Your Lying Eyes

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03 June 2009

Canis sensilis

John Tierney has an interesting article in the Times on animal feelings, in particular the feeling of regret. Your opinion of whether or not animals - higher mammals, especially - are capable of real feelings is probably a lot like your opinion of whether children are socialized to act like boys or girls or whether they come out of the womb acting that way - if you've got a dog, you've no doubt he has feelings.

Skeptics typically claim that dog owners are anthropomorphizing instinctive animal behavior when they empathize with their pets. But where do they think the emotions we feel came from? Particularly the deeply felt, difficult to control feelings like pride, shame, anger, sadness, joy, love - do they think these mental states just sprang up spontaneously when Homo sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago, to be then instinctively felt universally by all people (except among a small number, who we therefore consider pathological)?

Obviously, these mental states must have developed in other mammals first as a way to encourage or discourage certain behaviors (bravery, cooperation, discipline, protection of family, play, child-rearing). And if your dog behaves in a way that looks just like these emotions feel, isn't it rather likely that that's what he indeed is feeling? Why would it be that these mental states in humans have meaning but the same observed behaviors in animals mean nothing? Clearly, either the feelings of animals mean something, or those of humans mean less than we think.

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