What Animals are Thinking and Feeling, and Why It Should Matter: Carl Safina at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Carl Safina

Carl Safina – TRANSCRIPT

We start with a simple question: “Does my pet really love me, or does she just want a treat?” Obviously, she really loves us. Obviously, right? How do we know what’s really going on in those furry little heads? Something is going on. Why is the question always “Do they love me?” Why is it always about us? Why are we such narcissists? I have a different question. Who are you? That’s a better question for animals, I think.

We have things going on in our minds that we tend to assume are the exclusive abilities of humans. But there are other brains out there. Some of them are very big. What are they doing with those big brains? Can they think? Can they feel? How can we possibly find a way into that question?

Well, there are ways in. We can look at the brain, we can look at evolution, and we can look at behaviors. First thing we have to realize is that our mind is inherited. Our brain comes from somewhere else. Jellyfish had the first nerves. The first nerves gave us the first spinal cords. The first spinal cords became the first vertebrates. Vertebrates came out of the ocean and started creating all kinds of trouble. It’s still true that nerves of a fish, or a dog, or a person, all are basically the same. It’s their organization that matters.

But if the nerves are the same, what does it have to say about the possibility of mental experiences? Something like a crayfish, for instance. It turns out that you can give a crayfish anxiety disorder by giving it little electric shocks every time it tries to come out of its burrow. But if you give it the same drug that is used to treat anxiety disorder in humans, the crayfish relaxes, mellows out, and comes out, and starts exploring.

The same thing with dogs with obsessive compulsive disorder: you give them the same drugs used to treat OCD in humans, it works for them too. What does it have to say about the parallel functionings of our brains? Do we celebrate the anxiety of crayfish? No, mostly we just boil them. Octopuses use tools, as well as do most apes. They recognize human faces. Do we celebrate the ape-like minds of octopi? Mostly we boil them. When grouper fish chase a prey fish into a crevice in the coral, they will go to where they know a moray eel is sleeping, and they will signal to the moray, “Follow me!” The moray goes. The moray will slither into the crevice. Sometimes the moray will get the fish. Sometimes the fish bolts, and the grouper gets it. It’s a partnership.

How do we celebrate the partnership between groupers and moray eels? Mostly fried. Sea otters use stone tools, and sea otters take time away from their own doings to teach baby sea otters what to do. Chimpanzees use tools, but chimpanzees don’t take time to teach. Killer whales teach, and they share food. When we look at human brains, we see that the human brain is an elaboration on earlier brains, an elaboration that comes through the long sweep of evolution.

If you look at the human brain and a chimpanzee brain, you see that the human brain is basically a very big chimpanzee brain. It’s big at least, so we can retain a certain insecure sense of our own superiority, which is the main thing that matters to us. But, uh-oh, there is a dolphin brain – bigger, more convolutions. What is it doing with that brain? We can see brains, but cannot see minds. Yet, we can see the workings of minds in the logic of behaviors.

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These elephants in this family of elephants have found a shady patch under the palms. That’s a good place to let the babies go to sleep. The adults are resting too, but they are just dozing, and they are staying a little bit vigilant all the time. We make sense of that, because they make sense of the world in similar ways. They look relaxed because they are relaxed. They’ve chosen the shade for the same reason we would choose the shade.

These elephants don’t look relaxed. No one would make that mistake looking at them. They seem alarmed. They are alarmed. There are dangers. There are people who hurt them. It turns out that, if you record the conversations of tourists and you record the conversations of herders, who sometimes hurt elephants, and then you play it through a hidden speaker, the elephants ignore the tourists, but they bunch up and flee in fear from the conversations of herders. They put different kinds of humans in different categories. They know what’s going on. They know who their friends are; they know who their enemies are; they know who their family members are; they have the same imperatives that we have.

Whether on land or in the sea, it’s the same: stay alive, keep your babies alive, let life continue. We see and understand helping. We see curiosity in the young. We see the bonds of family members. We recognize affection for what it is. Courtship is courtship. People sometimes still ask: “But are they conscious?” Well, when you get general anesthesia, you become unconscious. It means that all of your sensory input is stopped. You have no sensation of the world around you. That’s unconscious.

When you have sensation of the world around you, you are conscious. Consciousness is very widespread. Some people think that empathy is a very special thing that only humans have. But empathy is simply the mind’s ability to match the mood of your companions. It’s very useful, and it’s very important. You have to know what’s going on around you, what everybody is doing. The oldest kind of empathy is called contagious fear. If you are with a bunch of companions, and they suddenly all startle and leave, it’s not very good for you to be staying there, saying, “Hey, I wonder why everybody has just left?”

Through evolution, empathy has been embellished as well. I think there are sort of three stages of empathy. There is feeling with another: I see you happy, it makes me happy; I see you sad, it makes me sad.

Then there is sympathy: I’m sorry your grandmother died. I don’t feel the same way that you do, but I sympathize. And then, there is what I call compassion, meaning “acting on your feeling for another.”

