The general consensus in the minds of humans is that we alone possess true emotion and that our empathy is more distinct, more genuine that the same empathy observed in fellow animals.
Ascribing the word “personality” to describe other animals has always been regarded as heresy, although in the last couple of decades we have begun to lift the taboo of this topic and have started to seriously reconsider our place within nature.
At the root of this reluctance to acknowledge fellow animals as morally significant creatures, is a notion as dated and short-sighted as the oldest existential question: what is our place within the universe?
In the past, as we were all taught from a young age, many years ago humans passionately believed that we were the centre of the universe. We used to believe that the stars and planets all revolve around Earth and that we were uniquely special. We found it very difficult to consider that maybe we weren’t the centre of the universe because this meant pondering many other uncomfortable, distressing questions about our own existence and mortality.
The uncomfortable nature of this truth prevented us from from acknowledging the heliocentric nature of the solar system, which various astronomers had been suggesting for centuries. We were unable to give up the geocentric view of Earth as we were deluded over own own importance and scared of the logical implications of realising that the sun was the centre of the solar system.
The same need to protect our fragile ego is the main obstacle to progress on the animal issue. We find it uncomfortable to consider that, in the grandest scheme of things, we are no more or less special than a chimp, a cat, or any other animal.
To believe that the human emotional and sensory experience is more valuable or genuine that a monkey’s or dog’s ignores the fundamental nature of evolution. As a species, homo sapiens are mere infants, diverging from homo erectus between 200,000 and 1.8 million years old.
Our entire bodies and brains are simply more recent models of the same piece of hardware that has been evolving for the past 250+ million years (that is when the limbic system started to develop). Human emotion, feelings and thoughts are simply newer, different, modified evolutionary tools that nature has been progressing for hundreds of millions of years.
To think that our emotions, our personalities, our lives are truly genuine and that other animals simply operate on a lower plane of existence is clearly nonsense. Our minds are simply differently evolved versions of the same evolutionary tool that the vast majority of animals have. It is time to stop denying the significance of our ancestral origins.
This anthropocentric mindset – that we are superior to other species and that our interests are automatically more significant than other animals – is the cornerstone of our psychological protection of our fragile self-concept of humanity’s place in nature. To consider that perhaps human emotion and feelings are not worth any more or less than another animal being on the scales of justice is to question the entire relationship between humanity and the rest of the living world.
The most disturbing consequence of our delusion on this matter is that we place ourselves above other species so much so that their lives are considered completely expendable and worthless compared to our own lives. We normally care only when it is convenient to, or when we have something to gain.
Research into emotion in other species really shows the extent that we are blinded by this anthropocentric view of life. Whilst admitting that other animals do have similar physiological and emotional responses to stressful events, the language is always guarded and cautious as to suggest that it is not quite the same.
The main anthropocentric view is that whilst it looks like other animals have emotions and some empathy, it is written off as simple evolutionary survival mechanisms, with the implication that we are different. Non-human animal emotions are regarded as evolutionary tools for survival whilst we feel our emotion is special.
The reality is that emotion is an evolutionary tool that many different species of animals possess, as well as humans. We wrongly feel as though we possess real emotion and that they have something resembling emotion. This makes no logical sense – other animal species have had emotions for far longer than modern man has, yet we have the arrogance to believe that our emotion is more morally significant that other species who possessed emotion far before we did.
Again, the reason we are so reluctant to admit the truth is because the consequences are difficult to contemplate. If non-human animal pain and emotion is more or less equally significant as our own, that means completely rethinking our relationship with all of nature. It would mean that environmentally exploitative economic systems would be considering universally immoral and it would become criminal to exploit animals in any way. Just as with any massive social change, society finds it difficult to change its ways.