Our Furry, Feeling Friends

The difference between animals and humans isn't as big as people think

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Never trust a dolphin. Flipper and his seemingly benign ocean-dwelling friends are actually long-nosed rumormongers. Scientists have determined that bottlenose dolphins use unique series of clicks and whistles to identify each other. When two dolphins get together, reports Bruno Maddox in Discover (Aug. 2006), they'll sometimes use the 'name' of a dolphin who is not present. 'In other words,' writes Maddox, 'dolphins gossip.'

Over the past two years, headlines in science magazines have informed us that cows hold grudges, mice empathize with other mice, and elephants can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Not long ago, comparing the experiences of these animals to the emotions of humans would have been dismissed as anthropomorphism -- observation supposedly rooted in the same flawed logic that turns a scavenging rodent into a cuddly Mickey Mouse. People dismiss anthropomorphism as 'a form of self-centered narcissism,' Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, professors of the history of science, write in Thinking with Animals (Columbia University Press, 2005). Despite the Darwinian tradition that directly links humans and animals, 'the view that anthropomorphism of any kind is incompatible with modern science lingers,' they write.

Recently, though, many in the scientific community have begun to rethink the human/animal divide. 'All vertebrates,' says Gay Bradshaw, an animal psychologist at Oregon State University's environmental sciences graduate program, 'are basically functioning with the same mind and psyche.' The 'differencing model' of human identity, she argues, doesn't just mistakenly characterize the natural world as something for humans to rule and exploit; it also inhibits scientific understanding.

A similar case is made by noted primatologist Frans de Waal, who argues that emotions and morality are not a 'veneer' protecting humans from animalistic tendencies. Rather, he writes in New Scientist (Oct. 2006), emotions are adaptations that 'nudge an organism toward rapid decisions based on millions of years of evolution.'

De Waal points to recent research documenting evidence of empathy and reciprocity in primates, as well as neuroscience studies showing that moral decision-making isn't limited to the younger parts of our brains. 'Imaging human brains has shown that moral dilemmas activate a wide variety of areas, some of them present in all mammals and closely tied to the emotions,' he explains.

In another recent finding, spindle cells -- complex neurons once dubbed 'the cell that makes us human' -- were discovered inside the brain of a humpback whale. In 2004 New Scientist described these brain cells as 'an explanation for [humans'] ability to love, empathize, feel guilt or embarrassment, to understand deception and cooperation.' When Patrick Hof from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a colleague discovered the cells in the whale's brain, Hof was still reticent to draw a connection to humans. As Hof warned in New Scientist (Nov. 2006), 'We must be careful about anthropomorphic interpretation of intelligence in whales.'

In response, Bradshaw asks, 'Why do we have to be so careful?' A bevy of scientific evidence suggests that animals can think and feel, and even are self-aware. 'If we start looking at animals as people,' she says, we might think twice about eating that next hamburger or building that next dam. After all, if the dolphins are talking behind our backs, maybe other animals are too.