“Humans Are Such Dicks!” Say all the animals.

If animals could talk, can you imagine their trash talk about us? Nothing for children to overhear. Imagine how furious they’d get if they could read books like The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert or Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scanton. Humans are now the cause of the sixth great mass extinction event in the history of the Earth. We’ve fucked this world up so bad that scientists are now naming the geologic age after us – the Anthropocene. And since we’re such collective dumbasses, the age will probably be a short one. To make it even more tragic, scientists are discovering that animals are more aware, more sentient, than we thought. Consciousness of reality, is a spectrum, not a quantum leap. We may be the crown of creation on this planet, but we’re despotic rulers.

After I read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, I started feeling very guilty about what our species is doing to all the other species. Then I started reading Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight For Life by Edward O. Wilson, who suggests we can absolve our guilt if we shared the planet fairly. I’m not sure most of my fellow humans feel that way. And then I bought, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal. This one makes me feel even guiltier. Can we even comprehend minds not like our own? For the past year, I’ve noticed in my news reading more stories dealing with animal intelligence and sentience. Most people love animals, but do they love them enough to give them their fair share of the world?

I’m still reading on the last two books, but when I went looking for customer comments about them on Amazon, I noticed these other books. There seems to be a flood of animal awareness books coming out. Can we read enough books to actually mind-meld with animals? Can we expand our awareness of the natural world quick enough to change who we are, before we destroy us all?

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe (June, 2016)

What A Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe

Just as water influences the dynamics of vision, so it does for hearing, smell, and taste. Water is a superb conductor of sound waves, where they are almost five times longer than in air, as sounds travel five times faster in water. Fishes have benefited from this since the dawn of bones and fins, using sound for both orientation and communication. Water is also an excellent medium for diffusing water-soluble chemical compounds, and is well suited for the perception of smells and tastes. Fishes have separate organs for smelling and tasting, although the distinction is blurred because all substances are encountered in a water solution.

As they did color vision, fishes probably invented hearing. Despite the common assumption that fishes are silent, they actually have more ways of producing sounds than any other group of vertebrate animals. None of these methods involve the main method of all the other vertebrates: the vibration of air against membranes. Fishes can rapidly contract a pair of vocal muscles to vibrate their swim bladder, which also serves as a sound amplifier. They have the options of grating their teeth in their jaws, grinding additional sets of teeth lining their throat, rubbing bones together, stridulating their gill covers, and even—as we’ll see—expelling bubbles from their anuses. Some land-dwelling vertebrates get creative in producing nonvocal sounds, such as the drumming of woodpeckers and the chest pounding of gorillas, but fishes’ terrestrial cousins possess just two types of vocal apparatus—the syrinx of birds and the larynx of all the rest.

“What a Fish Hears, Smells, and Tastes” by Jonathan Balcombe

Makes you wonder what a fish feels and screams when hooked on a line, and then jerked out of the water. Imagine being that fish. Pescatarians probably feel fish are lesser creatures, and thus ethically consumable. But is that true?

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (April, 2016)

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer AckermanFor a long lime, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction.

Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all.

That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so. from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers when it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend bask principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future.

“One – From Dodo to Crow: Take the Measure of a Bird Mind”  by Jennifer Ackerman

My friend Anne raised a baby starling this spring, and I hung out with her when she released the bird. For a couple weeks the bird would come see her. You could see that it had imprinted on Anne, and for a while, that bird lived in two worlds – his natural world, and ours. When you’re that close to nature, you see that nature is more than what we dismiss.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (Sept, 2016)

I can’t quote from the book, but here’s the blurb at Amazon:

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter WohllebenIn The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group.

Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.

I’ve been a vegetarian since 1969, and I have always assumed that plants didn’t suffer. This will be a hard book for me to read. Humans are animals, and in the animal world, everything eats some other creature. But I think, because we’re more aware of reality, we have an obligation to be more than an animal. If we used the animal world for our precedent on ethics, murder would be acceptable. We need to be more conscious of what we eat, how it affects our own health, how it effects the biosphere, and its impact on the ethical treatment of other species. If we stopped raising cattle, it would be one route to Wilson’s plan to share the planet. That would give back a tremendous amount of land to the plants and animals, and greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We should also cut back on fishing the oceans, and let the seas recover.

