Carl Safina: What Animals Think and Feel

Carl Safina, Ph.D., is an ecologist and the inaugural holder of the Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook. He is President of The Safina Center and a world-renowned, award-winning author on oceans, animals, and the human relationship with the natural world. A MacArthur, Pew and Guggenheim Fellow, he hosted the PBS series, Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina.

We were honored to host Carl Safina at the 2017 Bioneers National Conference. Below is a video and edited transcript of his keynote on what animals think and feel.

Carl Safina:

Today we’re going to try to simply ask and answer one question that many of you ask yourself several times a week, and that is: Does my dog really love me or does she just want a treat?

Well, I think that simply by looking at our beloved pets, we can easily see that, yes, of course, they really love us. And just by looking at them, it’s easy to see what’s going on in those furry little heads. Right? Isn’t it easy to see? Or maybe not. Maybe you can’t really tell what’s going on. But I’ll tell you what, something is going on. You can’t tell me that nothing is going on.

Here’s something a little weird. Why is our question: “Do you love me?” Hey, that’s not a question about them. That’s a question about me. That’s my insecurity talking. Do you love me is not a question about them. That’s not how you get to know somebody better. So, I needed a different question, because that question wasn’t helping me get in. And my question became: “Who are you?” That’s a question about you. That’s not a question about me. “Who are you?”

Now there are capacities of the human mind. We know that the human mind has these capacities, but are these capacities of only the human mind? What else is happening in the brains that share this planet with us? Nothing? Is nothing happening?

For a long time many scientists said, well, we can’t know. he question of what goes on in other creatures’ minds, if they even have minds, is not a scientific question because there’s no way in. But that is not true, because there are some good ways in. We can look at brains. We can consider evolution, and we can watch what they do.

This is a famous elephant communication expert named Joyce Poole, and the reason I have a slide of Joyce with a jellyfish is that jellyfish were the first animals in the world to have nerves, neurons, nerve cells. It’s still true that a nerve cell is a nerve cell, whether it’s in a jellyfish or a dog or a human or a crayfish.

Jellyfish gave rise to chordates, chordates gave rise to vertebrates. Vertebrates came out of the sea, built auditoriums, and had conferences, and here we all are.

But our nerve cells are very much like jellyfish nerve cells, individually. If we have the same kind of nerve cells, pretty much, and so do dogs and crayfish, what does this say about the emotional and cognitive life of crayfish? Maybe it says nothing.

It just so happens that if you put crayfish in a laboratory and every time they try to come out to explore from their hiding place, you give them a little electrical shock, they will develop what looks like an anxiety disorder. They will be sort of cringy and stop coming out. They’ll be afraid to come out it seems. They act like they have an anxiety disorder, and if you put in the water a drug used to treat human anxiety disorder, they relax and come out. What do we do to consider the possibility of anxiety among crayfish? We boil them by the thousands.

Octopuses are mollusks, and yet they recognize human faces and use tools, as well as do most apes. How do we honor the ape-like intelligence of octopuses? Mostly we boil them, too.

On coral reefs there are fish called groupers. Several kind of groupers, if they chase a fish that they’d like to eat into a crevice in the rocks or the coral, they sometimes go to where they know a moray eel is sleeping. They have a way of signaling to the moray: Follow me. The moray understands that signal, often will follow. Then the grouper says, It’s here, and the moray understands that too, and the moray will go in, and sometimes the moray will get the fish and sometimes the fish will bolt out and the grouper will get the fish. This is an ancient, interspecies communication partnership and people didn’t know about this until about a decade ago.

Now when I say people, I mean the 17 people who read that paper.

How do we honor this ancient partnership? You might think boiled, but no, fried.

Now, a pattern is emerging and that pattern says a lot more about us than it says about all of them.

Teaching is when you take time away from what you’re doing, to show a child or a companion what to do. That’s teaching. Chimpanzees do not do that. Little ones learn a lot by watching, but older ones don’t stop doing what they’re doing to teach. Sea otters teach. Sea otters teach. Killer whales teach a lot, and they share almost everything that they catch with their family members. They share and they teach. That’s pretty interesting.

If you look at a mouse brain and a human brain side by side, what you see is that a human brain is basically a very elaborated mouse brain. There’s a mammalian brain. Mice have it. Humans have it. Humans have a pretty elaborate one. And this is how evolution works.

Evolution doesn’t take something all of a sudden brand new. It takes the parts that are in stock off the shelf and it fabricates a new twist. That’s how things evolve, that’s how life evolves. Kind of like how cars evolve.

