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 , 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 , 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 .” (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.