[Human Empathy: Far From Perfect] Far from being a special thing that only humans have, human empathy is far from perfect. We round up empathic animals; we kill them, and we eat them. And you might say, “Well, that’s just predation. That is a different species.” Humans are predators, but we’re not so great to our own species either a lot of the time. I’ve noticed that people who know only one thing about animal behavior know this word and that “you must never project human feelings and emotions on other animals.” [Anthropomorphism]

But I’m here to tell you that I think projecting human emotions and human thoughts on other animals is the best first guess about what they are doing and why. After all, it’s not terribly scientific to say they are hungry, when they are eating, and they are tired, when their tongues are hanging out, and then, when they are playing and seem joyful, say, “We have no way of knowing what’s going on in their minds.”

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Now, recently, I sort of had a conversation with a reporter, and the reporter said, “OK, that’s kind of convincing, but, really, how do you really know that other animals think and feel?” And I thought of the hundreds of scientific references that I read when I was writing my book. But then I realized that the answer was right in the room with me: that when my pup comes off the rug and comes over to me, rolls over on her back and exposes her belly, she’s had the thought, “I would like my belly rubbed.” And she knows that she can come to me, not the sofa, that I will understand her request, and that I can get the job done, and she anticipates the pleasure of having her belly rubbed. She can think, and she can feel. And it is not much more complicated than that.

Usually, when we see animals, we say, “Oh, look! There are elephants,” or “There are killer whales!” or whatever it is we see. But to them, they know exactly who they are. This is not just killer whales. That one with the tall fin, that male there, he is 36-year-old L41. Right to his left is his sister. She is 42-year-old L44. They have been together for decades. They know exactly who they are. This is Philo the elephant. This is Philo the elephant four days later. Humans not only feel grief, humans create grief. We want to carve their teeth. Why don’t we wait for them to die? Elephants used to live from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope in Africa.

By 1980 they still had vast strongholds in Central and East Africa. Their ranges are being fractured and fragmented. This is the geography of a magnificent creature that we are driving to extinction. We do much better in our own national parks here in the United States. We simply killed every single wolf in Yellowstone. Then, sixty years later, we brought them back because the elk had gotten out of control. Many thousands of people spent many million of dollars coming to the park to watch the world’s most famous wolves. These are the alpha trio of a very stable pack. That one on the right there is the breeding male. The one on the left is his mate. The other one is his brother.

Then, suddenly, wolves came off the Endangered Species Act. Congress took wolves off. The wolves went to the edge of the park. Those two were shot. The entire pack, which had been so stable, disintegrated into fighting and division. The alpha male of the most famous, most stable pack in Yellowstone lost his companions, his hunting territory and his whole family. We bring them a lot of harm.

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One of the mysteries is: why don’t they harm us very much at all? No free-living killer whale has ever hurt a human being. This one had just finished eating part of a gray whale that he and his family had killed, but those people in the boat had absolutely nothing to fear. This one had just eaten a seal that weight as much as those people in the boat, but they had absolutely nothing to fear. They eat seals. Why don’t they ever eat us? How is it we can trust them around our toddlers? Why is it that, on more than one occasion, killer whales have returned to researchers who got lost in the fog and guided them miles to home?

In the Bahamas, dolphins who were very familiar with Denise Herzing, a researcher there, and very interactive with her, suddenly got entirely skittish. What in the world was going on? Suddenly somebody on the boat realized that a person in the boat had died during a nap in their bunk. How could the dolphins have detected that one of the human hearts had stopped? And why would it spook them? These are the mysteries of other minds. In an aquarium in South Africa, there was a baby bottlenose dolphin. Her name was Dolly. One of the keepers was on a break having a smoke outside the window to the tank. Dolly was watching him smoke. She went over to her mother. She nursed for a couple of moments, she came back to the window, and she released a cloud of milk that enveloped her head like a cloud of smoke.

Somehow, she had the idea of using milk to represent smoke. And when we use one thing to represent another, we call it art. The things that make us human are not what we think. What makes us human is that we are the most extreme. We are the most compassionate; we are the most violent. We are the most creative, and we are the most destructive animals ever to appear on this planet. But we are not the only animals that love one another. We are not the only ones who care for our mates or for our children.

Albatrosses routinely fly six to ten thousand miles to bring back one meal for their chick. They live on the most remote islands in the world, and those islands are covered with plastic trash. Into the sacred chain of being that gives life from one generation to the next is our garbage.

Here is an albatross chick, who was about six months old. It was about to start flying. It died. It was packed with red cigarette lighters. This is not the relationship we are supposed to have with the world, but we, with our big, celebrated brains, don’t use them. Yet, when we welcome new life into the world, we welcome them with pictures of animals. We don’t paint cell phones and work cubicles on nursery walls. We want to say, “Look who is here with us!” And yet, every one of those, every one deemed worthy of being saved on Noah’s Arc, is in mortal danger now, and the flood is us.

We started with a question: “Do they love us?” We need to get outside ourselves a little bit and ask: “Do we have what it takes to simply let life on Earth continue?” Thank you.