I read a review recently of Jonathan Balcombe's book, The Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (MacMillian, 2006). In the book, Balcombe argues that animals might feel pleasure and joy in some of the things that they do, and he presents a large number of results of scientific studies and anecdotes that support this contention. He suggests that just like us, animals might feel pleasure in eating, having sex, touching one another, and playing. The review that I read was cautiously critical of this view (read the review), suggesting that consciousness and emotions are difficult to assess with the scientific method, and that putting forth the view that animals might have both consciousness and emotions leads us down the slippery slope of anthropomorphism, throwing science to the wind.
For those who are not familiar with the concept of anthropomorphism, this involves ascribing human-like qualities to animals, something that is considered one of the deadly sins of animal behavior research. At meetings of animal behaviorists, scientists work hard to avoid having anyone suggest that their interpretation of the behavior that they observed in a particular animal is anthropomorphic. The implication is that someone with an anthropomorphic argument is not following the scientific method, and therefore is not practicing intellectually rigorous scientific thinking.
This is a somewhat mystifying position. Most animal behaviorists believe in evolution and the continuity of life, and are willing to believe that, for example, all the cat species in the cat family and all the dog species in the dog family have common qualities that make them all mammals. And medical researchers believe that mice, rats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and monkeys have enough physiological similarities with humans to warrant the testing of newly-developed drugs on these animals prior to conducting tests on humans. Yet somehow this belief in the continuity of structure and function of animals does not translate into a belief that animals might be like us in other ways, such as having consciousness and emotions.
The review mentions the assertion of J. B. Watson, one of the founders of the school of Behaviorism, that whether or not animals have consciousness, the behavior that we see them perform is not going to be any different, so the question of consciousness is not really important. According to Watson, we have no objective way of knowing whether animals are conscious or have emotions. Behaviorism says such things do not matter because they cannot be accurately measured. This point of view, written in 1913, became a sort of edict that has dominated science's approach to the study of animal behavior ever since.
But much has changed. Nearly a century later, we now have a variety of tools to measure what might be going on inside an animal: fMRI, PET scans, sophisticated blood assays for different hormonal levels, and more refined tools for measuring the electrical activity of animal brains. This still leaves us, however, with arguing by analogy. If other mammal brains show the same patterns as human brains when humans are feeling pleasure, does that mean that animals feel pleasure the same way that humans do?
At some level, animal behaviorists and all humans are comfortable with arguments by analogy. I do not objectively know if any of my colleagues are conscious and have emotions, but I assume that because I have consciousness and feelings, they do too. Does it make a difference in how I assess their behavior? You bet. Extrapolating something about their emotional state and their world-view allows me to predict their behavior much better than if I assumed that they were little robots running on programs of instinct with no feelings or thoughts.
So why are we not willing to extend this same kind of thinking to animals? Part of it seems to be an over-reliance on the scientific method, and a premature dismissal of phenomena that do not readily lend themselves to objective measurements. Merely because something cannot be measured, does not mean that it does not exist. It may just mean that we have not yet devised a way of measuring it.
Many scientists seem to think that if something cannot be proven conclusively by the scientific method, it does not exist. In making this point, skeptical scientists will often assert that there is not a shred of evidence that something is true or possible. By this argument, quantum mechanics did not exist until a variety of physicists formulated the basic theories of the quantum world. Many prominent scientists, including Einstein, did not believe a number of the predictions of quantum theory. Yet we now are developing quantum computers.
Similarly, Donald Griffin, who wrote about animal consciousness for some thirty years before his death, showed some sixty years ago that bats use echolocation to find their way. He once told me that at the time he started investigating bats, no one believed that they were capable of producing sounds that we could not hear. There was not one shred of evidence for high-frequency sound pulses, until Griffin did some key experiments to show how bats echolocate, and now bat echolocation is accepted by everyone.
Another reason, in my opinion, that some scientists are not willing to entertain the notions of consciousness and emotions in animals is that it gives them distance from the natural world. By talking about “subjects,” who are treated the same way that we might treat inanimate objects, some scientists potentially are given license to do things to animals that no one would think of doing to humans.
While this is often done in the guise of scientific objectivity, the scientific method, and good experimental design, it skirts around the issue that if animals were indeed conscious and felt love, joy, fear, anger, and depression about being confined in cages, there would be ethical issues that would arise similar to the ethical issues involved in using humans in experiments. This would mean that we would have to rethink how we treat animals in experiments, and the kinds of experiments that we are willing to do with them.
The scientific method does not automatically mean that if there is no evidence for a particular hypothesis, it does not exist. It merely means that we have not thought of ways that we can test it, to see whether we can either prove or falsify that hypothesis. There are probably lots of things in our natural world that exist that we are currently unaware of and that we have not yet tested with our scientific method. By assuming that something does not exist, we limit our possibilities of finding out about the natural world around us.