Do Animals Have Feelings?

Sad dog

Sad dog? (Image by t. magnum via Flickr)

It’s wrong to attribute human characteristics to animals. Yet, it seems to me, that the opposite (of anthropomorphism) is as wrong, that is, to say that animals cannot be happy or sad because these are human emotions. It is true that we can’t prove whether an animal is happy or sad, but we can’t prove either that it can’t. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We know nothing about one or the other. All we can see is behavior and the rest is guesswork.

The argument for anthropomorphism is valid enough: if I can’t prove (verify) something, I’d better disregard it (at least scientifically); and I can’t prove that my dog is happy, sad, or loves me.

Then again, we are not better off with our own spouses, children, friends, not to speak of strangers. What do we know of their feelings and emotions? We can’t prove either that they are happy, sad, or love us. We assume it (and often we are wrong) because we compare their behavior with our own when we are in particularly similar states of mind.

You may argue that there is a difference between comparing humans with one another, and humans with other animals, that we are after all members of the same species and that it makes sense to presume that if I am sad when I show a certain behavior, then you are also sad when you show the same (similar) behavior. You may have a point, though not a very scientific one—and yet not always. Cultural differences, as you know, play us many tricks and some expressions cover completely different emotions in different cultures.

It appears that our attributing emotions to others, like being happy or sad, is not very scientific, is more a case of empathy, or being able to set ourselves in the place of the other; and researchers have uncovered that other primates besides humans, as well as other mammals, show empathy. Recently, researchers have also found that honey-bees are capable of showing a kind of emotional response; and honey-bees, as invertebrates, account for about 95% of all species.

If it is true that the only reason why I can assume that someone feels something particular is by resemblance (by comparison), then, I fail to see why we cannot accept that animals (at least some species) also can be happy, sad, etc. Given, the comparison is more distant, but aren’t we after all sons and daughters of the same DNA?

If we can’t prove that everyone experiences the same similarly enough to allow us to categorize it under the same name, it seems to me that it makes no sense to claim that because humans know of love, happiness, and sadness, other animals (absolutely) don’t.

“A difference of degree, not of kind,” as Charles Darwin wrote, seems to me a prudent and wise approach; and to reserve further judgement until we can prove it.

Therefore, if it is a sin to attribute other animals human characteristics, it must also be a sin to say that because we do, they don’t, because we can, they can’t. The first is, as we know, called anthropomorphism; the second, I will name it anthropodimorphism.

So, if you ask me “Can my dog be happy or sad?” I will ask you back “Can you?” and if you answer “Yes, of course”, then I’ll say “In that case, probably so can your dog, albeit differently from you—a difference of degree, not of kind.”

Bottom-line: don’t assume that others feel the same as you do, not your fellow humans, not other animals. Don’t assume either that they don’t, because they might.

Life is a puzzle, enjoy it!


The Wolf Within—The Truth About Why We Fear the Wolf

Wolf (dier) (soort is nog gewenst)

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (Image via Wikipedia).

Our love-hate relationship with the wolf, the animal that shares 15 thousand years of common ancestry with man’s best friend, the dog, suggests a deep conflict, one that is well hidden and maybe closer to each of us than we dare to admit. Are we hiding a skeleton in the closet? Why do we take great pains to understand and be good to our dogs whilst we hunt the wolf mercilessly?

Back in time, there were no wolves or dogs, only Canis lupus perantiquus (my name), the common ancestor of Canis lupus lupus, Canis lupus familiars, and 37 other subspecies. Humans, by then Homo sapiens sapiens, developed, not surprisingly, a particularly healthy relationship with this Canis lupus perantiquus. Both shared common interests and humans were still just one of many species. The relationship was mutually beneficial and resulted in some humans favoring certain perantiquus and certain perantiquus finding human company particularly rewarding.

Natural selection favored the fittest and, as usual, species changed over the years. These changes can be so extensive that some species turn into new ones; others only into new subspecies. The Canis lupus perantiquus changed under selective pressure from humans and their environment and became Canis lupus familiaris. In a sense, we created this subspecies and all its variations to serve and protect us.

