Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry

Despite his great intellectual contributions to the worlds of science, philosophy and mathematics, the French philosopher Rene Descartes really screwed things up for centuries to come when, from his internal experience of himself as indivisible, thinking and rational, he concluded that his essence was immaterial and independent of any physical properties. One consequence of this line of thought was that since animals do not seem to be rational beings, they must have no minds and are therefore merely complex machines devoid of sentience. If you beat an animal, the noise emitted, on this view, would not be an indication of pain but merely the sound produced by the physical internal machinery of the animal. Unfortunately, this would become the intellectual justification for a great deal of cruelty for far too long.

At least since Descartes, it has been anathema in scientific circles to anthropomorphize animals and attribute to them emotions and rich internal lives the way we would to human beings. It wasn't until the 20th century, with the work of people like Jane Goodall and the application of evolutionary theories of mind, that we would come to understand that rather than standing apart and independently of nature, our own mental and emotional lives resemble those of other animals precisely because our common ancestors (all the way back to cold-blooded animals) would have had to evolve certain psychological adaptations in order to increase their own fitness.

In short, anthropomorphizing is a conceptual problem because we begin with the assumption that our own mental and emotional lives are the starting point. In reality, the richness of our mental and emotional lives is a result of our animal nature, which existed long before we ever came into the scene, as you can see in this very moving documentary. Your heart might break a few times...



I don't honestly know whether the kitty in the picture above is caressing the chick out of affection, or whether it's thinking 'you'll be my dinner soon'... :)

I'll post the continuation of this documentary soon.
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