Dogs, Cats, And Descartes

08/12/2016 12:46

During the recent COAPE presentation we saw a clip from Animal Odd Couples about a cat that adopts a clutch of newly hatched ducklings the very day she gives birth to her own kittens.

The story is remarkable because one would have expected the cat to kill and eat the ducklings. Instead, the oxytocin surge experienced by all mammals upon giving birth was timed such that she extended her maternal drive to the ducklings and reared them as her own. However, there were no emotions, as we understand emotion, behind its behaviour.

When dog ethologists wish to strip away the possibility of dogs having any real emotions they may go the route of Ray Coppinger whose 2001 book argues that what we assume to be emotions in dogs are genetically programmed motor reflexes or biologically-drive hormone surges. He tells a story about his dog, Lina, who gave birth to a puppy in a field and returned to her nest in the barn to deliver the rest of the litter, leaving the puppy alone and calling in distress. Even though the puppy would shortly die, Lina had not yet experienced the hormonal surge that follows birth, so did not feel the need to retrieve her pup (though Ray did).

Another of his dogs, Tilly, made no effort to attend to her puppy when it made a similar distress call at a few weeks old. Were Ray's dogs heartless mothers? He argues that the retrieval motor pattern switches on following birth (but not during it) and switches off in the mother dog at around day fourteen of her pups' lives. Pups can cry all they want outside of these times, but a mother dog doesn't feel anything. She takes orders from her hormones, not her heart.

"Scientists are sometimes accused of not being aware that animals have emotions or can think. On the other hand, scientists warn people that they should not be anthropomorphic, giving animals human characters," writes Coppinger, who does not believe a dog has "a mind", but a kind of neurological control system preserving its life and push its genes into the next generation.

It should make us all uncomfortable, however, to realise that many of the same arguments used by scientists to prevent us from having too much empathy for animals are similar to those advanced years ago about human children. Until late last century, the same scientists that would have laughed at those of us who won't eat animals (because animals have feelings) would have laughed at us for assuming human babies had feelings--even physical sensations--which is why operations were performed without anaesthesia on human infants until the late 1970's.

The divisions insisted upon by scientists seem arbitrary. We know that the presence of noradrenaline in our brains is part of what makes us feel anxious. We also know that a glut of glucocortisoids is a marker for when we feel depressed. I may be depressed because I am lonely--the same reason the dog left on its own for fourteen hours daily feels depressed. The dog and I may even share the presence of corticosteroids in our brains. But according to the scientists, we cannot compare our feelings. I have a "mind" but the dog does not.

While I wouldn't leave a newborn dying in the grass even if I were giving birth to a second, I admit to having had no interest in babies before I gave birth to my daughter. At nine months pregnant, I looked at others' newborns and felt nothing. Even so, I fell in love with my newborn daughter, and have adored both my children ever since. Did the release of maternal hormones following my own children's births give a temporary rise to patterns of maternal care until more complex social bonds could be established? Does it matter? We are separating out emotions from the presence of certain neurochemicals as though these things can be separated--is that wise?

The neuroscientist and author, Antonio Demasio, explains in his 2006 book, Descartes Error, that "Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it." Descartes flawed legacy to us was in his argument that the mind and body are somehow separate, and that our minds drive our bodily behaviour.

Is the insistence upon a separation between true emotions and the neurological processes governing them an analogous error to that of Descartes? Is it correct to imagine that neurotransmitters and hormones that influence the behaviour of animals are separate in kind from the emotions that govern human behaviour? After all, the brains of all mammals are remarkably similar in structure. And while I switched in a heartbeat from being indifferent toward newborns to being deeply in love with my own, nobody ever tested my postnatal response to a duckling.