by Geoff Olson
You may have heard that dogs share a hormone with humans called oxytocin, which is associated with bonding behaviour. Scientists have found that when a dog looks at its owner the oxytocin levels rise, which they interpret as the biochemical signature of love.
This finding probably comes as no great discovery to most dog owners, including me. It wouldn’t have surprised Charles Darwin either.
“The fact that the lower animals are excited by the same emotions as ourselves is so well established, that it will not be necessary to weary the reader by many details…The love of a dog for his master is notorious,” the English naturalist observed in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man.
Surprisingly, the word ‘love’ appears over a hundred times in The Descent of Man, in reference to both humans and non-humans. Yet the term was destined to be exorcised almost completely from 20th Century scientific literature on animals.
The ‘L word’ didn’t fare too well in citations for Homo sapiens, either. In the effort to rid personal bias of any kind from their research, academics reduced human activity to kinship patterns and economic relations, and dismissed subjective states as side-effects of hormonal secretions and nerve impulses.
When anthropologist Laura Bohannan studied a remote tribe in Nigeria in the forties and fifties, she fell in love with the people. While this state of mind opened her eyes in a new way, she could no longer regard the tribe with the objective detachment expected of a serious anthropologist. Fearful her scientific career would be ruined by acknowledging this attitudinal shift, she published her 1954 study of the Tiv people under a pseudonym, in the form of a novel.
When Return to Laughter was reprinted years later, it became a classic in the field of ethnography, and Bohannan finally felt comfortable acknowledging authorship.
Similarly, young Jane Goodall broke academic ground with the release of her moving 1971 date book, In the Shadow of Man, which detailed her close-up observations of wild chimpanzees. Scientists are now prepared to accept the idea that primates have complex inner lives, but many serious-minded people still refuse to to extend this notion to other social animals.
Darwin knew otherwise. “The social animals which stand at the bottom of the scale are guided almost exclusively, and those which stand higher in the scale are largely guided, by special instincts in the aid which they give to the members of the same community; but they are likewise in part impelled by mutual love and sympathy, assisted apparently by some amount of reason,” he observed in 1871.
In 2013, former San Diego Seaworld orca trainer John Hargrove told NPR that the killer whale Takara was still a calf when aquarium staff separated her from her mother Kasatka. Hargrove said when the calf was put on a stretcher and trucked out to Florida, Kasatka “was emitting vocalizations that had never been heard before ever by anyone,” which went on for an extended period. The mother was calling – or screaming – for her missing daughter.
Orca, beluga, or any other cetacean: can anyone seriously believe that a creature with a brain more complex than Homo sapiens can feel any less grief in maternal separation, or less despair living out a life in a tank only a few times greater than its own length?
The good news is this: across the world, from animal captivity to factory farming to trophy hunting, there’s a seismic shift underway in cross-species compassion. Earlier this August, animal rights activist Virginia Ruiz leapt into a bullfighting ring in Malaga, Spain, to comfort a dying bull. Ironically, in 2007 the Balearic Islands of Spain introduced the world’s first legislation granting legal rights to all great apes. And in 2014, a Argentinian court ruled that an orangutang named Sandra is a subject of rights and not a thing.
Speaking of personhood for great apes, after the worldwide uproar over the crossbow killing of Cecil the Lion, dentist and trophy hunter Walter Palmer may have to change his name to Persona Non Grata.
I started with Darwin, but I will leave the last words to physicist Albert Einstein: ““A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” [Italics mine]
Amen, Al. Cheers, Chuck.
The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 27