Animals, emotions, and learning

My sixth grade teacher, among others, has asserted that animals cannot feel emotions. Any expression that appears to be emotional is dismissed as instinct or anthropomorphizing by the observer. Others expressing this view, including a professor of mine who was also a priest, have said it is because man is created in the creator’s image and emotions are by-products of having souls, which is another thing animals are said to lack. My grandmother and many others, assert that all animals other than humans lack the complexity and intelligence to feel and express emotion.

Another distinction between humans and animals is made in how animals learn behaviors. By far too many to count, it has been said humans lack instinct. In psychology class my professor stated that many now believe that animals only learn through conditioning and do not learn by modeling observed behavior. He also said that a smaller number believe this is true for children as well.

Why should human beings be the only animals that have emotions?
Based on personal observation, I think that animals have and express emotions. Also based on my own observations, I think that animals do model behavior and learn that way in addition to learning via conditioning, etc. It seems far simpler to believe that humans and animals share the ability to feel and learn than to believe that humans are unique in that capacity. Anyone care to debate this?

I strongly recommend reading the first 60 or so pages of The Case for Animal Rights. Even if you disagree with the author’s later conclusions, he spends the first big chunk of the book setting for the strong arguments that:

  • Fido can feel pain.
  • Fido can feel pleasure.
  • Fido can experience happiness.
  • Fido can remember things.
  • Fido can express desires about the future.

Most folks who go with the “animals as complicated circuitry” argument are drawing on Descartes’s theories. Those theories get cut to ribbons by Occam’s Razor.


I think plenty of animals, mammals in particular, feel emotion. Fear is an obvious one – on those nature shows, when a lion shows up among a herd of wildebeast, what could possibly get them running if not fear?

My cat definitely feels pleasure, pain, unhappiness, fear. A more interesting question is which of the “simpler” animals feel emotions. I had a pet chameleon who would turn bright red, puff himself out, and hiss furiously when he saw his image in the mirror (they’re territorial, and he thought it was another chameleon.) Was he angry, or just working on pre-programmed instructions in that little lizard brain about what to do if he saw a possible rival? Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

As far as modeling observed behavior, primates imitate each other. Birds learn bird song from other birds.

Some animals do seem to be working with “complicated circuitry” though. Take Tinebergen’s experiments on herring gull chicks – they peck at a red spot on the mother’s beak to get her to throw up food. They seem to have no idea why they’re doing this – they’re more or less “programmed” to do it. Give them a stick with a dot on it, and they’ll peck at that too.

Perhaps not as scientifically rigorous as what Left Hand of Dorkness suggested reading but I cannot imagine how anyone could live with a dog (or many other animals but dogs are a convenient example) and come to the conclusion Fido has no emotions. It goes way beyond anthropomorphizing to watch the critter day-to-day for years and come to the conclusion the animal experiences a range of emotions we all understand.

The only way I can imagine someone saying a dog does not have an inner life as humans do would be to appeal to religion and accept that God gave only humans a soul and that God created every other living thing without.

If one must go down the path of animals just exhibiting fancy programming that merely appears as emotions that they actually lack then I’d say why is it any different for humans? Either we are all complex machines and there is no deeper reality to our lives than your car has (what you think of as emotions is just a clever illusion) or all animals live in a spectrum of emotions and thinking. Admittedly it would be a broad spectrum based on many things but no less real in my view for that.

Plus, as humans we are nothing more than “complicated circuitry” to a large degree ourselves, same as animals. To think otherwise is to be ignorant of the field of psychology. I often wonder how much of my behavior is purely instinctual - that is, I don’t think about it beforehand. My guess is that 99.99% of my behavior is purely instinct, including this post. If there are any who claim to be less instinctual to a significant degree, I ask them how on earth they get anything done!

Actually, Descartes’s explanation is that our nervous system is wholly separate from our mind: when our spiritual, immaterial mind decides to jump, God uses that as an excuse to effect the change in the physical world of making our bodies jump. Similarly, when our finger touches a hot stove, God uses that as an excuse to effect the change in our immaterial mind of causing it to experience pain. God is like the ultimate switchboard operator.

