I’ve been reading a lot about popular neuroscience and related fields recently, and I keep coming back to the question of ‘what animals want’. This question has many variations, each with their own ramifications. Two broad umbrella categories come to mind: 1) the neuro-hyphenators and 2) the animal advocates. These are, of course, overlapping caricatures, but the two approaches have important differences, and I think they both perform an essential role.
The proliferating neuro-hyphenated disciplines preface the question by focusing on what nonhuman animals can want. Studies of animal happiness focusing solely on stress hormones fit this mold. But there’s a problem with this approach, as this SciAm guest blogger identifies: neuro-reductionism in assessing nonhuman animals’ mental states is bound to paint a picture that incomplete at best, and, more likely, reactionary at worst. (An example here would be livestock industry-funded “welfare” studies that justify existing practices…how coincidental!) Whether applied to humans or nonhumans, the idea that our motivations and mental states are reducible to nothing more than the interaction of Oxytocin, dopamine (and so on) strikes me as unlikely to get to the root of the more-than-human condition as it is to get to the root of the human condition.
If nothing else, the above picture tells us that something more is going on. One of the reasons I chose my StumbleUpon handle, surlyotter, is that animal happiness may be as elusive as human happiness, but it’s no less real. This approach to revealing animals preferences–whether through Jonathan Balcombe’s recent Exultant Ark, Marc Bekoff’s Wild Justice, or Dale Peterson’s The Moral Lives of Animals–is of a different type than the neuro-schools. But as long as neuroscience can only paint a reductive picture of nonhuman animal life–that is, until we can, as last week’s New Scientist put it, learn to speak dolphin–such works play a crucial role in helping us understand the more-than-human world.