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Wildside Explores the Animal Mind

Animal intelligence and the topic of animal souls have both been controversial topic for eons. Read this stimulating article then explore the unique discourse on animals in What Animals Can Teach Us about Spirituality.

The Status of the Animal Mind
by Pam Noble

Copyright © By Pam Noble

Ever since it occurred to western scientists towards the end of the nineteenth century that animals may have the capacity to learn, there has been a fierce debate over whether that capacity would be similar to our own, or if it is related to experiencing emotions. The lack of inquiry to that point can be largely attributed to the notion that only humans have souls, and it is from the soul that all of the aforementioned qualities originate.

Thus, attributing emotions to animals is anthropomorphism, which is considered nearly blasphemous in many scientific circles even today. The argument can be boiled down to two basic sides; the hard-nosed, "they're just dumb animals" viewpoint on one side, and the liberal, "they're as emotionally complex as we are" position on the other. Most people vacillate on the opinion scale somewhere between the two extremes, but before we can settle somewhere comfortably in the middle, we need to know what both sides are proclaiming.

Many scientists contend that animals do not have emotions as we understand them, simply because they aren't humans. Their brains are not as complex as humans', and their behavior seems to be based on an unsophisticated "drive to survive" instinct. Emotions are abstract concepts, and most animals are unable to display any behaviors that would indicate an ability to think on such a level. When they do display behaviors that many people like to interpret as emotion-driven; i.e., "the dog's wagging his tail because he's happy;" it is actually an inherent response of which the dog is quite unaware. This is believed to be triggered by certain environmental conditions, and was probably selected for at some point in evolution because it raised the general fitness to survive for that species. Such behaviors are usually linked with mother/infant bonding necessities for survival insurance.

However, the fact that their brains are not as complex as ours does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that they are unaware of their reasons for action. Thus we have the more liberal individuals that claim that animals don't have to be as complex as we are to experience emotions. Neurological studies seem to indicate that the root of emotions in humans comes from a very primitive area of the brain, the morphology of which is quite similar to that of most mammals. Therefore our most basic "maternal" instincts to protect families we have labeled as love, but it is neurologically the same thing other animals experience. The problem with all of this is it has not been proven conclusively that emotions do come from a particular part of the brain, or that the extent of those emotions in animals do not reach the level of those in humans.

Furthermore, even if they do experience emotions on some level, we can't assume it is similar to our own experience. Their entire life experience is from a viewpoint we really can only imagine. Some will even go so far as to claim we can't truly know if an animal, say caught in a hunter's trap, is in any physical pain. We can state that it appears to be suffering, but cannot state such an idea conclusively. And even if they could tell us what they're feeling, it would be done with words we taught them, which are all humanistic terms that cannot be applicable to their situation. Humans don't even completely understand each other when we talk about how we feel. Every individual has different life experiences, genetic and chemical compositions, and so the idea of emotion most likely also differs from one individual to the next, however slightly.

Aside from becoming completely existential and declaring that the likelihood of any of life being real is quite minimal, many of these claims on both sides seem quite valid. However, to get along from day to day, we must assume that we have a pretty good idea of what someone means when she say she's "mad at her landlord because he won't fix the faucet." Even if we have not had a similar experience with a landlord, we have all been upset with other individuals for not doing what we expect them to do. We can then make the step that we have a pretty good idea what animals are feeling, because their expressions of emotions are recognizable to us on some level. It could be said that animals do have emotions that are akin to our own, which is proven by the fact that we recognize them, even though the behaviors that express those emotions vary radically among species. Why would we know a wagging tail indicates happiness in a dog to us, when that's not what we do when we're happy?

This recognition strikes a very deep chord in us, as well as the animal's ability to recognize those emotions in us. Even those who insist that animals have no emotional capacity respond to this. When we are upset, our pet dogs (and sometimes cats) seem to know, and react by displaying behaviors that seem remarkably to be an attempt at consolation. They cuddle up, they try to incite play, they mope with us, and we respond by hugging them, playing, and usually we feel a little better in the belief that they may be empathizing with us.

