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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Michael Parfit

Human angst, animal emotions Add to ...

What can you say about a whale who seems to be lonely?

Humans perceive that animals have emotions that we can recognize – fear, pain, longing, loneliness. But, for generations, we have been told by scientists that any attempt to describe animal emotions in ways humans can understand is anthropomorphism and scientifically wrong-headed. This makes us feel guilty. When we respond to what appear to be emotions in our pets or in wild beings we meet, we feel as if we’re engaging in illicit sentimentality.

But things are changing, in wonderful ways. That guilt is no longer necessary. The study of animal emotions and consciousness is becoming a legitimate – and important – part of science.

This is good news for everyone who loves animals. Yet, it also carries new responsibilities, particularly in the way we acknowledge and describe what animals may be feeling.

I have often banged my head against the wall of anthropomorphism. It happened most recently in making a new documentary about emotions in an animal – the story of that “lonely” whale.

For years, the scientific prohibition against describing animal emotions drastically hampered people who wanted to encourage empathy toward animals. Some writers – notably in early Disney nature films but still sometimes today – have ignored all constraints and portrayed animals as if they were emotional people in fur suits. Others, including me, tried to avoid describing animals in any emotional context.

Either way, we made caricatures, not portraits. To save animals, it seems, we have had to misrepresent them.

Making The Whale brought my wife and me face to face with this problem. The film is about a young killer whale – an orca – nicknamed Luna, who lost his pod and tried to make contact with people. We were determined not to be anthropomorphic in the film, but what Luna did looked so much like loneliness that we didn’t know what else to call it.

But we were lucky: The changes in the scientific approach to animals gave us authority to acknowledge what Luna may have been feeling.

The change began in the 1960s and 1970s, when young scientists such as Jane Goodall wrote vividly about emotions in animals they studied, shaking up the establishment. Then, in 1976, a highly respected biologist named Donald Griffin shocked the field with a book called The Question of Animal Awareness, which suggested that the study of animal consciousness and emotions was valid and important.

His daring book opened doors. New work began producing scientifically credible evidence of altruism, self-awareness, problem-solving, tool use, grief, pleasure and other mental states and emotions we once thought were special to our species.

The public gets glimpses of this in occasional astonishing news stories about ravens or octopuses, but we have not yet fully grasped the grandeur of what this change means.

“Denying animal emotions now flies in the face of a growing mountain of solid, challenging and exciting scientific research,” writes Marc Bekoff, a neurobiologist and cognitive ethologist who has been one of the leaders in the scientific exploration of animal minds, in his 2010 book, The Animal Manifesto. “It’s important that we get over the issue of anthropomorphism and move on. There’s important work to be done.”

This is terrific. It’s now possible to address animal emotions with at least some scientific support. So the good news is that we can now feel sympathy without scientific guilt. But there’s some bad news: The new science increases complexity. We still can’t put a fur – or blubber – suit on simple human emotions and pretend we have it right. Although the emotions we can now honestly recognize may be similar to ours, they are not identical.

“I think it’s the difference between saying something is the same and saying something’s on a par,” Lori Marino, a prominent cetacean neurobiologist, told me recently. She’s one of two scientists whose 2001 study revealed that dolphins have self-awareness. She was also a scientific adviser to The Whale. “Luna and other cetaceans really represent a significant challenge to us,” she said, “because they are similar to us and different at the same time.”

But that’s not really bad news. So what if animals’ emotions are complex and impossible to fully understand? Aren’t humans that way, too? And isn’t the fathomless complexity of human emotions the very thing that makes life, in reality and in fiction, endlessly fascinating?

The great thing is that humans no longer face a barrier of austere prohibition against even thinking about the emotions experienced by other lives. As we found in making The Whale, humans can now be part of a growing new respect for other lives and emotions that acknowledges the mystery, subtlety, uncertainties and layers of meaning that we share with them – the same pieces of life’s experience that have always made compelling stories in any language, about any living being, in any form of life.

Yes, we have important work to do in learning to recognize and respect other animals’ feelings – and great stories to tell as we learn more.

Michael Parfit, a regular contributor to Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines, is co-director, with his wife, Suzanne Chisholm, of The Whale . The film opened in Canada on Nov. 18.

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