cigarette lighters.
This is not the relationship we are supposed to have with the rest of the world. But we, who have named ourselves after our brains, never think about the consequences. When we welcome new human life into the world, we welcome our babies into the company of other creatures. We paint animals on the walls. We don't paint cell phones. We don't paint work cubicles. We paint animals to show them that we are not alone. We have company. And every one of those animals in every painting of Noah's ark, deemed worthy of salvation is in mortal danger now, and their flood is us.
So we started with a question: Do they love us? We're going to ask another question. Are we capable of using what we have to care enough to simply let them continue?
Thank you very much.
What's going on inside the brains of animals? Can we know what, or if, they're thinking and feeling? Carl Safina thinks we can. Using discoveries and anecdotes that span ecology, biology and behavioral science, he weaves together stories of whales, wolves, elephants and albatrosses to argue that just as we think, feel, use tools and express emotions, so too do the other creatures – and minds – that share the Earth with us.
Carl Safina's writing explores the scientific, moral and social dimensions of our relationship with nature.
Carl Safina's writing explores the scientific, moral and social dimensions of our relationship with nature.