If you look at a human brain and the chimpanzee brain, they don’t look too different. What you see is basically humans have a big chimpanzee brain. It’s a good thing ours are bigger because we’re also the most insecure of all the apes, but, uh-oh, that’s a dolphin. A bigger brain, more elaborate. Does this tell us that dolphins are more intelligent and have more intellect, and think about things more and communicate better? No, it doesn’t tell us that necessarily. Another reason they might have a brain like that might be because of a lot of it is dedicated to processing sound so that they can have the kind of incredible sonar system that they have that we don’t have.

You can see brains but you cannot see the minds. That might seem like a dead end. However, you can see the workings of a mind in the logic of behaviors. For instance, our mind makes sense of a scene exactly how the minds of elephants make sense of a scene.

You can see, just as they have done, that the elephants have found a patch of shade under the palms to let their babies go to sleep. But the big ones don’t go to sleep. The big ones stand up dozing. They remain vigilant, resting, facing outward, touching one another. Exactly how we make sense of that scene is exactly how they make sense of it, and it is exactly what they’re doing.

And that’s because on the same plains as them, under the arc of the same sun, listening to the whoops and roars of the same energies—enemies—we became who we are and they became who they are, and we’ve been neighbors for a very, very long time. We have a lot in common. Our minds were shaped by common needs.

These elephants do not look relaxed and that’s because they’re not. Something has their attention and they’re concerned. What might they be concerned about?

It turns out that if you play recordings of people speaking in English and people speaking in Masai, through a speaker hidden in the bushes, elephants ignore English because tourists speak English, but they bunch up and run away when they hear Masai because Masai people carry spears, they get into confrontations with elephants at water holes, and elephants often get hurt. They know not only that there are different kinds of animals and one of them is humans, they know there are different kinds of humans and some of them are fine and others are dangerous. They’ve been watching us for a much longer time, more carefully than we’ve been watching them.

We are all mammals, and under the skin we have almost everything in common and our imperatives are the same. Find food, stay alive, keep our babies alive. Take care of our children. That’s what life is for mammals. Under the skin they have the same skeleton, the same organs, essentially the same nervous system. The same chemicals that create mood and motivation in human beings, create mood and motivation in them. They have the exact same chemicals. These happen to be mammals that are outfitted for hiking. These are mammals outfitted for diving.

In the flippers of whales are the exact same bones that are in your hand. Under the skin we are all kin. We are organically related. We are family. This is the truth of the matter. And so we see commonalities that we all understand. They understand helping when helping is needed, the same way we do. We see curiosity mostly in the young who are exploring the world for the first time.

We see the deep bonds of family relation. We see the deep bonds of mates to one another. Dancing is dancing. Courtship is courtship. We see it and we recognize it for exactly what it actually is.

And then we ask a really weird question: Are they even conscious?

Why would we ask a question like that? When you get general anesthesia, you become unconscious. That means that the sensory input from your sense organs is something you stop experiencing. It’s like you take your eyes and your ears and your nose and disconnect them from your brain. Then when you come out of it you regain consciousness. You get your senses connected back to your brain. That’s what consciousness is. It’s an awareness of your senses. Why would we ask whether animals that have eyes and see with them, ears and hear with them, noses and smell with them, who play with each other, are conscious? Why would we ask that question? Because we have a favorite story, and our favorite story is we’re the only ones that matter and we’re the best.

There are various people who try to say that “blank” makes us human like it’s a Mad Lib’s line. One of the things they say is that empathy makes us human. Well, it turns out that empathy is one of the oldest emotions because anything that lives in a group needs to have empathy. Empathy is when your mind matches your mood to the mind of your companions. Every group-living animal needs that kind of empathy, that mood matching, because when it’s time to hurry up you better hurry up right away. It doesn’t pay if you’re with hundreds of companions and they all startle and fly away, it does not pay for you to say, Geez, that’s a lot of work, flying away, I’m going to just stay right here. I wonder why they all just left. That’s no good. That’s why we all have empathy.

The oldest kind of empathy is contagious fear. Anybody who has money in the stock market knows that humans have that kind of contagious fear, that kind of empathy.

Everything in the living world is on a sliding scale, including empathic abilities. I say that empathy, basic empathy is mood matching. Sympathy, a little bit more distant. “I’m sorry to hear that your great grandmother has passed away.” You’re not feeling the same grief, but you understand it. And then if you are moved to act, I call that compassion. We have all of that on a range. Some other species also have that range.

Human empathy is not the thing that makes us human. It’s far from perfect. We round up empathic, loyal creatures and we kill them and we eat them. And if you say, well, that’s kind of a trick example. Okay. Maybe. But we’re not too good to each other either.

People who only know one thing about animal behavior know that you’re not ever allowed to use this word and do this thing, which is to attribute human thoughts and emotions to other species. This is against the rules. Well, science is not supposed to have rules. Science is supposed to have curiosity and find out what’s really going on. So that is unscientific.