But the idea of animals' possessing emotions because we recognize them as such can be alternately explained as "seeing what we want to see." The animal will continue the behavior because it has been trained to do so, having received rewards in similar experiences previously.

Another aspect of the argument is that animals simply do not learn. It has been common knowledge since the dawn of civilization that animals can be trained, but being trained is not the same thing as learning. We can use the word "train" to describe their ability to detect certain cause/effect situations, and thereby leave out any hint of actual learning. Learning involves meditating over information presented and coming to an understanding of the material, it's origins, and it's purpose. Animals are simply able to ascertain that action A will lead to result B, but action C will lead to result D.

However, the very concept of reward and punishment, which scientists readily accept as effective means to train their lab animals, insinuates a basic understanding on the animals part to know pain from pleasure - they don't want to feel physical pain, but they do want to taste some good food. They quickly ascertain, whether it is via a conscious process or somehow gleaned from repeated experiences by the subconscious, that if they push the correct button, they get the treat, but the wrong one gives them a shock.

Also, many humans have observed animals to perform acts they were not deliberately trained to do, yet the act itself had no direct relation to anything required for survival (although it usually does involve a reward for the animal; i.e., figuring out how to unlock a cabinet to get at those yummy treats the humans are always so stingy with). However, some people have had powerful experiences with other species, wherein the animal (non- human) was not only able to comprehend the state of the human (other animal) but then acted in a completely altruistic manner in what seemed to be an attempt to better the situation. Binti, the gorilla that "saved" the three-year old that fell in her enclosure last summer, is a much-touted example. But Binti's actions can only be explained by Binti. Whether she had a true grasp of the situation, or simply did what, according to her experience, seemed most likely to earn her a nifty reward, will never be known until we can figure out how to talk to her in non-human terms.

In a more spiritual aspect, one could claim that animals do have souls, depending on which concept of "soul" one wishes to use. This is evidenced by the fact that they can find means to communicate emotional meaning with us, despite the fact that we are not clever enough to have ascertained their languages. If emotions stem from souls, then it must be our souls communicating, which have no need of a physical language. On the other hand, there is no evidence in western religious doctrine that animals are anything more than a natural resource for our use. There are many other religions that do attribute a parallel concept of "soul" to animals, but they seem to have very little bearing on most western paradigms.

Finally, the concept of evolution as a process toward achieving some "perfect" species has been misused since it was first proposed. Alexander Pope, for one, viewed it as a ladder or chain, reaching from the primordial ooze towards heaven. We, being the most complex species yet (as far as we know), are at the top of the terrestrial portion of the ladder, but still a few rungs shy of the angels, which are at the bottom of the celestial hierarchy. God is sitting on the top of the ladder, perfectly balanced on the uppermost rung, perfect being that he is. This whole frame of mind allows us to claim superiority over everything on the earth, and then exploit it all at our convenience. Even chimpanzees, which are uncomfortably similar to ourselves for many, have not figured out a way to get that last 2% of DNA to evolve in such a way that they can appreciate an opera, Leonardo DaVinci, or the space shuttle. They can't contemplate the cosmos or our position in it, and they are therefore inferior. They seemingly haven't evolved souls yet.

Looking at both sides of the coin, I find that "moderation in all things" is a fairly good way to go. The trick is to not get complacent in that position, but to always search for new information that may shed more light on our understanding of the world around us. It seems to me, no matter which angle any problem is viewed from, it is due to our own intellectual shortcomings that we can't see that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is right in front of us in glaring neon lights. If any species is in need of evolving to a "higher" level, it is us.


Darwin C. (1965): Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Kennedy J.S., (1992): The New Anthropomorphism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

King J. & Aurelio J. (1997): The Five-Factor Model Plus Dominance in Chimpanzee Personality. Journal of Research in Personality. In Press: March.

Konner M. (1982): Tangled Wing. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, NY.

Masson J. & McCarthy S. (1994): When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. Random House, London, England.


Pam Noble has interests in cognition, evolutionary hypotheses, and comparative physical studies of primates. Currently serving as a volunteer assistant at ChimpanZoo, the research program of the Jane Goodall Institute, she is an Anthropology Major at the University of Arizona, and the proud mother of two bi-pedal primates (kids!). Reach her at


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