Los elefantes también se abrazan

Very interesting article introducing research at Emory – study shows that elephants comforted distressed companions much like great apes have been observed to do, possibly evidence of convergent empathic capacities – aligns well with the subject of my current posts …

Máster en Primatología

Por Teresa Sauquet @TeresaSauquet

Elefantes asiáticos by Wikimedia Commons CC Elefantes asiáticos by Wikimedia Commons CC

Un estudio liderado por la Universidad de Emory (E.E.U.U) muestra que los elefantes consuelan al compañero afligido de la misma forma que lo hacen los grandes simios.

Muchos autores defienden que la empatía precisa tanto de componentes emocionales como cognitivos para ser expresada. El ponerse en el lugar del otro y atribuirle emociones, intenciones o pensamientos distintos a los propios nos lleva hasta la teoría de la mente. Por otro lado, el acto de compartir su estado emocional nos vincula con la parte afectiva de la empatía. Sin embargo se cree que la empatía emocional posee rasgos filogenéticos anteriores a la cognitiva, de manera que las presiones selectivas han sido a su vez diferentes. Mientras la primera obedece a selección de parentesco y de compañía sexual, inhibiendo la violencia y estimulando la cohesión de grupo, la empatía cognitiva

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Is Morality Uniquely Human? De Waal’s Primate Studies

In the late 1970’s, Stephen Jay Gould challenged Richard Dawkins’ accounts of human and animal behaviour by presenting what could be considered a more nuanced perspective, which reflected evolutionary continuity and the range of potential behaviours that can be expressed by humans, and equally by other animals.  Gould explained that, “violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological because they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors.  But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological—and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.”  (Gould 1977, p. 257)  He refuted the idea that our “nature” was merely violent and competitive so that we had by necessity developed societal rules to keep such natural urges in check (a Hobbesian view of human and other natures).  Frans de Waal has also focussed on this complexity, particularly in the case of nonhuman primates, conducting research that seems to substantiate Gould’s earlier claims.  De Waal highlights the fact that morality has been seen, historically, as the antithesis of human nature (1996, p. 2); at the same time, it has been considered solely a human product/endeavour (“veneer theory”).  If one takes an evolutionary perspective, however, one cannot deny continuity, and de Waal notes that “we are facing the profound paradox that genetic self-advancement at the expense of others- which is the basic thrust of evolution – has given rise to remarkable capacities for caring and sympathy” (Ibid, p. 3)

It has been perfectly reasonable for scientists to portray nonhuman animals as competitive and violent (seemingly in step with evolutionary theory), but not as reasonable – anthropomorphising – to consider those same animals capable of expressing emotions that could be considered the building blocks of morality (or that they exhibit the beginnings of morality), feelings of empathy for fellow beings (usually within their social group), expressed through reciprocity, altruistic acts, caring acts, self-sacrifice, etc (particularly evident in social animals, and this will be explored in a future blog post).  De Waal relates Barbara Smuts struggle to accurately describe the relationships she observed in baboon troops; Smuts was discouraged from describing intimate relationships between male and female baboons as “friendships”, but she could describe the competitive relationships across ranks as “rivalries”. (Ibid, p. 19)   And in his own research on chimpanzee behaviour, de Waal has felt constrained to a particular vocabulary, which excludes words like “reconciliation”, etc.  De Waal makes the following point: “Semantic distinctions between (other) animal and human behaviour often obscure fundamental similarities; a discussion of morality will be pointless if we allow our language to be distorted by a denial of benign motives and emotions in animals”. (Ibid) Use of language is everything here, capturing characteristics and relationships in a way that is more true than not or distorting them as a result of a bias towards the human (to preserve the perception that humans are the only animal that can be good, moral).

Gazing deep into the eyes of a common marmoset…

Common Marmoset, Five Sisters Zoo
Common Marmoset, Five Sisters Zoo

In between blog posts on anthropomorphism and related topics, I’ll introduce primates that I’m trying to get to know better .  These include baboons of course, but also marmosets, capuchins and bonobos.  I am lucky to have some access to marmosets, although in captivity – I recently began volunteering regularly at the Five Sisters Zoo (I had to attend a trial volunteer day, supervised and assessed by one of the head keepers).  I have seen that the zoo is a labour of love for the founder, keepers and volunteers, and it functions as an animal rescue organisation as much as it is a zoo.  The zoo has taken in abandoned parrots, for example, and gone to great lengths to rescue three brown bears that were part of a circus touring Europe for 20 years; the bears were kept in small cages for significant periods of time during those 20 years (the bears now have two acres to roam freely).   Five Sisters has more recently accepted animals from the Fife Animal Park (9 wallabies and 1 emu) , which was forced to close in February of this year.