Some species react strongly to stimuli they have not experienced for thousands of years, the scent of a predator, for example. These alarming and life saving key stimuli remain in the species’ gene pool, a kind of genetic memory. It is very unlikely that our fear of wolves stems from this kind of genetic memory; if we were that afraid of the wolf, we would never have gotten as close to it as we did. Perhaps we were afraid of the wolf in primitive times, but thousands of years of living in close proximity and cooperating would have changed that, as the least fearful members of both species would have benefited from the other. In those days, we can presume that the wolves that were least afraid of humans and capable of cooperating had better chances of survival and propagation (and ultimately turned into dogs); and conversely, the humans that were least afraid of wolves and were better at cooperating were more successful hunters, therefore survived and propagated (and ultimately turned into dog owners). Our fear of the wolf makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective, but perhaps it does from a psychological one. After all, we seem to fear what most resembles us—the enemy within!

Our fear and hatred of the wolf began long after the domestication, when humans took the first steps to distance themselves from nature, to enslave and exploit it—it happened when we invented agriculture. In the beginning, there was no war, only small-scale feuds provoked by the occasional domestic animal being taken by a wolf. The large-scale extermination of the wolf is not due to a single factor, but to an intermingled combination of factors that include mythology, religious zeal, environmental changes economic incentives, and a deep psychological scar, as we shall see.

Mythology, such as Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables, evoke the wolf as evil, untrustworthy, conniving and cowardly, a greedy thief that will go to great lengths to devour a poor, little lamb, child or old person. Tales of werewolves also exacerbated our fear and hatred of the wolf.

Religious convictions support our hatred of the wolf. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'” (Genesis 1:26-29). European farmers and American settlers were devout Christians and they didn’t need a clearer incentive to declare war on all that crept upon the Earth. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-29)—and the wolf became the ultimate target and symbol of their mission.

There is a clear association between the wolf and the wild, the wilderness and the untamed. As Burbank puts it, “The New World wilderness, where the Pilgrims found themselves, was a sinister adversary, home of tribal savages who practiced evil. The Puritans regarded the wilderness itself as a howling beast, a wolf inspired by the Devil. In their desolation, they sojourned and their journey reminded them that believers wandered in a world of sin, a spiritual wilderness replete with Godless enemies and insane beasts that wanted only to consume the righteous.” (Burbank 1990:80)

Farming and the keeping of domestic animals in enclosures combined with the decimation of the wolf’s natural prey, forced the wolf to get closer to human settlements and to feed upon the occasional livestock. Today, most wolves avoid livestock when they have enough wild prey, but the wolves of the 1800s faced extreme food shortages and preyed upon cattle and sheep. This wasn’t a problem for rich farmers and even the smaller family farms could have survived the subsequent economic loss, nevertheless, governments attempted to solve the supposed problem by creating bounties in return for the head of a wolf. Besides shooting them, wolf hunters used traps, poison, denning (excavating a den and killing the cubs) and biological warfare (infecting captive wolves with sarcoptic mange and releasing them into the wild)—and so wolfing became a lucrative business.

Mythology, religious zeal and economy go a long way towards explaining the hatred but don’t explain everything. One thing is to control competition (it happens all the time in nature), another is to embark on radical extermination and what’s more, find pleasure in the practice of torture (such as setting wolves on fire, skinning them alive, hanging them, etc.). Such barbarism suggests the real reason for our hatred is well hidden and maybe closer to our hearts than we care to believe, or dare to face.

As with all organisms, human evolution happens quietly and slowly unless some sudden, drastic environmental change prompts the selection of unusual traits. The human brain was the sudden, single, dramatic cause that prompted a huge leap in the evolution of the species—and it was not an external cause, it came indeed from deep within us. The human brain enabled man to devise farming, then science and technology, and ultimately an anthropocentric religion. Farming enabled us to multiply far beyond the average rate up until that time and to colonize the entire world. Advancements in science and technology gave us the tools to subdue all life on the planet. Religious convictions provided us with motive and momentum beyond all rationality.

There is a high price to pay when evolution equals revolution. The (relatively) quick adoption of dualism and a mechanistic view of the world forced us to part with holism and animism, and left us with deep scars. In order to obey God, conquer the world and subdue all that crept upon our planet, we had to sever our connection with the natural, unruly, uncivilized world. To live up to the moral laws of Christianity, we had to go against our nature, denying who we were and where we came from. We had to cover our tracks. All that reminded us of our holistic past had to be oppressed, suppressed, forgotten. The wilderness in general and the wolf in particular reminded us of our true nature, the very same nature we despised. It became them and us, they were symbols of the unruly, the untamed and we, the purveyors of God’s wishes and civilized order. They symbolized what we were, not what we wanted to be. We had to subdue our own wild side, a legacy from our ancestors from many millions of years ago, which had proved highly efficient for survival, yet was despised and denied by the Holy Church. We were imprinted with religious zeal, which elicited the need to stifle the symbolic wild wolf inside each one of us; and we denied our origins, a strategy that was always only going to work on a short-term basis. A conflict of identity was inevitable; the werewolf perhaps represents our struggle to switch from an organic to a mechanistic worldview.