It is unscientific to easily say, Oh, they’re hungry when they’re hunting and they’re ripping food apart. Oh, they’re exhausted when their tongues are hanging out, and then when they’re playing and having fun with their children say, Oh I don’t even know if they’re conscious. They’re certainly not capable of feeling joy. Joy is a human emotion. We can’t have anthropomorphize. That is not scientific, but that’s our favorite story. We’re the only ones.

I was talking to a reporter about this one time, and I thought I was doing a good job of explaining. And she said, Okay okay, you’re saying all this stuff, but how do I really, really know? How do you know that other animals can think or feel?

And I was trying to think of, well, what is the best scientific paper example that I can use, and then I realized the answer was right on the rug. When my puppy comes over to me and rolls over on her back, now she doesn’t get up from the rug and go over to the dining room table and roll over on her back. Right? She comes to me. Why does she do that? Because she’s just had a thought and the thought is, I would like my belly rubbed and I’m going to go to him because we are family. And I know that if I roll over on my back, I have nothing to fear. I cannot only trust him completely, but he knows what I’m asking for, and he knows how to get the job done and make it feel really good. She has had a thought and she has felt, and it’s not really a lot more complicated than that.

But if you think that’s not scientific enough, I can tell you that recently people have trained dogs to go in MRIs where they can watch their brains light up and see that dog love in the brain is the same as human love in the human brain.

You all have seen your pets sleeping, and thinking that they’re dreaming because their legs are twitching and they’re going, Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, and you say, well, they’re dreaming. Well, they are dreaming. You can wire up the brain of a rat and watch it dream. They dream. Now we have scientific proof of what’s going on. It’s no longer true that there’s no scientific way into the mind of others. There is.

But that’s still not how we see them. We see them by labeling them. We say, Oh, elephants, oh, killer whales, wolves, and we label them and then we move on. That’s not how they see one another.

That tall finned male, he is L22, part of the L pod. He was 34 years old when I took this photograph. The female to his left is his cousin. She was 44 years old. They have known each other for decades. They have traveled thousands of miles together. They can hear each other when they can’t see each other. They know how to find each other easily. They know who they are. They know where they are. They know what they’re doing. They have lives.

This is an elephant named Philo. He was adolescent male, he had just left his family recently. That’s what adolescent male elephants do. The females stay with their mothers and aunts. The males leave. He had left recently. That’s Philo. That’s Philo four days later.

Humans not only feel grief, we generate an unbelievable amount of it. And why? We want to carve their teeth. Why can’t we wait for them to die? Their teeth would all be bigger.

In Roman times, elephants lived from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope. The first time I went into Africa, elephants lived in gigantic patches of the continent. Now, they live in little disconnected shards, and we are grinding those disconnected shards smaller and smaller. This is the geography of the greatest land animal on the planet being driven to extinction so we can carve their teeth.

In the United States, of course, we take much better care of our wildlife. We paid wildlife rangers to kill every wolf in Yellowstone Park. They were about the last wolves south of the Canadian border, and it worked. Sixty years later the elk populations and the deer had exploded so much and were eating so much of the vegetation that after a 20-year fight wolves were brought back to Yellowstone. And there are some in Northern California now.

People who go to Yellowstone just to see the wolves there spend $30 million a year. It’s hundreds of times more than the value of the cows that wolves kill, but in the fall of 2012, somebody in Congress highlighted the word wolf on the Endangered Species Act and hit the delete key. They went from totally protected to essentially unprotected, considered vermin outside the park. And there are many people who hate wolves with a passion that is irrational. It’s so irrational a hatred it feels racial. It’s weird.

But in the park there was one family of wolves. A wolf pack is a nuclear family. It has usually two breeding adults—mom and dad—and their young from 2 or 3 years. When their young get to be adolescents, they leave to try to find their stake in life, just like in our nuclear families. That’s why we have domestic wolves called dogs living in our homes. They understand nuclear families. Chimpanzees don’t. That’s why we don’t have chimpanzees living in our homes.

This family had mom and dad and dad’s brother. They went outside the park at the onset of winter because Yellowstone is 7,000 feet. Almost all the animals leave in the winter. It’s not a good place to be in the winter. They went following the prey. The uncle was shot almost immediately. They retreated. They went back a couple weeks later, the mother was shot. And then this family that had been very, very stable started to do something weird. Violent sibling rivalry. There had been total order, loyalty, organization. Now, it was chaos.

The most precocious of the wolves, the one on her back there, was kicked out of her family. That’s her on the left. The father started wandering around, maybe trying to look for his mate and his brother, but he lost everything. He lost his family. He lost his hunting support. He lost his mate and brother. He lost his territory where the food is. I thought she would do okay because she was about the age where she was going to leave anyway, and he was doomed. But what happened instead was a few months later she was shot starving at somebody’s chicken coop, and he survived. Two years later, he had a new mate, a new territory, and pups.