Of course, that means humans giving up something. We’re not really good at do-be-sharers. But if we gave up beef and at least half of the seafood we eat, we could dramatically change the direction of the sixth extinction. Will we? I don’t think so. I doubt many people will even read these books.

And I don’t mean to be cynical.

It’s just everything the animals say about us is true.


The Cat, The Dog, The Robot and The Soul

Since before Biblical times men and women believed that human beings were unique, superior to the other animals that inhabited the Earth.  Later theologians would claim we had souls and animals didn’t.  Actually, the idea of an immortal soul only seems to arise after the New Testament, because in the Old Testament, life after death is barely hinted at.  It was man and woman that got special attention in Genesis, giving them dominion over all the animals, and God eventually told Noah we could eat them.  So we hunted and killed anything that swam, crawled, flew, leaped and ran.  We sacrificed them by the thousands in honor of God for many chapters of the Bible after that.   We justified our dominion by writing off the other beings in our environment as soulless creatures, unable to feel and know, and unworthy of love, empathy and compassion. 

Well science is starting to take a second look at the lives of animals.  Either we are closer to them, or they are closer to us.  If we have souls, maybe they do too, or at least some of them.  It’s hard to imagine all the cockroaches having unique identities, personalities and desires, but maybe we just don’t examine their lives long enough before we step on them.

The wonderful science writer Natalie Angier wrote in her NY Times “Basics” column, “Even Among Animals: Leaders, Followers and Schmoozers,” where she tells us about animal personality research.  She has a significant quote that I like:

“There are low information processors who don’t attend much to their environment and bulldoze through life,” said David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York at Binghamton. “Then there are the sensitive ones who are always taking things in, which can be good because information is valuable, but it can also be overwhelming.”

I guess I’m one of those sensitive creatures that are overwhelmed by input, and that’s why I take the time to worry about cruelty to pigs and cows, rather than being the kind of person that just gobbles down the barbecue.  But that quote, based on animal studies, is very revealing.  Does it explain the foundation of conservatives and liberals?  Can we see the seeds of human traits like bravery, leadership,  cruelty, compassion, creativity, and so on in animals?  It’s natural to assume so if you believe in evolution.  If our eyes are a product of continual evolution, why not our individual personality traits?

Would we see this more dramatically if other animals had evolved bigger brains like us and could tell us what they felt?  I recently read a story about an uplifted chimp that can talk.  Read or listen to the very moving short story “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal.  I think the narrated version has more impact and it will only take six minutes.

Anyone who lives with pets knows they have personalities.  People who love their animals want them to have souls too.  If you search on the quoted phrase “do animals have souls” on Google you’ll find 6,580 replies, many of which that look for theological justification that will give them hope they will see their pets again in heaven. 

I don’t think we have souls, being an atheist, but I believe animals have a kind of self-awareness that make them more than animated meat.  I’ve always been fascinated by robots, and believe we’ll one day have intelligent machines that are smarter than us humans.  They will have to evolve just like us, and I think we’ll see them go through developmental stages equal to various animals.  I doubt we have a machine as smart as an ant yet, but it won’t be long before we’ll see machines with personality traits, and soon after that we’ll have machines equal to dogs and cats.  Through robotic studies, we’ll eventually understand how much awareness an animal has.


However, we shouldn’t need to wait until then to understand our unethical relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.  We need more animal observers like Jane Goodall.  Can you imagine what compassionate observers could report about living among chickens, pigs and cows in factory farms?  Are their inhabitants all identical soulless creatures, or do they each have a personality struggling to survive in monstrous living conditions?  Maybe I’m wrong about souls.  But I’d like to be believe if we have souls its because we earned them.  Who knows, maybe in the far future vast AI intelligences will observe mankind and note they come in two kinds, those with empathy, and those without.

JWH – 4/11/10