While the dog represents what we aspire to be, the wolf stands for what we refuse to acknowledge as part of us. The dog represents control, reminds us of our power, and is testimony to our ability to tame the wild. The wolf is our guilty conscience, it reminds us of our humble origins, represents the freedom we gave up, the togetherness we abandoned.

Through his fables, Aesop contributed to the creation of many myths that were detrimental to the wolf by depicting it with all the characteristics we despise most. Unknowingly, hence most ironically, in one uncharacteristic fable, he epitomizes our age-old conflict. In “The Dog and the Wolf,” the dog invites the starving wolf to live with him and his master, but when the wolf discovers it involves being chained, the wolf replies “Then good-bye to you Master Dog. Better starve free than be a fat slave.”

We became fat slaves by our own choice; and the wolf poignantly reminds us that there was a time when we had other options—herein the dog (wolf) lies buried*.

“Looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy was in us,” says Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon from 1986. Echoing Taylor, I’d say: we never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us. As long as we will remain in denial of our inheritance, the scar won’t heal and the enemy will remain well entrenched within us—and so will we keep fighting the wolf.

Keep howling!


* “That’s where the dog lies buried,” means “that’s what lies behind.” This idiomatic expression exists in many languages, e.g. “da liegt der Hund begraben” (German), “siinä on koira haudattuna,” (Finish), “där är en hund begraven” (Swedish), but not in English. Most interestingly, the Swedish expression “att ana ugglor i mossen” (to suspect owls in the bog) meaning almost the same, comes from the Danish expression “der er ugler i mosen.” Originally it wasn’t “ugler,” but “ulver” (wolves), which makes more sense since an owl in the bog is nothing special. Since the two words in some spoken Danish dialects are difficult to distinguish from one another, it was translated incorrectly into Swedish, and the expression re-introduced in Denmark with owls substituting wolves. The expression and its history was too good for me not to use it in the context of this article. I hope the native English speakers will regard it as an enrichment of the language, rather than a nuisance.

The Paper Book is Dead, Long Live the E-book!

“The paper book is dead, long live the e-book!”

Home is where my books are, I always said. I’ve been the most avid book reader and buyer. Books have accompanied me everywhere, they have been my friends, my sanity, my comfort, my safe harbor. I owe more to books than to anything else. They are an integral part of me. I love to page thru them, the sound of turning a page, the smell of paper and ink, the slight cracking of the spine of a new book, the feeling of holding a weighty tome. I don’t remember my life before I could read and I’ve slept with books since I was four.

As much as I cherish my 3500+ books surrounding me in my den, I have surrendered. Since I got my iPad, I haven’t bought one book. As of today, I carry 47 books with me around the World in my iPad and the number is growing. Undoubtedly, for a globetrotter like me, the e-book is a gift from the gods. Packing my backpack, I will have no more the dilemma of choosing which books to take with me and which ones to leave back home (and miss later on). Gone are the days of heavy bags full of new book acquisitions. My backpack is amazingly light now.

And yet, I miss them, the books. I miss them terribly, I have daily withdrawal symptoms. My hands search desperately for that comforting feeling of printed and bound paper. I could fall asleep with my iPad on my chest, but it’s not the same as letting the book, like a safety blanket, gently rest on my breast as I close my eyes and depart to dreamland.

For all the advantages of the e-book, I will never dispose of my books. Like testimonials of a time past, reminders of an overwhelming present and admonitions of a future to come, they will stay with me until my eyes close and I depart once more, this time on a one-way ticket to another kind of dreamland, I suppose, of which I know nothing. My books, though, will survive me and the iPad—like papery ghosts they will alert the consciousness of all readers, like and ode to life, they will inspire generations to come.

It is with a bleeding heart and shaky voice that today I pronounce the words “The paper book is dead, long live the e-book!”

Keep reading, life is an open and unread book!


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Facebook Censorship?

I discovered recently that Facebook does run censorship. When we sign up with Facebook, we agree to a set of rules and guidelines about the content of our pages and our wall posts, but apparently Facebook goes beyond ensuring we respect our agreement. Even though the wording of all agreements are subject to interpretations, some of the content Facebook has disallowed cannot be justified by an interpretation of the rules.

