Animals Do Have Emotions, But What Should We Call Them?


We share a lot with other animals—emotionally, cognitively, and neuro-chemically—but many humans still use outdated linguistic distinctions that put animals in their (allegedly inferior) place.

By Vicki Croke


Bonobos, among the closest  primates to humans, will share food with strangers. Researchers believe this behavior helps us understand the beginnings of human altruism. Pierre Fidenci via Wikimedia Commons.

Humans speak. Animals vocalize.

We love. They bond.

We form friendships, they maintain social bonds.

We feel jealous. They resource guard.

We have sex, they copulate.

Notice a pattern?

We humans seem determined to separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom, even if we have to cheat. And sometimes it does sound like cheating. Because while scientists continue piling up the evidence, documenting how much we share with other animals—emotionally, cognitively, and neuro-chemically—many humans still use outdated linguistic distinctions that put animals in their (allegedly inferior) place.

Robin Young and Vicki have a lively discussion on Here & Now about animal emotions and the words we use in describing them:

Just last month, for instance, a new study, published in PLOS ONE, indicated that dogs experience jealousy. That’s a complex emotion—combining other emotions such as anger and resentment—and it has always been considered uniquely human.

But that’s only one of the latest examples of science finding “human” traits in the animal world. Ever since Jane Goodall, in 1960, saw chimps stripping leaves from twigs so they could fish for termites—thus trashing humans’ exclusive claim to be “the tool user”—our species has found its specialness under siege. By now, many of the traits we used to think were ours alone have proven to be no more exclusive than membership in the cellphone butt-dialer’s club.

To recap just a few: Rats display regret. Elephants appear to mourn their dead. Dogs are terrific at reading human emotion, even doing something we do: scanning the right side of human faces (which some researchers say is the more expressive side). The kind of consciousness that is required to recognize oneself in a mirror? Along with humans, some apes, elephants, killer whales, dolphins, and magpies have passed the mirror recognition test.

Cooperation, compassion, play, altruism, a sense of fairness? They all show up among the animals, along with some of the bad stuff: Chimps can deliberately deceive one another and people.

And it goes deeper. Not only can we find human-like behavior and thought in some animals; thanks to technology including MRI, we can also see when brain areas that are activated in animals, and the chemicals that percolate, mirror our own brain functions. For example, spindle cells, which appear to be important in processing emotion, were once thought to be particular to us and to great apes; now we know they’re also abundant in the brains of whales.

One study from Hungary found that listening to the sound of crying or laughter causes the same reaction in dog brains as it does in humans ones for instance.

Bottlenose dolphins have passed the mirror recognition test. Photo: lolilujah via Flickr Creative Commons.

So, if animals are proving to be so like us, why do we resist describing their experiences with the same terms we apply to ourselves? Are we afraid of being accused of being unscientific? If so, we’ve got it backward. “It’s bad science to rob animals of their cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities,” says Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist and authority on animal behavior and emotion. In his book “The Emotional Lives of Animals,” he writes that

“It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology, and social neuroscience supports the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives.”

So maybe it’s anthropomorphism—the projection of human characteristics onto nonhuman animals—that we’re afraid of. Again, we’d be off.

Modern thinkers like author Laurel Braitman say that the right kind of anthropomorphism is, if anything, scientifically sound. In her book “Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, Gorillas on Drugs, and Elephants in Recovery Show Us the Wildness of Our Own Minds,” she says that we can choose “to anthropomorphize well and by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of other animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of human projection, anthropomorphism may instead be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.”

She’s in good company. Bekoff points out that emotion is important to all social creatures—helping us to bond, to navigate relationships, and to protect ourselves. As Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the famed author and anthropologist, puts it,

“consciousness is something we acquired through our long mammalian past. Thoughts and emotions have evolutionary value.”

Best-selling nature writer Sy Montgomery agrees. “We talk about being anthropomorphic, about attributing human traits to animals,” she says by phone from her home in New Hampshire. “Who says those traits are human? Who said we came up with them? Evolution says we did not come up with them. Evolution says we inherited them.”

Ethologist Marc Bekoff asks why we resist saying that animals like wolves form friendships with one another. Gunnar Ries Amphibol via Wikimedia Commons.

If it sounds like cursive writing and car repair are going to be the only unique accomplishments our species can still claim, don’t worry. We don’t have to exaggerate the differences to tell the difference between ourselves and dogs or dodos. Yet many people persist in denying abilities and emotions to animals, along with the “human” words for those traits.

Some words are particularly contentious when applied to animals. In 1993, Liz Thomas, described the relationship between two huskies as a marriage in her blockbuster book “The Hidden Life of Dogs.” That really made some people angry, and yet, albatross couples may stay true to one another for 55 years, while Britney Spears was once married for only 55 hours. In fact, the average length of a marriage before it ends in divorce here in the US is 8 years, according to The Economist.

Today, Bekoff points out, some people hate to admit that animals maintain friendships with each other. The prejudice is so widespread that “friend” seems like a dirty word when applied to animals. In fact, Bekoff calls it the other “F-word.” He thinks it’s ridiculous.

“What else would you call a relationship between, say, two dogs or two wolves or certain wild coyotes where they hang out, they travel together, they do all things together—I’m not necessarily talking about mates—and then one dies or disappears and the other grieves or seeks them out? You know? Long-term social bond? Reciprocal interaction? Blah blah blah. What else would you call it but a friend?”

I know exactly what Bekoff is talking about. Growing up in suburban Boston, my sister and I used to play with the Morris kids down the street, and our dog Penny played with the Morris’s dog Cleo. Long after we humans stopped hanging out together, our dogs continued to meet.

Left: Vicki and Penny hanging out with neighborhood friends. Penny’s friendships with other dogs were deep and long lasting.

Cleo would show up on our doorstep (this was before strict leash laws) and her rudder-like tail would bang against the storm door, announcing her presence. We’d hear her “knock” and let Penny out. One of the most heartbreaking moments in our lives came when, a few days after our beloved Penny died at the age of 15, we heard Cleo at the door.  That day, instead of letting Penny out, we invited Cleo in. And we all cried.

We as a species can continue to argue over things like whether or not animals can befriend each other, feel jealousy, be altruistic, mourn, feel joy, understand fairness. I know which side of the argument I’m on. I learned the answer from Penny and Cleo.

Produced by Christen Goguen. Originally appeared on WBUR’s The Wild Life and Here&Now. 

One thought on “Animals Do Have Emotions, But What Should We Call Them?

  1. We should use the technology to learn more about and communicate better with the other species we share the world with. Using video data sets and software to analyse behaviour and communication patterns.

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