Opinion: On Animal Emotions

Even if animals do have emotions, anthropomorphism and language impede our understanding of their experiences.

By | February 16, 2016

WIKIMEDIA, CHAD MILLERDo you love your dog? Does your dog love you?

How do you know? Who can prove it doesn’t?

Virtually every human emotion has been attributed to animals, and assertions that nonhuman animals have emotions “just like people” are frequent. Evidence to suggest animals have emotions comes from two sources: observations of animal behavior and inference from evolutionary theory.


The most compelling observations are those made on wild animals, either in the field or in captivity, usually by researchers who have long interacted with the species. A researcher observes an animal behaving in a way similar to the way humans might behave under similar circumstances and posits they must be experiencing the same emotions. If a female chimpanzee cradles her dead offspring and exhibits facial expressions similar to a human mother who recently lost her child, she must be grieving.

A less scientific but more influential source of belief about animal emotions comes from owners of domestic animals, especially companion animals like dogs and cats. These relationships are often close and enduring. If a dog jumps up and down, dashes back and forth, wags its tail wildly and barks loudly when his owner returns home, the dog is “joyful.” If a cat twines itself around its returning owner’s legs, it is “loving.”

These observations of actual behavior are objectively verifiable. They are open to any observer, and differences between observers can be reconciled with further observations. In contrast, the inferred underlying emotional states are subjective and any differences between observers cannot be reconciled with further observations. The behavior is fact; the inferred emotion is belief.  


Beliefs about animal emotions are shaped by anthropomorphism and language.

Anthropomorphism is a logical first-order approach in the absence of any other method of analysis. But the experimental approach, which came into prominence 500 years ago, has now become widespread, due to its superior ability to explain how things work. While this second-order approach has sometimes supported long standing first-order explanations, more frequently, it has modified or overthrown them.

We have generally given up anthropomorphizing about inanimate objects and processes, although residues of the habit occasionally surface, especially when our self-control leaves us. (Who has not cursed a “recalcitrant” inanimate object, such as a door or drawer that has thwarted his will?) Yet we have not been able to give up anthropomorphizing living things, because while the second-order approach is robust when it comes to things that can be observed and measured, such as cognitive abilities, it is at sea when it comes to things that cannot be observed or measured absolutely, such as emotions. We know what motivates us and how we feel when we behave in a certain way, so why not apply this knowledge to similar behaviors in other beings?

Language also colors our thinking about animals. When language is used to describe the activities of nonhuman animals, the listener inescapably applies our languages’ human-centric connotations to the words and their objects. To say, for example, “my dog loves me” connotes that my dog loves me in a human way. But this cannot be, if for no other reason than that a dog has no apparent knowledge of the ephemerality of existence, knowledge that is embedded in every human emotion. And if a dog loves me in a canine way, how that love may be similar to and different from human love is beyond objective resolution.

Our long experience with language means that we now have single words, like love, that we all agree usefully denote particular inner human experiences. Some animals may have emotions as sublime as those expressed in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but without an objective means of communicating them, we can never know.

If inferences about animal emotions are fraught with anthropomorphism and language bias, surely evolutionary principles provide an unbiased way of thinking about animal emotions. But evolution can say only it is plausible that the precursors to human emotions did arise long before humans evolved. Just as certain bones can be identified all the way along the evolutionary tree from primitive fishes to humans so too can certain neuro-anatomical, chemical and physiological substrates associated with emotions in humans be traced well back in our ancestry. But while we can identify these “tangible” substrates in animals, the associated emotions they support, if any, remain a matter of irreconcilable opinion. If stimulation of a part of the brain causes a monkey and a human to react in the same way, we have only one human word to describe the reaction, the word we know only from human experience, say, rage. We have no way of knowing if the monkey is experiencing an emotion similar to the human version and, if it is, how that emotion compares with our own. Further, if an animal should have a unique component to its reactions, we would have no basis for even thinking about it. We can discuss and compare behaviors, but not emotions that may be inferred to underlie them.

Consider the longest and most influential relationship in shaping human attitudes about emotions in animals. Dogs have been domesticated longer than any other species, possibly as long as 35,000 years, ample time for them to have evolved in response to humans’ expectations. Further, the selection has probably been intense, because a noncompliant domestic dog doesn’t fare well. It is quite possible, therefore, that dogs have evolved a capacity to “read” humans’ expectations and have adapted pre-existing behaviours or evolved new ones that fulfill them. A dog doesn’t have to love you; it just has to behave as if it does. In recent times especially, dogs, possibly more than any other animal, are purchased with an expectation of an emotional relationship— and we all want our investments to succeed.

The inescapable truth is that, even if some animals are emotional beings, we will never know how those emotions are experienced. The philosopher, Thomas Nagel, sign-posted this epistemological dead-end concisely in 1974, when he pointed out we can never know what it is like to be a bat. Hanging upside down in the dark in a batman suit just won’t cut it.

The problem of knowing whether animal emotions exist and if so how they are experienced is so intractable it could be regarded as biology’s uncertainty principle.

Allen Greer is an Australian biologist who writes about science and nature. His books include Biology of Australian Lizards, Biology of Australian Snakes, and The Tasmanian Devil: Biology, Facial Tumour Disease and Conservation. His work has also appeared in Australian Quarterly, Australasian Science, and elsewhere.

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Avatar of: Gilbert White

Gilbert White

Posts: 13

February 16, 2016

Whoever said, "human intelligence is greatly over-rated" was on target. In any case studying comparative intelligence and emotions should compel examining and redefining our own intelligence and emotions.

