From Allen Greer at The Scientist:
If inferences about animal emotions are fraught with anthropomorphism and language bias, surely evolutionary principles provide an unbiased way of thinking about animal emotions. But evolution can say only it is plausible that the precursors to human emotions did arise long before humans evolved. Just as certain bones can be identified all the way along the evolutionary tree from primitive fishes to humans so too can certain neuro-anatomical, chemical and physiological substrates associated with emotions in humans be traced well back in our ancestry. But while we can identify these “tangible” substrates in animals, the associated emotions they support, if any, remain a matter of irreconcilable opinion. If stimulation of a part of the brain causes a monkey and a human to react in the same way, we have only one human word to describe the reaction, the word we know only from human experieFebruary 24, 2016nce, say, rage. We have no way of knowing if the monkey is experiencing an emotion similar to the human version and, if it is, how that emotion compares with our own. Further, if an animal should have a unique component to its reactions, we would have no basis for even thinking about it. We can discuss and compare behaviors, but not emotions that may be inferred to underlie them.
The inescapable truth is that, even if some animals are emotional beings, we will never know how those emotions are experienced. The philosopher, Thomas Nagel, sign-posted this epistemological dead-end concisely in 1974, when he pointed out we can never know what it is like to be a bat. Hanging upside down in the dark in a batman suit just won’t cut it.
And then there’s the other extreme of seeing animals as mere automatons, and trying to explain away contrary evidence. Some people, of course, conclude the same about humans.
Greer’s point was also made in an influential 2009 article in Nature:
As long as researchers focus on identifying human-like behaviour in other animals, the job of classifying the cognition of different species will be forever tied up in thickets of arbitrary nomenclature that will not advance our understanding of the mechanisms of cognition. For comparative psychology to progress, we must study animal and human minds empirically, without naive evolutionary presuppositions.
The skinny: Evolution should mean that emotions might differ across species. That’s why we can’t just evoke “we evolved!” to understand animal emotions.
See also: Animal minds: In search of the minimal self
Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds
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Here’s the Bolhuis and Wynne 2009 abstract:
Biologists have tended to assume that closely related species will have similar cognitive abilities. Johan J. Bolhuis and Clive D. L. Wynne put this evolutionarily inspired idea through its paces.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is broadly accepted among biologists, but its implications for the study of cognition are far from clear. Few within the scientific pale would argue against the proposition that life on Earth has evolved and that this general principle can be extended to the process of thought. (paywall) – ature 458, 832-833 (16 April 2009) | doi:10.1038/458832a; Published online 15 April 2009