The zoo houses troops of common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) and Geoffroy’s marmosets (Callithrix geoffroyi), both indigenous to Brazil,  found in remaining fragments of the Atlantic Forest.  In Brazil they survive on an omnivorous diet of fruit, flowers, saps, insects, small frogs and lizards (and similar creatures). These two species are considered to be least threatened in the IUCN Red List, and can be found in CITES Appendix II.  But their populations are still in decline due to deforestation, and marmosets are hunted for the pet trade.  I actually came face to face with common marmosets at the zoo and was excited to see these monkeys up close because of previous research for my thesis, which focussed on biodiversity conservation in an Atlantic Forest region of Brazil where these little creatures are endemic.

A veteran volunteer guided me through the process of preparing food for the marmosets, and then we headed to their enclosures.  The marmosets have an indoor heated area and also an expansive grassy, treed outdoor facility.  Our first task was to clean the common marmosets’ indoor enclosure, which involved wiping or scrubbing down windows and walls and scooping up poo as well as old left over food – I think I spent most of my time crouched low to the ground below branches, trying to find every pile of excrement and bit of scattered uneaten fruit, while I could hear the rustling and thudding of little bodies hurtling here and there above me.  But at one point, I stood up and found myself eye to eye with an amazing little face (a marmoset had perched on a branch just above where I had been kneeling).  I’m not sure if I was looking at a girl or a boy, but I kept thinking he was a boy.  I had never realised just how small marmosets are, until that moment.  His light brown and white face was surrounded by what looked like a plush mane of black fur, his white ear tufts contrasting sharply.  The rest of his body was mostly grey, with dark chestnut shades ringing his tail.  He peered at me with deep brown eyes, his head cocked and his gaze so inquisitive and intelligent.  I spoke to him (something like, “hello, darling, how are you?”, not that I expected an answer!) and he continued to sit on the branch staring at me quite intently, fidgeting in little jumps every few seconds, his head still cocked trying to figure me out.  I marvelled at how human his face looked and the unique  individual presence he had.

The supervising volunteer told me that the marmosets had been known to jump on people who enter their enclosure (not aggressively, but as play) and I was hoping this would happen to me (because I wanted them to accept me as a non-threatening part of their environment), but it didn’t.  I could definitely see the sociability of these little primates as I watched them interact with each other and with my human companion.  They are said to live in extended family groups centred around one breeding pair, with care for young shared out amongst group members (alloparenting); marmosets usually give birth to twins and the father initially takes on caring responsibilities (for the first few weeks), before handing the twins over to the rest of the troop.  I remembered the article I had read about the male common marmoset who had stayed by the side of his dying mate, comforting her and showing significant distress. Three months after the death of his mate, the male disappeared inexplicably and researchers never saw him again.  I was not surprised when I had read the article presenting this scenario to the scientific community, and my face to face encounter only begins to confirm to me the view that we could have more in common with the common marmoset than we previously might have thought.  I hope that future encounters will expose me more deeply to the character of these tiny monkeys.

A Return to Anthropomorphism – Introducing Darwin and de Waal

While anthropomorphising other animals can be dangerous, the denial of similarities between humans and other animals is equally problematic.  Charles Darwin laid the foundation for further explorations into the realm of mental and emotional continuity, but his conclusions were highly contentious in the 19th century.  I’ll include here a section from the Darwin pages of this website to introduce key points in his position.

Darwin’s main purpose in The Descent of Man was to prove that “man” was “the modified descendent of some pre-existing form” (Darwin, 1871 [2003], p. 5) by extending the concept of natural selection and the struggle for life metaphor to human beings; he finds proof for his argument by examining in detail human bodily structures, embryonic development and rudiments, and mental faculties and then comparing these characteristics with those of other species.  Darwin devoted a significant portion of the text to a comparison between human and other “higher” animals’ mental faculties in order to show that, “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties” (Ibid, p.66); he refuted the assumption that human beings’ mental abilities separated them, absolutely, from other animals (this separation had previously meant that evolution from “lower” forms was deemed absurd).  In a discussion of sociability, Darwin identifies what he considers to be emotions and behaviours shared by social animals.  He explains that, “the most common mutual service in the higher animals is to warn one another of danger by means of the united senses of all”.(Ibid, p. 100)  He continues his comparison by pointing out that “associated animals have a feeling of love for each other” and “sympathise with each other’s distress or danger”.(Ibid, p. 102)  Human beings, as social animals, possess these characteristics as do other “higher” animals.

