Dr. Carl Safina, professor and endowed research chair for nature and humanity at the Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, discussed the similarities in human and animal cognition in the Frank Melville Library on Nov. 15.
Dr. Safina’s series explored the interconnectedness between animals and humans and their similarities in empathy, consciousness, self-awareness and imitation. More specifically, Safina focused on the idea that human narcissism and selfishness drive the misconception that animals don’t think and feel the way humans do.
Safina, author of the The New York Times bestselling book “Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel,” opened the lecture with a commonly asked question: Do our dogs really love us? Or are they just looking for a treat?
As it turns out, animals have the capacity to feel love, empathy and grief just like humans, Safina said. To Safina, the question of animal consciousness is ridiculous because animals have instincts similar to those of humans and they are able to think and respond to their environments. Safina has dedicated his life’s work to spreading awareness of exactly that.
“I wanted to know what was going on in the other big brains that share the world with us,” he said.
Safina discussed a crayfish experiment in which a crayfish was given electric shocks whenever it came out of its habitat for food. Eventually, the crayfish displayed signs of an anxiety disorder and was afraid to come out to eat. When given medicine used to treat anxiety disorders, the crayfish relaxed, signaling that the animal can in fact feel and express fear and relaxation just like humans.
Fish, such as coral groupers, have an exceptionally rare interspecies partnership with giant moray eels, Safina said. Groupers will swim up to eels and shake their heads vigorously, calling on the eel to hunt with them. The eels will then slink through coral crevices where the groupers can otherwise not go and they will either eat the fish they find or scare the fish into open water for the groupers to eat.
“They have lives and they have relationships, just like us,” Safina said.
Much like human parents, elephants will seek out shade for the young among them to rest while they keep vigilant watch.
How are they repaid for displaying this human-like behavior? Safina asked. In the case of the crayfish, the grouper fish and the eel, humans boil and/or fry them. In the case of the elephants, they cut out their tusks for production purposes.
“It’s a pattern that says more about us than it says about them,” Safina said.
Whether consciousness is dictionary-defined as “awareness by the mind of itself and the world,” or defined by Safina as “the thing that feels like something,” the idea is the same: Safina argues that animals are conscious beings.
Safina also addressed the misconception that empathy is what makes humans human. All animals that live in groups have some form of empathy, seen especially in the way they’re able to survive. Contagious fear is the earliest form of empathy – the fight or flight reaction to a situation that determines survival skills. When one animal senses danger and begins to flee, the rest follow suit.
Safina warned that human empathy cannot be the measuring stick of what empathetic feelings animals are capable of. He said that if humans are capable of rounding up conscious animals and eating them, how exemplary could human empathy be?
Since many animals fit into Safina’s continuum of being able to feel empathy, sympathy and compassion, the real question is why there is the double standard that animals cannot feel in the same way humans do. According to Safina, it’s nothing but a comforting mechanism.
“Our favorite story is that we are completely special,” Safina said, “and it kind of puts a chip in that story.”
Part of this consciousness is being smart enough to have a thought and act on it. When Safina’s dog comes over to him and rolls on her back, she is signaling to him that she wants her stomach rubbed. She has a thought, acts on it, knows the end result and thus keeps doing it.
Safina recounted a story in a South African aquarium, where the keeper watched a baby bottle-nosed dolphin through the glass while smoking a cigarette. The dolphin swam off to be nursed, came back to the window and let the milk out of her mouth envelop around her head like a cigarette cloud to imitate the keeper.
Safina also said that animals, specifically elephants, are smart enough to know the difference between languages. He said that if there was a recording of an English-speaking person placed in a nearby bush, the elephants wouldn’t bunch because it sounds like tourists and tourists don’t hurt the animals. However, if the same recording was made in Maasai, the language of the Maasai people of southern Kenya known to hunt the animals, the elephants would bunch together and run away.
Displaying a picture of a dead Albatross with its stomach packed full of lighters on the television screen, Safina condemned humans’ inability to grasp the seriousness of conservation and recycling.
“We pride ourselves on our big brains and thinking ability,” Safina said, “but the problem is we don’t use our big brains to think about them and their feelings and the consequences of our actions.”
Safina argued that the real question isn’t whether or not dogs or similar-minded animals love us, it’s whether or not humans love and respect them enough to let them live their lives.
Katherine Kling, a Stony Brook anthropology graduate student, appeared emotional by the end of Safina’s lecture.
Kling thought the lecture was a good reminder that humans need to step up and do more, even if that is by simply speaking out.
“I thought the lecture was wonderful because I’m also passionate about what animals are capable of,” Kling said.