Humans or Non-Human Animals; Who’s More Rational?

It’s been an interesting summer for animal welfare issues. Cecil the lion’s murder by an American hunter who paid local trackers to lure the popular animal out of the protection of a Zimbabwe national park so he could be killed and beheaded as a trophy fueled international outrage. So did the killing of Blaze the grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park after the mother and her cubs were surprised by an off-trail hiker, who Blaze instinctively attacked and then ate. (Actually, like a good mom, she buried part of the hiker’s remains so her family would have food later.)

Prompting far less attention, but way more important to the evolving issue of how humans should treat non-humans, was the publication of Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina, a thoughtful, moving, and important book about animal cognition and emotion. Safina writes with respect, affection, admiration, even awe about the remarkable cognitive abilities of many animals, and argues that we should treat non-human creatures with more respect. But he is a scientist, and he bases his case not on emotion alone but on the firm and ever-mounting body of evidence that non-human beings, with whom we have far more in common biologically and behaviorally than what separates us, are significantly more sentient, intelligent, and rational than we give them credit for.

Safina focuses on elephants, wolves, dolphins and killer whales, but his examples range from apes to fish to birds to insects. The stories Safina tells are remarkable. They provide powerful evidence of animal intelligence, learning, and self-awareness (defined not by whether the animal can recognize itself in a mirror – Safina ridicules this as too narrow a measure of self-awareness – but whether the animal is aware of itself as a unique being —> Read More