Saturday, 26 July 2014

Is it only humans that experience emotions?

It is high time we stopped batting off the difficult and potentially highly inconvenient questions around animal sentience. Let's just recognise that life other than humans have feelings and emotions says Mark Bekoff from the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Very true says Christine Nicol from Bristol University, who is applying animal behaviour to our treatment of livestock.  She has already made big improvements to the lives of chickens by helping formulate the recent legislation for higher standards which took account of her research.  Hens, after all, are domesticated junglefowl with many of their original instincts and behaviours, to ignore them is downright cruel.

    Commercial free-range hens indoors

There is a tangible move in some spheres (nowhere near enough though) towards living in a kinder, more compassionate world.  I am very glad, the pain caused by a cold us and them approach to life on earth is reaching desperate proportions as meat eating soars and more and more animals live short, brutal lives for our plates.  I am not against meat eating by any means (my family eats meat) but I find I am increasingly anxious about the way we treat life on earth - domesticated and wild.

What research is increasingly showing is that we are not that different from our furry and feathery fellow travellers.  We are not the only species to feel empathy, grief, affections, bonding, trauma, distress, pain, depression, joy etc.  As the evidence piles up I hope it filters through to the rest of us in society.  We need to hear these things, we need to be able to let this extraordinary and challenging research seep into our thought processes and help guide what we buy and what we eat.  Human beings are complex creatures and it takes time for us to change our ways, but the more we can identify with other life, the easier it will be to push through meaningful reforms.

I love the idea that a chicken can display delayed gratification, can recognise and react to distress in other hens and can communicate with their chicks while they are still in the egg.  My forthcoming book on John Muir gives examples of how he recognised that farm animals have similar feelings to us.

Tim Birkhead, Professor of Animal Behaviour at Sheffield told me recently that it is time for the science of ethology to look at emotions more carefully.  He believes the stage has been reached where this is no longer a taboo.  His study of guillemots on Skomer (the subject of a Living World on Aug 17th, 6.40 am) has convinced him these long-lived, communal birds who form life-long partnerships feel real affection for each other.

Science is challenging the long-held notions about what it is to be human and it seems theological research is a couple of hundred years behind the times.  Religion is too important to the way the world works for it to carry on as though ideas on what constitutes a human being has never changed.  It has and continues to present new aspects at an increasingly fast rate.  Fascinating and challenging ideas are arriving thick and fast and the world's faiths and would do well to consider them.

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