Monday, May 01, 2006

A different view on animals' emotions

Warbling Vireo on Saturday, 4/29/06
Photo by Bruce Yolton

Steve Watson, a scientist [though not a biologist,] and a long-time correspondent of this website, [remember Lili and Dash, his beautiful but ill-fated kestrels he was monitoring at his home in California?]writes in to respectfully disagree with John Blakeman's "Let's get real" letter. I posted it here two days ago. Here's what Steve has to say:

People may be doing a bit of anthropomorphizing (with which I disagree) and I'm certainly no biologist, but John Blakeman's statements like "that's the only way animals without complex cerebral cortices can act" are perhaps a bit too pat. I said it before, and I'll say it again...we can no more know if a bird feels loss or sorrow than we can another person, because we can't get into their brain. We can make knowledgeable assumptions, but to state unequivocally that they "can't cerebrally contemplate the loss", I think, goes too far. I think that most of the biologists I've met would say something like "we don't currently believe that [some species] have emotions such as loss or sorrow" and state why, but they would never state it in such absolute terms.

I'm not arguing that these birds DO feel a sense of loss, just that telling people to "get real" and that Pale Male and the others "can't emote like we do" came across as a bit pedantic...and I normally really *like* what John writes! :) I actually doubt that they *do* feel any sense of loss at a failed clutch, but who are we to say that they don't? One would have conduct some sort of controlled experiment (and be able to measure emotion somehow) in order to prove such a statement...and that would be a very difficult thing to do.

There are plenty of instances of animals exhibiting sorrow/loss/grief at the loss of an infant offspring, so it's not inconceivable to me that a bird wouldn't feel *some* sense of loss at a failed clutch. I think it would be interesting for your readers to discuss the harsh aspects of nature and perhaps the rates of clutch failure and infant mortality in wild raptors, as well as how one would test an hypothesis relating to whether they have such feelings as loss or sorrow.