Are carnivorous beasts people too?

Found a rather interesting blurb on Sci-Am that describes studies of the psychology and emotional health of carnivorous beasties.

When you see a claim like

does this strike you as woo/pseudoscience? I have a tendency to accept stuff like this largely on the premise that non-human critters are subject to a lot of caricature, and we are probably not all that far “above” them.

Is it crazy to imagine animals having some sort of ethical/moral code?

Yeah, I really do kinda wonder sometimes. I suspect that in a century or two we will look back at the way humans think of animals today with a certain amount of horror and amazement.

You are being too kind. Someone who claims that they see “a maternal glow” on the face of a shark is a fucking moron.

And this is a shark brain compared to a human one.

Huh. Did not see a human brain in that image.

Classic anthropomorphism. People are projecting their own emotions and ideas on to the animals they’re observing.

Oops. That’s what I get for a quick search. Nevertheless, even a horse brain is vastly more sophisticated than a shark brain.

Well, the article does seem to focus primarily on emotions. When humans are emotional, we generally tend to view them as being less sophisticated, in the moment.

Agree. I think it’s pretty arrogant to see them as being so inferior to humans.


I see it every day with my dog. Her care, compassion and loyalty amaze me every day.

Just today when we were out hiking on a particularly tough and steep trail with small river crossings, she always, without fail, makes the cross herself then stops and watches to make sure I’m getting across OK before she takes off ahead. When part of the trail is super steep and I have to grab at roots to pull myself up, she only goes a few feet ahead till I’m past the tough bit and then, once I’m safe, she’s off like a shot looking for squirrels.

If people can look down on her as “just a dog” it assuages their guilt at treating her (and other non-human animals) poorly.

Be careful. It can be just as much an act of anthropomorphizing to declare that non-humans are entirely UNLIKE humans, as it is to declare that they are very much LIKE humans.

I suggest that a possible avenue to improve reasoning about humans versus non-humans, is to start from a recognition of, and investigation of, the very different AGENDA that each creature has.

Listen, you want to tell me that pumas are suffering from PTSD? Yeah, I can buy that. I’m sure that it’s not exactly like human PTSD, but sure, they’re similar.

But a shark with “maternal glow”? That’s just completely ludicrous. A shark with human-like emotional issues makes as much sense as a jellyfish with arthritis.

I’m not criticizing your dog here, who’s a good girl, yes she is, yes she is, but I’m sure you understand the problem with the statement, which is that you don’t know what her mental state is. You know how she acts (crossing the river first and waiting for you to cross, not getting too far ahead of you on steep trails and such), and you’re projecting emotions on her (compassion, loyalty, etc), based on your emotional reactions to her actions. I’m not saying your dog doesn’t feel compassion, loyalty, and so on. Maybe she does. But your dog’s brain is different than yours, and dogs think differently than people do. Their instincts are different; the way they react to stimulus is different, and the way they prioritize actions are different. It can be hard enough to understand the emotions of other people by looking at them, let alone an animal that last shared a common ancestor with us 70 million years ago.

Total agreement.

There is enough of an isomorphism between dogs’ brains and humans for us to anthropomorphize legitimately. A frightened dog feels fear much the same way we do; an angry dog is angry the same way we are.

But birds, fish, frogs, lizards, and the like, while they certainly exhibit fear and anger as behaviors, cannot be said to experience the emotions in a human-like way. Certainly they experience emotions, but the resemblance is no longer as close to one-to-one as it is with dogs. We cannot legitimately project “what it must feel like,” as we can with dogs.

I actually agree with you in that we can’t really know what she’s thinking or how she’s feeling because we don’t speak dog. And because we don’t actually know, I think the right thing to do is accept that she is likely more than “just a dog”. She’s a thinking, feeling, intelligent creature and should be treated like one.

I sure would like to know what she was thinking the day she threw herself at a man who came running out of the bushes towards me. Or why she does cross the river, stop, turn around a watch me till I’m across and then run off ahead.

It’d be fascinating to know!

But have you studied animals? Psychologists study people and can establish a pretty good idea what is going on with them. But these biologists spend a lot of time with these creatures and develop pretty strong affinities, and probably empathies, with them. I cannot guess what it is like to establish effective channels of communication with a shark, but I would not be surprised to find that someone could.

