Monday, October 3, 2016

Just How Different Are Humans from Other Animals?

I want to quote some fine literature. Here is a description of a courtship scene from what sounds like Victorian gentlemen and eligible young ladies:

“Remarkable and exceedingly comical is the difference in eloquence between the eye-play of the wooing male and that of the courted female: the male…casts glowing glances straight into his loved one’s eyes, while she apparently turns her eyes in all directions other than that of her ardent suitor. In reality, of course, she is watching him all the time, and her quick glances of a fraction of a second are quite long enough to make her realize that all his antics are calculated to inspire her admiration; long enough to let ‘him’ know that ‘she’ knows. If she is genuinely not interested, and will not look at him at all, then the young…male gives up his vain efforts as quickly as…any other young fellow. To her swain, now proudly advancing in all his glory, the young…lady finally gives her assent…These movements of both partners symbolize a ritual mating invitation…Married…ladies greet their husbands in the same way…The purely sexual meaning in this ceremony…has been entirely lost and it now only serves to signify the affectionate submission of a wife to her husband…From the moment that the bride-to-be has submitted to her male, she becomes self-possessed and aggressive towards all the other members of the [group], for being, on the average, smaller and weaker than the male, she sands much lower in rank than he as long as she is single.

“The betrothed pair form a heart-felt mutual defence league, each of the partners supporting the other most loyally. This is essential, because they have to contend with the competition of older and higher standing couples…This militant love is fascinating to behold. Constantly in an attitude of maximum display, and hardly ever separated by more than a yard, the two make their way through life. They seem tremendously proud of each other, as they pace ponderously side by side…It is really touching to see how affectionate [they] are with each other. Every delicacy that the male finds is given to his bride…”

“And the most appealing part of their courtship is that their affection increases with the years instead of diminishing…even after many years, the male still [treats] his wife with the same solicitous care, and finds for her the same low tones of love, tremulous with inward emotion, that he whispered in the first spring of his betrothal…”

This beautiful passage is not from a Victorian romance, but from a 1952 essay in King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Z. Lorenz, one of the most famous ethologists of the twentieth century. He was describing a kind of bird known as the jackdaw. They are similar to crows. Granted, Lorenz is indulging in a little anthropomorphism, but his descriptions are mostly factual and cannot be entirely imaginary. He was, after all, the greatest expert on animal behavior of his generation. He goes on to describe that the interactions of male and female birds involves behaviors and calls that are otherwise infantile—just as human lovers often call each other baby and use baby-talk with one another.

Lorenz was particularly impressed with the way the jackdaws keep up their affection for life. “You may not believe it, but there are other animals in whom—though they may live in life-long marital union—the situation is different: in whom the glowing fires of the first season of love become extinguished by cool habit; with whom the thrilling enchantment of courtship’s phrases entirely disappears as time goes on: and in whose further mutual association all activities of wedlock and family life are performed with the mechanical apathy common to other everyday practices.” He doesn’t say, but I wonder to which long-lived and supposedly monogamous animal species Lorenz may have been referring?

In the process of trying to convince ourselves that we are completely in the image of God, the lords of creation, and wild animals are not, we have had to impose a bias: that animals are stupid. Anyone who has extensively studied animals, especially birds and mammals, knows that they are very intelligent. This includes some highly religious people. But when they get to church they force their minds to believe that wild animals are so far below us that, although they do not deserve to suffer, neither do they deserve any particular dignity.

Everyone has heard about the striking humanness of the behavior of Jane Goodall’s Gombe chimps. But chimps are very similar to humans, while jackdaws are birds. According to a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, birds have small brains but these brains are densely packed with neurons, giving them more intelligence than the weight might suggest.

Chimps and bonobos have more “humane” behavior than most of us realize. This episode of a radio program gives a very fascinating and maybe disturbing example. It is about a chimpanzee named Lucy who was raised as a human and never really gave up that identity; and a bonobo named Kanzi who communicates, even with words, in some detail, and has a surprising comprehension of human emotions.

We can also go too far the other direction. I made a Darwin video in which I claimed that cats are not necessarily empathetic. When cats crawl up and purr, they might just be seeking comfort and using you as a mommy-substitute (especially when they start pumping your skin as if it was cat-breasts). Maybe they don’t really care whether you like it or not. Inevitably a few cat-lovers posted comments saying that they were absolutely certain that their cats were empathetic.

I’m not sure what the point is that I am trying to make, except that when we make religious assumptions, they can blind us to observing things that fall outside of those assumptions.

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