Facebook started as a social network, but with time it has also assumed the role of a new form of free and democratic press. Like any other publication, Facebook has to follow guidelines and limitations and to negotiate rules and legalities about what it considers proper, which we have to understand and accept. So far, so good.

It is a tricky business to define proper or to decide what is proper and what is not. Proper may refer to content and wording, which are two separate issues. What some might find proper, others might not. Sensibilities vary enormously, from one side of the scale to the other—and from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other within basically the same culture. The question is not so much to draw a line between proper and improper, but how improper content and/or wording must be before we filter it out (censor it): how hard shall we turn the content and wording filter? Most people in Europe would probably accept everything except pornographic content, obscenity, violence, obscene language, (but we’d have to agree as to whether f-words are obscene these days). In the more puritan (or uninformed) USA, the list of the unacceptable would be longer than in Europe.

How hard shall Facebook, then, turn the content/wording filter? Turn it too little and you will lose some customers; turn it too hard and you will lose others. Facebook is really between a rock and a hard place, but so are all other publications (and all of us).

It’s not only tricky, but fundamental for Facebook to take the right decision about the level of its content filter. In the end, we are talking about freedom of expression and freedom of speech and we must not take these topics lightly.

After some research on the internet (see links below), I discovered that the problem is not filtering wording. Facebook seems very liberal in that context and its users keep a good tone in general. The problem is that there are several examples of content, which Facebook disallowed—and that amounts to regular censorship, which is not compatible with a democratic ideology and freedom of expression (nor the American first amendment).

It is with freedom of expression as it is with pregnancy: you cannot be a bit pregnant. It’s an either/or attitude as Noam Chomsky wrote “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Similarly and much earlier, Voltaire wrote ”I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

Facebook stands at a crossroads now. Requiring guidelines like a certain tone of speech is one thing. To censor ideological, political or religious content is another—and that defines your image.

It’s tricky indeed to choose a content filter and to decide how hard to turn it on. Everyone that has held a post to moderate discussions, forums, blogs, knows that. Personally, I will always, like Voltaire, defend the right to freedom of expression, but we have to understand what it means. Many confound freedom of expression with disrespect and one has nothing to do with the other. Likewise, there is a huge difference between disputing the argument and attacking the person behind it.

As far as I am concerned, you have the right to say and write all you want, independently of what I or anyone else may think, and even if it would seem as pure nonsense for most people, as long as you in your choice of words and phrases do it in a way in which you respect everyone independently of species, race, appearance, sexual orientation, or any other individual characteristic. You may disagree with me and tell me “you’re wrong,” “your argument doesn’t make sense.” It won’t upset me and I will even thank you for it in many instances—and I will certainly continue talking to you. On the other side, if you call me numskull, it won’t upset me either, but that’s the end of the conversation.

Disagreement is allowed, disrespect is not. We are all responsible for our acts, including our written and spoken words. If we claim the right to say what we want the way we want it, we must confer others the right to react to it. If we don’t like the probable consequences of what we want to say, we’d better not say it, because we also have the right to think before we speak and not seldom, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” as Soren Kierkegaard wrote.

As to Facebook, I’d like to be my own moderator and filter the content/wording I like (except for pornography, obscenity, obscene language, violence, inciting to violence, any form of discrimination and spam, which Facebook is welcome to filter away for me (after defining those terms precisely). Political and religious filtering? No, thank you. Most probably, I won’t read it anyway, but I want to reserve the right to do it myself.

I like Facebook, it’s a great initiative and it’s well done. The company is still young and bound to make mistakes (see links below). Maybe, Facebook is just reacting to the “loudest complainers” (the puritans, the extremists, the fanatics) in which case maybe it’s about time the rest of us, demanding freedom of expression in a respectful tone, should become louder. I think we should give Facebook a chance to find its foothold, correct its mistakes and stick to freedom of expression. Facebook is too good not to do it.

My own case with Facebook, which prompted this blog, and which I discovered by accident, is fairly irrelevant. I just wrote a funny (at least I think it is) comment about Twitter including the words “sex” and “condom.” After a bit of research I reckon that the word “Twitter” was the culprit (see links below), which is a bit silly, not the other words. My comment didn’t reach any of my friends after the first five minutes or so (the Facebook algorithm is good). If you’re curious, you can still see it, but you’ll have to go directly to my wall.

Life is a blank (Face) book. Write on!


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