Darwin attempted to prove a kind of continuity among species, including human beings, by marshalling any evidence of similarities shared by organisms. He not only pointed out structural similarities between humans and what he considered to be closely-related species, but he also described emotional similarities, so that we could, on some basic level, relate to the feelings other organisms could be experiencing (our actions, then, could be guided by knowledge that love, or attachment, fear, sadness, joy, can be felt by animals other than ourselves—nonhuman beings were not mere automatons).  99% of the DNA of humans, chimpanzees and bonobos (as revealed more recently) is identical, and so in evolutionary terms chimps and bonobos are our closest living relatives (see the Science article, regarding bonobo DNA.  Certainly, knowing this, we can read Darwin’s claims and nod our heads, but explore even further the possible, and probable, similarities in a contemporary context  (while also recognising and marvelling at the differences).

Even today arguments against continuity persist and they do not just derive from religious sources but also from scientists, so that human beings are seen as set apart and unique (and ultimately at the pinnacle of the evolutionary process).  De Waal and Ferrari highlight this persistent perspective in relation to nonhuman primates:

“Failures to demonstrate certain capacities, along with premature conclusions about their absence, have appeared in major journals, such as the report that nonhuman primates do not care about the welfare of others [4], a claim contradicted by subsequent research.” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 201)

The authors present counter-arguments that charge promulgators of “non-continuity” with taking a “non-evolutionary” view:

“Some have gone so far as to label the fascination with uniquely human capacities as non-evolutionary, together with a warning against ‘hopeful monsters’, that is, the belief that a brief evolutionary time interval could have produced a well integrated set of novel capacities [21].” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 202)

De Waal builds on the work of Jane Goodall and other researchers who were the first to more fully recognise that humans and other apes exhibit similar behaviours (developing cultures) and similar emotional lives, conclusions which, at the time, seemed to reflect an anthropomorphism in practice. Research by de Waal attempts to provide solid and sound evidence and understandings of these shared characteristics, scientifically observed and tested, including the origin of morality, which he also does not consider to be solely the reserve of human beings.  As de Waal and Ferrari state insightfully:

“Outcomes are important from an evolutionary perspective in that they determine an organism’s success at dealing with its environment, but from a cognitive perspective they are mere surface phenomena. Unique outcomes do not always reflect unique processes. Even if humans produce cathedrals and symphonies, the underlying processes include social learning, tool use, musical appreciation, a sense of rhythm, and large-scale synchronization and cooperation, all of which we share with other animals.” (de Waal and Ferrari, 2010, p. 202)

Future blog posts will focus more closely on de Waal’s arguments for continuity between humans and other primates and consider why such research projects are important/valuable.  Later posts will revisit Jane Goodall’s work and introduce Bekoff’s contributions to progress understandings of the emotional lives of animals.  I will then hone in on studies of baboons (and other monkeys, where relevant) that begin to explore the monkeys’ mental and emotional lives.

Jane Goodall – an inspirational life, “reasons for hope”

I attended Jane Goodall’s talk, “Reasons for Hope”, held at the University of Edinburgh’s New College on Thursday night – the visit was made possible by the University, the Edinburgh Zoo and the Jane Goodall Institute.    Goodall highlighted three points that gave her hope when it comes to chimpanzee conservation and the state of the earth more generally (I will list these later for those who were not able to attend).  But as I was listening to her talk, I thought that her life, the person that she is and has been (providing an example), and her work, her dedication to chimpanzees and more widely to community-led conservation and the education of young people (the Roots and Shoots programme), are  powerful reasons for hope.  She travels the world inspiring the young and not so young alike through her gift of story telling, which can only be infused with the passion she feels for chimpanzees.   Her influence and growing legacy reach far and wide, so that her efforts have made change, improving the lives of the chimps in Gombe and local people of the surrounding area and beyond, and will continue to make change well into the future.  I am not much of a groupie, and rarely feel awe  for individuals, because we are all human and have the potential to do great things in the right circumstances, but I did feel a deep reverence for Jane Goodall as I listened to her speak, and she seemed like a kindred spirit (I could certainly say that I felt the same about Charles Darwin when I read some of his writings, but I won’t have the opportunity to attend one of his lectures!).

