Yes, animals have minds. No, they are not people.
From Heather Dockray at Mashable:
Earlier this week, a photo began circulating on the Internet that featured three predictably adorable kangaroos. The story, as many news organizations projected it, featured a male kangaroo, reaching out to hold his dying kangaroo wife, who just wanted to embrace her baby. As a story, it had the key, painterly, elements of viral triptych: a cute animal + a sad death + a tiny, human-like gesture. For 24 hours, it dominated the Internet, grabbed our headlines, and stole our desperate little hearts.
It was also completely and totally wrong, as Mashable reported.
After the picture went viral, scientists began to speak up. No, this wasn’t a quiet act of intimacy, they argued. No, the male kangaroo wasn’t whispering sweet nothings into her floppy ear, as she descended into the soft kangaroo afterlife. The kangaroo mom wasn’t reaching out to her baby to wish him a sweet “goodbye.” When he grabbed her head, scientists speculated, he was trying to mate her –- forcefully, aggressively. It’s even likely, they argued, that he killed her in the process.
It’s a common form of anthropomorphism, one that humans, and journalists, commit with unfortunate regularity (raises hand, apologizes). A cursory look at animal journalism in the past year reveals the same, anthropomorphic themes, featuring the same, primitive, human fantasies. … More.
Maybe primitive, maybe just fantasies.
Animals probably do not have any concept of death at all. The fact that animals are upset when a member of their group stops moving and responding and try to do something about it does not mean that they understand “death.” It is a super-abstraction that requires knowledge of a number of contributing abstractions (death is permanent, death is inevitable, there is a future, we will all die one day, etc.).
Anthropomorphism can do harm. At the level of life’s trivial disappointments, some people believe they can just adopt a feral cat, thinking that “all the poor creature needs is a good, loving home!” But many feral cats can no more adjust to living with humans (which usually requires extensive socialization in a human-dominated environment) than can a beaver. For the typical beaver, a human is at best a harmless obstacle on the way to chewing up furniture…
Worse, some people get themselves or others killed or maimed and blinded believing that they can live with chimpanzees or bears, not accepting that the animal can suddenly act (in human terms) irrationally without inner consequences. It just happens, that’s all. It would have happened inconsequentially in an all-animal environment.
Yes, many animals have selves. But the resemblance to humans often ends there, barring unusual circumstances, as for example with domestic dogs, horses, and cats.
Note: Just now learned: The Travis the chimp case (2009) played a role in Adam Lanza’s Sandy Hook massacre:
Everyone is talking this week about the creepy audio recording of Newtown, CT shooter Adam Lanza sharing his views on Travis, a chimpanzee who became famous after tearing the face off of a woman in 2009.
Lanza posted the audio clip on a mass-killer website, devoted in large part to the Columbine shooters, on December 20, 2011. (Newsweek, 2014)
As it happens, pop Darwinism was a key motivator in the Columbine shootings. Equating people and animals is just one more cool, trendy, but risky behaviour.
See also: What can we hope to learn about animal minds?
Animal minds: In search of the minimal self
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