Monday, 3 May 2010

Death rites or delusions?

Yesterday evening I watched ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, Wes Anderson’s interpretation of Roald Dahl’s story about the adventures of Mr. Fox and his family. The film juxtaposes wonderfully human and animal behaviour: relationships between the animals are as layered and complex as those of humans, while their dining habits are highly characteristic for animals - putting their faces in their plates and ripping the food to pieces. As well as being a delightful story, this film also touches upon an interesting and ever-present question: do animals have feelings in the same way as humans do?

One aspect of this issue was addressed in two arresting articles in the always-interesting scientific journal Current Biology, both of which received a lot of press last week. Both concerned the reactions of groups of chimpanzees, one wild and one captive, to the death of a member of their troop. When Pansy, a 50+ year old female chimp living in the Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park in Sterling was dying, the females of the troop groomed her and following her death, her daughter spent the night by her side on a platform where she would never normally stay. The images from the other article were no less affecting: a mother carrying her deceased infant for as long as 68 days after its death.

When reading such stories, it is hard not to think in terms of the chimps' grief or anguish and to consider these rituals as part of a mourning process, just as we might respond to the loss of a mother or child. There are reports of death rituals in birds too, but I doubt they would affect us in quite the same way as watching these wild, yet recognisably close creatures in an apparent state of mourning - chimps are genetically our closest ancestor and possess features that we cannot help but respond to.

But at what point does such empathy turn into anthropomorphism? This touches on an old question of how well we can start to describe how animals actually feel, even one as close to us as a chimp. The philosopher Thomas Nagel once raised this famously in his succinctly titled article "What is it like to be a bat?”. This general problem was also a prime driver in the behaviourist movement in experimental psychology where people such as B.F. Skinner, and more recently Howard Rachlin, have argued that there can only be observable inputs and outcomes - the animal responds to its environment partly as a sort of reflex – as internal emotions or motivations are just hypothetical constructs which we try to guess through an animal’s responses.

The particular interpretations of these two recent Current Biology articles are discussed in a lucid comment piece in the Guardian last Saturday by Ros Coward, pointing out a need for replicable research that measures tangible effects such as stress levels or the amount of time spent engaging in particular behaviours. These existential questions concerning what goes on in the minds of animals are approached almost from an entirely opposite angle across a few episodes of my favourite radio programme Radiolab, where the potential similarities between our minds and those of other mammals are explored (main episode: Animal Minds, Shorts: Fu Manchu and The shy baboon).

There is also another side to the anthropomorphism that is less remarked upon, which highlights something fundamental, perhaps unique, to being human: our incessant ability to find narrative.  In a fascinating study which builds on original research from the 1940s and was published in the journal Brain in 2002, a group lead by Uta Frith at UCL documented how people would ascribe intentions and emotions such as being happy or even seduction to abstract shapes moving around on a screen. Have a look at the coaxing, dancing and drifting shapes and see for yourself how easy it is to attach human emotion to these inanimate animated objects. Interestingly, this effect that was much less evident in adults with autism, which goes along with a prominent theory that autistic people lack an ability to ascribe mental states to others.

Do these results published in Current Biology mean that animals have the same feelings of fear and pain as we do? If so, does the only difference between them and us lie in the fact that we can put our feelings into words to explain them to others? And how ‘animal’ are we? Are we just as much responding to our environment in a reflex-like manner, but with the benefit of having an ability to narrate our actions, seemingly explaining them to ourselves and others?