Avatar of: ctrent


Posts: 2

February 16, 2016

This article is really not necessary.  The principle of the inaccessibility of other minds is an old one and Thomas Nagel is hardly the definitive word on this.  He is just one of many going back hundreds if not thousands of years in intellectual history.

For example, Kant did an excellent exposition on the categorical limits of human understanding well over 200 years ago.  And, the extreme form of this issue, solipsism, is a problem taken up thousands of years ago.  

I would think it obvious that the issue of animal emotions is unanswerable.

Avatar of: JonRichfield


Posts: 136

February 16, 2016

Although most of the article is unobjectionable, it contributes nothing to the fact that practically everything it says, including about anthropomorphism,  applies just as strongly to the problem of inferring emotions in humans.
Anyone with even an elementary understanding of ethology will be vividly aware of the difficulties of dealing with or avoiding anthropomorphism, but really, it is no more than an extension of the problems of existentialism in that it just as much of a challenge in humans as in animals.

And it is not even a problem for which we have conceived any scientific approach; even where we can make falsifiable predictions, none of them that anyone has published to my knowledge, so much as hints at dealing with the hard problem of consciousness and emotion. We don't know how to approach it in humans,animals, plants, robots or mousetraps; not in lizards, and not in the thrashing, autotomised tails of lizards, nor drugged or anaesthetised humans.

What we see is consistent with emotions of similar basic mechanisms in all animals and humans, but about equally consistent with emotional solipsism and its inverse: universal mind and mechanism.

I strongly urge that interested parties read sources such as:
King Solomon's Ring (Konrad Lorenz)
The Mind's I (Hofstadter & Dennett)
The Major Transitions in Evolution (John Maynard Smith and E Szathmary)

There are others, but these may be among the most entertaining and stimulating.

But if one thing is certain, it is that the field is no more amenable to simplistic dismissal than simplistic anthropomorphism. 

Avatar of: JonRichfield


Posts: 136

February 16, 2016

Perhaps more interestingly (or not, according to taste) the problem of  "what it is like to be a bat" (or mole, or tapeworm, or termite, or termite colony, or Portia (spider), or human, or nation)  suggests to me that insofar as the question is meaningful, we might speculate reasonably  that it is much like being what we are, to the extent that the mental equipment is adequate, and our senses match.  (For instance it would not likely be worth expecting much speculation or introspection in a tapeworm, even if it really is like anything at all to be a tapeworm.)
The thing is that no matter what a sentient being's world is like, its senses must reflect the nature of its world, and to that extent its world should be consistent. An eyeless mole might not be aware of light or dark (any more than we are aware or unaware of the absence of ultrasonic echolocatory  signals) but it would be aware of the presence, absence and nature of the things around it that matter, and in ways that must be isomorphic to similarly competent senses in other creatures if they are to be meaningful .

Avatar of: Mounthell


Posts: 52

February 16, 2016

In concert with other commenters here, before attempting to evaluate animal emotion we might question the much-lauded profundity of that which we so eagerly celebrate (as in digital effusions of social display) in bandwagon-accord with commercial ends.

Avatar of: StDogbert


Posts: 1

February 16, 2016

So,   if their endorphin levels rise when they seem to be experiencing joy, it is probably coincidence -   if their cortisol levels rise when they seem to be experiencing pain, it is probably coincidence -   if their oxytocin levels rise when they seem to be experiencing love, it is probably coincidence -    if we try too hard to make our observations objective, we risk becoming blind...  
Avatar of: RonYoung


Posts: 1

February 17, 2016

JonRichfield's expansive comments do get to the nub of the matter: We must be circumspect about applying our own subjective experience to animals based upon analogising their behaviours with our own. But we have to be equally cautious about doing the same for other humans. In either case we can only deal with observed behaviour. But if we accept that it is fair to extrapolate from the similarity of the behaviours of other human beings to our own behaviours, to infer that they they must have minds like ours, because they share a common ancestry with us, then why should we draw a line between that inference and a similar extrapolation to the behaviours of animals, who also share a common ancestry with us - including extensive genotypic and phenotypic features? 

Replied to a comment from RonYoung made on February 17, 2016

February 18, 2016

Of course we can know how dogs feel as long as we understand that the difference between human and animal emotions is one of kind, not degree (as Darwin suggested).

I would categorize canine emotions as simple, while human emotions can be both simple and complex. One example of a simple emotion would be a feeling of loss, which many animals, including birds, seem quite capable of experiencing. The more complex side of the coin would be grief, which carries with it, for example, an understanding of what death is.

* "If it be maintained that certain powers such as self-consciousness, abstraction,etc. are peculiar to man, it may well be that that these are the indidental results of other highly-advanced faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the use of a highly-developed language." (The Descent of Man, 1871, 101).

Avatar of: typicalanimal


Posts: 7

February 19, 2016

Well really, this really is a very low quality and ludicrous article, I suggest the author should focus on doing something elsewhere, talk about something he knows something about and stop making a fool of himself. If his reputation is worth anything at all to him.    

If anything language is what's wrong and what causes humans not to understand each other, because it causes us to neglect body language and actions and instead often be fooled by words and sophistication. Language can be very fake and unnatural while relationships between animals very rarely are.

A lot of people, including unfortunately people who write in this area for hundreds of years, have an inner contempt of animals, and do not want to believe that they are just like us in many, many ways. Use words like "anthropomorphism" in totally irrelevant contexts where they have no meaning, and think that's an argument. I feel sorry for the sordid dearth of thinking capacity and judgement that comes up with this rubbish.  


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