Why am I telling you the details of that story? Because they have lives. And when we hurt and kill them, the trajectory of life for the survivors is totally changed. It’s different from what it would have been. They’re not just numbers. They’re individuals in families, with relationships. We are made individuals by our relationships and so are they.

We hurt them so much that I’m often perplexed about why they don’t hurt us more than they do. No free-living killer whale has ever hurt a human being. This whale had just finished eating part of a gray whale that he and his companions had killed, but those researchers in that boat had nothing to fear from him because they don’t hurt us.

This whale had just ripped a seal in three pieces with his friends. His name is T20. That little boat came around the corner, suddenly he was there. Instead of fleeing in fear, they knew that they had nothing to be afraid of and they stopped to take pictures, even though each of them weighed about as much as the seal he’d just killed.

They eat seals, but why don’t they eat us? Why can we trust them around our toddlers? Why is it that two different scientists in two different countries have a very similar story? And I’ll tell you one of them.

They were traveling around following killer whales because they were studying where they went, and they went into a deep fog bank where they couldn’t see anything. The whales were gone, and they said, Okay, well that’s the end of that observation. Let’s try to figure out what direction home is. They put the cameras away, looked at the compass and started up. Two minutes later the killer whales are there in front of the boat. And they say, Well, that’s pretty interesting. We’re supposed to be following killer whales, let’s follow them. They went 15 miles through the fog following the killer whales, and when they broke out of the fog bank the researcher’s house was right there on the shore and the whales left.

In the Bahamas, there’s a researcher named Denise Herzing. She studies spotted dolphins. She’s been doing it for 30 years. When her boat shows up, they recognize it, they know who she is, they all come over and start bow-riding. She goes there one time and she sees the dolphins and they won’t come near the boat. She says, Wow, what in the world is wrong with the dolphins today? And somebody suddenly comes up from below to announce that somebody on board had just died during a nap in his bunk. Now, how can the dolphins know that one of the human hearts has stopped? Why would they care, and why would it spook them?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I know what it means. It means that there is a lot going on in the other minds that share this planet with us that we never, with our minds that we’re so proud of, we never think about.

In an aquarium in South Africa, there was a nursing-age baby bottlenose dolphin. Her name was Dolly. A keeper was on a break smoking, looking through the window at the pool, and the little baby Dolly came over and looked at him while he was smoking, and then she went to her mother and she nursed, and then she came back to the window and she let go of all the milk and it surrounded her head like a cloud of smoke. A nursing-age infant dolphin got the idea, I’m going to use milk to imitate whatever he’s doing. When humans use one material to represent another, we call that art. The things that make us human are not the things we keep telling ourselves make us human.

Here’s what I think it is. I don’t think it’s that we do everything totally uniquely and differently. I think it’s that we are the extreme animals. We are the most creative and the most destructive, the most compassionate and the cruelest animal that has ever lived. We are all of those things all the time all jumbled up together, and that is us.

Love and caring is not new with us and it’s not the thing that makes us human. We’re not the only ones that care about our mates. We’re not the only ones that care about our children.

Albatrosses live in the middle of the ocean on the most remote islands in the world, and they travel for two to four weeks, 8,000 to 10,000 miles, to bring back one gigantic meal for their chick. That’s a lot of devotion. This is what it looks like at Laysan island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We don’t know about them but boy they know about us. After they go 8,000 miles, for three or four weeks and come back, they feed their babies things like the screw tops to peanut butter jars and a lot of the other plastic that is out there. It doesn’t always kill them. It’s never good for them. And sometimes it does hurt them.

This one was about to fledge, about 6 months old, and died and was packed with red cigarette lighters. Now, this is not the relationship we are supposed to have with the rest of the living world. It’s not the one we want to have. But we don’t think about the consequences of our actions. Even though we’ve named ourselves after our brains.

Yet when we expect new human life, we paint animals on the nursery room walls. We don’t paint cell phones. We don’t paint desks and work cubicles. We paint animals. We don’t even realize why we’re doing it.

Here’s why I think we do it. I think because we have a blessing for our babies that we’re not even aware of, and what it says is: Welcome to this beautiful, living world. We’re not alone. We have company. And yet every one of those animals, in every painting you see of Noah’s Ark, these animals deemed worthy of salvation by the Creator, every one of them is in mortal danger now. And their flood is the rising tide of us.

I started by saying, Do they love us? That question needs to be turned around. The question is: Are we capable, are our human minds capable, of loving them enough to simply let them continue to exist on Earth with us?

That is a write-your-own-ending kind of a story.

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