Without God’s intervention in this bizarrely micromanaging fashion, Descartes was unable to explain why the similarities in nervous systems between animals and humans shouldn’t result in the conclusion that animals feel pain just like humans do.


I am not so sure this says anything one way or another on whether an animal can or will develop complex emotions. Certainly humans are born with innate responses. Human babies have the “rooting reflex”. If you touch a baby’s cheek it will turn its head in that direction. This is to facilitate feeding (the baby will turn toward the mother’s nipple when it feels it pressed to its cheek). This does not seem so different from the baby chicks running on in-built responses till they grow and learn.

Not to mention what happens when you give a baby a pacifier.


Here are two examples that I think speak strongly to animal emotions. Occam’s Razor would suggest the only conclusion is that animals can and do experience an inner, emotional life. The alternative is to do some serious logic pretzels as Decartes seems to have done as explained by Left Hand of Dorkness (who also handily supplied applying Occam’s Razor to this).

I also recall a show (on Animal Planet I think) where a senior female member of a group of chimpanzees died (old age). Her daughter apparently was a bit of a princess and with her mother, who elevated the daughters place in the pack by virtue of her status, gone the daughter seemed to fall into a deep depression. She refused to leave the body of her mother and the pack (or whatever you call a group of chimps) stayed with her for several days. Eventually the imperative to survive forced the pack to move on (find food and water) but the daughter still refused to leave. The daughter built a nest above the body of her mother and would visit the body constantly. Eventually the daughter died as well. Cause of death was lack of food but the deeper cause would seem to be a broken heart. Certainly that chimp overcame all biological programming that would tell her to get on with life. Unfortuantely I haven’t found a cite for this story yet but perhaps others here remember it and can verify or elaborate.

They are clearly “full of it.”

What’s to debate? Anybody with longterm experience with higher animals has seen that animals have rich emotional lives and the only explanation for those you mentioned denying it is that they are trying to force-fit reality into an imaginary universe in which there is a solid wall between humans and other animals. It is psychological creationism with no basis in fact.

If we’re thinking of the same case, Jane Goodal wrote about it in In The Shadow Of Man. Though, IIRC the depressed chimp was a son who despite having been a physical adult for a long time, never overcame a dependance on mom. After her death, he basically lay in the fetal position by the corpse and would not do anything. His sister attempted to care for him but was unable.

Back To The OP

As others have said, if Fido appears to be expressing emotions then the explanation which fits all the facts without introducing unnecessary entities is that Fido really is expressing emotions.

I believe that humans don’t have that many instincts-OTTOMH, rooting reflex, stepping reflex, extending arms and legs while falling, built in recognition of human faces, built in expressions for expressing emotions and built in recognition of those emotions in others, yelling at a certain pitch when in distress, and OTTOMH that’s it.

What we use to post here is taught-language, abstract reasoning, logic, rhetoric, the SDMB rules, etc. Some of these are things that we learned so long ago that we can use them without conscious effort, but they are learned information and behaviors. Only if a Doper is born knowing how to touch type without any training whatsoever would it be instinct.

I think we also have an instinct to create and navigate in social heirarchies and to imprint on the stories and values of our group. A lot of the information we pick up is, at least at the beginning, done to fit into the group or to compete within it. Information used to fit into the group can be illogical and/or completely wrong and it will still function perfectly well as a group linkage. Information used to compete probably has to be correct more often.

Oh, and the chimps were named Flo and Flint. Flo had raised a number of babies to adulthood and was the most successful mother in the troop. She was getting old when Flint was born, though, and was older still when his baby brother was born. Although old enough to go out on his own, Flint competed with the baby for his mother’s attention, often interrupting its nursing and the baby eventually died, very probably from the neglect. It was Flo’s only failure at mothering.

So Flint mourning himself to death wasn’t the beginning of the soap opera for those two.

It’s my view that emotions are extremely simple in nature, not requiring complexity, per se. Really, when you break it down, emotions are simply chemicals which are released into the brain because of various stimuli. (Research has shown that the chemicals released in the brain of a human mother when she looks at her baby are virtually identical to that of chimps.)

Often I’ve heard people scoff at the idea that animals experience emotion primarily because most of the evidence for it is antectdotal. (After all, we can’t be positively sure that the chimp mother feels the effects of the endorphin release when she looks at her infant the same way as the human mother does.) We can’t ask them, and the visual cues we’ve been programmed from birth (hell, maybe even instinctually programmed) to read how others are feeling do not apply. While animal faces are just as expressive as human faces in many respects, we haven’t been programmed to catch the subtle nuances which would be almost automatic to another member of the species.

I argue that most social species of animals have emotions, based not only on the much derided antectdotal evidence, but because emotions are very useful for social creatures, and can explain many social behaviors much better than pure instinct. A mother who feels an emotional attatchment or love for her offspring will be more eager to care for it, perhaps showing more attention and care than a mother who does so out of programmed duty. Love also helps to cement pair bonding. Shame, another emotion which would on the surface seem complex, really is just a useful tool for keeping creatures within the bounds of their social order. Fear, of course, needs no explanation as to its usefulness-- nor does anger.

I’m not arguing that animal emotions are as complex and nuanced as human emotions can be-- perhaps emotions are more effective in their simpler forms, anyway. My point is that I see no evidence or reason why emotions should be thought of as belonging only to a higher form of conciousness.

Actually in one very special instance we actually have asked another species about its emotions. Read my blurb on Koko (the sign language using gorilla) above. Better yet read up on her on your own or track down a variety of videos on her. A remarkable story and sure enough Koko communicates experiencing the same range of emotions we do (including complex emotions like love).

As to understanding what other animals are saying to us it is not all that hard. I can read my dog (or most dogs for that matter) like a book (my cats too for that matter but I think my dog is easier to read). Dogs are very communicative (via body language mostly although vocalizations can be a part of it). Granted it is a limited communication method compared to speech but I have zero problems understanding my dog’s emotive state and can do that in little more than a glance at her. Heck…unlike people who can hide their emotions dogs advertise them pretty freely (which I think is one aspect humans find so enjoyable about dogs…if they express affection for you it is straight-up, unadulterated affection and nothing else).

Well, I think it surely is instinct, in the sense that as a species we have an instinct to acquire languages, to argue, to ridicule spelling mistakes, etc. I’m responding to this post by an instinctual desire to nitpick and argue, knowing rationally that I am gaining nothing by doing so. Some of that desire to nitpick and argue is personality, which is genetic to a large degree. And of course, what you say is true: we learn some things so well we use them as if they were instinct.

When we look at the brain, or at our development in the womb, there can be no doubt that humans and animals are more alike than different. The reason why we sometimes like to fool ourselves this isn’t so, is because memory and reasoning has developed very far in humans and was then amplified by our powerful social and cultural structures.

But the most striking thing here, is that emotions and instinct are generally considered to come from the most primitive, animal parts of humans. Our advanced memories (greatly enhanced by cultural memory - what we learn from each other and our ancestors) and reasoning skills allow us to disregard or at least channel our instincts and emotions in a certain direction or behaviour.

I think the confusion here is the discussion of consciousness, self-awareness. Some people believe that if you are not self-aware (can’t hear yourself think, so to speak), you cannot feel emotions. But this is not true, sooner the opposite - you can only not feel emotions if you overcome them through reason and self-awareness. The lesser your capacity to remember things and to reason, the stronger and more directly emotions will be felt - each time will be unique, it will be like, say, feeling, smelling, and tasting something for the first time each time, with programmed responses (instincts) determining your emotions and reactions (run away, fight, eat, etc.), and no learning (for which you require memory).

I think perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I’m well aware of Koko and her amazing ability to communicate, as well as Alex, the parrot who communicates about as well as a three-year-old child. Both of them have communicated how they’re feeling, but many people discount what they’re saying, claiming that they’ve merely been trained by their human teachers to act in a certain manner or say certain things in response to various situations, not really understanding the implications of “sad” or “happy.” I think those naysayers are full of it, but nevertheless, they insist that it’s merely a trained response.

These same people also insist that the displays of emotion we see in our dogs are the product of training that we have subconciously given our pets. We comfort (or “reward” as they put it) our pets when they seem sad, and these people think that this trains the dog to display that behavior in order to be hugged and petted. Personally, I think that our pets aren’t quite that manipulative. If my dog wants petted, all she has to do is nudge my hand, not “fake” an emotional display.

As much as I think they’re over-stretching, there are many people who are positively vehement in their insistance that animals cannot feel. I’ve often suspected that these people are somehow a bit afraid to admit that man may not be quite as special and unique as these people want us to be, and this is what bothers them. If animals can feel and think, what then is our responsibility to them?

As has been mentioned in this thread, using Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is probably the right explanation. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck you are probably looking at a duck. These people dreaming up such complicated explanations so as to say (for an extreme example) that the duck is really a space alien’s holographic projection stretches credulity.

To assume we have taught our pets emotive responses so Fido can get a treat is easily debunked. Merely go out and watch wild dogs and see how they behave. It should come as no shocker that wild dogs display the same body language in comparable situations as Fido lying on your living room floor does.

I am not ranting at you Lissa as you have said you don’t buy these alternate arguments either. Just a general rant at those who seem unable to take obvious, indeed overwhelming, evidence at face value and prefer to magic-up all sorts of bizarre explanations instead. It boggles the mind.

Re Koko there have been GD threads on her. There is IMHO legitimate scientific debate on just how inteligent she and other gorillas are, and how much sign language they actually use.

I did a search here on “koko gorilla” and did not find much sadly (also some very odd hits that seemed, on the face of it, to have zero to do with talking gorillas).

The little I did find and read seems a feeling that Koko is nothing more than a spectacularly trained gorilla but has no actual command of the language she uses. Her handlers are either favorable interpreting her signs to fit their own preconceptions or Koko throws out random sings till she hits something and everyone goes “ooohhh!”.

For my part I can’t really say as I have not delved deeply into the work that has been done with Koko (nor am I particularly qualified to judge even if I did). That said a LOT of work has been done with this gorilla and as near as I can tell been dutifully documented. One would think a good peer review would uncover errors (or wishful thinking) yet no smoking gun as been produced to thoroughly debunk the work done with Koko…at least none I am aware of.

Certainly it would not be a first for a scientist to skew results (or give unfounded favorable interpretations to results) in order to continue their work or because they just really want to find a particular answer. I myself have read transcripts from Koko and she seems scatter-brained at best often not answering a question or answering with meaningless phrases in those contexts. That said she very often does give relevant answers and does so more than one would think pure chance could account for.

Language is a funny thing and questions are posed differently in different situations. It is not as simple as teaching a dog to drool when hearing a bell. If Koko was truly random or programmed to give canned reponses in certain situations it should be a simple matter to trip her up and show she cannot adapt her language to different questions/situations. Yet Koko does use language appropriately getting things like “before and after” right. She gets agitated when certain questions are posed to her and happy (all body language) when other questions are presented. To suggest someone could use operant conditioning for her to get it as right as often as she does seems near impossible.

I don’t know. Perhaps a proper thread on Koko alone is in order to explore this more fully. As mentioned I am not professionally qualified to make definitive statements about her. While I am open the possibility that Koko is doing nothing more than tricks for a bannana I will say I have seen enough for me to think there is more to her than that and hope I am not merely being hoodwinked by a clever monkey.

[sub]I know a gorilla is not a monkey…the last sentence just read better with “monkey” in it in my view.[/sub]