And it is possible that these people are misreading the cues. But they are observing all of the behaviors and think they are seeing commonality with humans. Who, after all, are just another species.

“The carnivore needs no introduction: fearsome, cold and brutal.”

I can’t really evaluate her claims about how animals think, but she doesn’t seem to have a really strong grasp of how humans thinks. She keeps bringing up very specific animal behaviors, and then acting like that disproves some straw man about how people think of carnivores in general. Like, this bit:

Okay, biologists were wrong about pumas. It turns out, they act a lot more like lions… who are famously social carnivores. Biologists being about pumas doesn’t reflect at all on how people in general thought about carnivores as a group.

That said, I’ve heard a lot lately about how the proliferation of cheap, miniaturized cameras and RFID chips have revolutionized the study of animal socialization. I’d not be at all surprised to learn that sharks and rattlesnakes have much more complex social interactions than we had previously supposed. How this impacts on an imagined prejudice humans have against carnivores eludes me.

Suppose you give an animal some very complex stimulus – more elaborate than simply “heat”, “pain”, “light”, and you observe some very complex response. AND suppose that complex response is very recognizably similar to the complex response a human would likely display, given the same complex stimulus.

What would you make of that? If you say the animal is having the same internal reactions that a human is, should we dismiss that as anthropomorphizing? If we deny the animal is having a human-like response, then we must suppose that this complex stimulas/response reaction must have evolved independently. How likely does that seem?

It may be that assuming human-like complex stimulus/response patterns may be the more parsimonious choice, especially if you keep seeing lots of examples of this.

This seems to be the case with dolphins. You’ve all read or heard all the cute stories about how intelligent and “human-like” they are. So what is the more plausible hypothesis: That they do, in fact, have human-like feelings and emotions and reactions, or that all those complex but “human-like” responses have evolved separately and independently?

True story: I was a part-time dolphin trainer for several years. One evening, one of the trainers, just for fun, showed one of the dolphins how to twirl a frisbee on its snout. That evening, after most everyone had left for the day, the dolphin spent the entire evening and night swimming around the tank, twirling a frisbee. By the next day, the other dolphin was doing the same. For a week or so, they spent all their free time twirling frisbees. They even got creative. The frisbees weren’t all the same size. So they put a smaller frisbee inside a larger frisbee and twirled them both.

What would you make of behavior like that?

(They also liked to put a frisbee over the drain, so the tank would overflow. Then they would swim at high velocity around the perimeter of the tank, creating large waves that sloshed all over the edges of the tank. I’m pretty sure they were doing that on purpose.)

I think you are being unfair to dolphins. I have it on good authority that they are more intelligent than humans. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

I’ve come to think of difference between human and animal cognition to be effectively less than humans generally believe.

I think that a larger portion of behavior and emotion than we expect happens, or for “lesser” animals potentially can happen, in the more rudimentary parts of brains. I think that the parts of brains where humans have an obvious “superiority” over other animals, like the cerebral cortex (I think, I don’t know a lot about brain anatomy) does indeed give humans a advantage in things like language and abstract thinking. But, there are many functions that humans think are unique to our species that are actually present in some “lesser” animals more than we imagine.

Our body-size to brain-size ratio looks impressively big compared to other animals but we still don’t know enough about brains to know just what is contained in that extra grey-matter and what can be accomplished by smaller brains.

Forget about complex stimulus. Even if we just focus on your simple stimulus above, if you stab an earthworm with a pin, it’ll writhe around and try to get away from the pin, the way that you or I would do if stabbed with a pin. When you or I do it, it’s because of a pain response, so you’d conclude it’s the same thing with the worm; the worm feels pain when you stab it and it tries to get away. The problem with that, though, is that earthworms don’t feel pain, and we know this because they don’t have the nerves and brain structure needed to feel pain.

Maybe, but I sense the sharp edge of O’s razor here. We might not understand just why a dog does what it does but the social instincts of canines (even non-domesticated ones) and related wild species (wolves, e.g.) are pretty well established.

If the dog is not hanging around in order to monitor the status of its companion during hazardous situations why would it be hanging around? Maybe to laugh if the hapless human slips and dies?