I was captivated particularly by Jane’s accounts of what she was like as a child and the difficulties she encountered when trying to present her novel findings about chimpanzees to ethologists of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Jane believes that she is the person she is (or was allowed to be who she is) because of her mother.  Jane showed an intense curiosity and love for animals at an early age, for instance taking a handful of earth worms to bed with her at the age of 2 (or younger!) and spending hours hidden in a chicken coop waiting for a hen to lay an egg.  While some parents might not have nurtured such curiosity and engagement (they might have stamped out the wonder and excitement with negative reactions), Jane’s mother did – she gently told Jane that earthworms needed the earth and if they weren’t returned to it, they would die, and after Jane had been missing for hours (hidden in the coop!) only to reappear exuberantly explaining that she now knew how chickens laid eggs, her mother listened and did not scold her.  This large part of Jane’s character blossomed and continued to grow when she had the opportunity to study chimpanzees at Gombe.

At the time that Jane began her study at Gombe, scientists within the field of ethology were trying to develop a “hard” science, one that gave numbers to their animal subjects (or more accurately, objects) rather than names and had no room for descriptions of behaviour that appeared to smack of “anthropomorphism”.   But this is exactly what Jane had done – she named her subjects and considered them subjects rather than objects of study.  After years of observation, she (like Barbara McClintock and others who developed a “feeling for the organism”) could see what others had not seen.  Chimpanzees had mental and emotional lives – they exhibited culture, social lives, expressed themselves in very human ways by hugging and kissing, and they showed anger and aggression.  They felt loss and could be altruistic.  The list went on, but Jane knew that her conclusions would not be well received and ethologists were likely to brush aside her research findings as anthropomorphising and lacking objectivity.  But so many years later, it is clear that Jane saw what was actually there (rather than projecting), and she has helped push this change, so that similarities are accepted and understood, not just between other great apes and humans but evident in other species (emotional lives and sentience).

Darwin provided a foundation for this, because why (as I’ve said in previous blogs) would we not share such characteristics with other species if evolution has occurred.  This means that animals, and even plants more recently, are seen less and less (at least in ethology and related fields) as unfeeling automatons at the mercy of their instincts (and genetics), and this has implications in terms of how we treat them.  I did find Jane’s response to a question from the audience about “personhood” quite interesting, considering what I’ve studied so far in the anthrozoology course  – an audience member asked what Jane thought of the drive to give personhood to chimpanzees.  Jane replied that she thought all approaches are needed and so lawyers (etc) should be pushing for this, but it was not her position.  She said she focussed on individual responsibility, and I can understand what she means.  There are so many species that we do not understand well and we may not be able to find enough similarities in order to give  them legal personhood (which is not the personhood of animism) – so what then?  What protects these organisms, and what protects the land, the sea, etc?  Of course you have countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, with rights for nature written into their constitutions (and these rights are given to rivers, mountains, etc), and this may work (I need to find out, years on, whether the constitutional changes have actually made a difference to conservation efforts, if it’s possible to know).  But Jane believes that every individual matters (be they human or not) and every human individual has a responsibility towards the world that we live in, which inevitably includes the animals and other organisms that share the planet with us.  You don’t then, have to ensure that chimps are legal persons – an individual sense of responsibility to other living things, to know them and to allow them to thrive and live their lives, must be nurtured and will lead to improved conservation efforts.  I was glad to hear from Jane that she thinks vegetarianism (or eating less meat) is an important element of this individual responsibility.

Jane concluded her talk by listing three reasons for hope:  our young people, our vast intellect (which can be put to good) and the resilience of nature.  I would say again that Jane’s ground-breaking research and her activism, touching people around the world and leaving a  lasting impression that will motivate future generations, are reasons for hope.

If you weren’t able to attend the talk in Edinburgh and didn’t see my previous post of the interview with Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham (from the Great Apes Summit, 2013), please do watch it now, and I hope you find it inspiring too: