Archive for the ‘Animal Sentience’ Category

Noodling for Plant Intelligence

» April 5th, 2014

Oliver Sacks has an important article out in the most recent New York Review of Books. In it, he explores the extensive literature—contemporary and historical—on the mental lives of plants and animals. The gist of his piece is that the plant and animal kingdoms, despite similarities on the cellular level, “evolved along two profoundly different paths.” This divergence culminated in “wholly different . . .  modes of life.” The central implication of this divergence is that only animals  ”learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.” Plants, in other words, are not intelligent—at least not in the way that would warrant our consideration of them as individual subjects with moral standing.

It’s worth delving a little deeper into the issue to grasp the bio-mechanical basis of this distinction. Sacks writes, “Plants depend largely on calcium ion channels, which suit their relatively slow lives perfectly. As Daniel Chamovitz argues in his book What a Plant Knows (2012), plants are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more. Plants know what to do, and they ‘remember.’”

But don’t start caressing your rhododendrons just yet.  As the piece’s most important paragraph explains: “The calcium ion channels that plants rely on do not support rapid or repetitive signaling between cells; once a plant action potential is generated, it cannot be repeated at a fast enough rate to allow, for example, the speed with which a worm ‘dashes…into its burrow.’ Speed requires ions and ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions, here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells, and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.”

In other words, they made animals possible. And, as Sacks’ worm reference suggests, the mental lives of these creatures happen to be far more complicated than many of us ever imagined. Having dismissed the notion that plants and animals share mental real estate, Sacks offers an elegant overview of the hidden state of being among murky animals ranging from insects to jellyfish to amoeba to cuttlefish. My favorite quote: “But if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of an individual and significant sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too.” Go octopus.

If the information presented here undergirds the obvious, recall the rearguard efforts by writers of a certain persuasion who cherry-pick the evolutionary past to suggest that “plant intelligence” justifies the “humane” consumption of animals. Recently, Michael Pollan—it’s always Pollan!—wrote a New Yorker piece in which he took seriously “the possibility that plants are much more intelligent and much more like us than most people think—capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, and memory.” The implication through it all was that plants have mental lives akin to animals. Thanks to Sacks for burying this mystical, pseudo-scientific suggestion in the same grave with rotting companions such as phrenology, eugenics, and the flying spaghetti monster.

What’s On Your Mind?

» February 23rd, 2014

There’s no doubt that a lot of animals can safely be called fully conscious and self-aware beings. Sentient. Elaborate tests really aren’t required to make this assessment. It takes little more than momentary observation of wild and domesticated animals to recognize their obvious sense of self. It doesn’t require much to see that they understand place within space and, possibly, in time. This ability to recognize animal sentience holds true for children and adults, animal experts and laypeople.

But to what extent are certain animals, mostly mammalian and avian, self-aware? In an important sense, the answer doesn’t matter. That is, the answer in no way shifts the criteria upon which we rightfully choose not to exploit animals unnecessarily. That criteria, of course, is the ability to suffer. The prospect of suffering, no matter what the depth of an animal’s consciousness, no matter how similar or dissimilar that consciousness appears to be from our own (whatever that is), requires that we treat animals with the same moral consideration we’d grant to humans–creatures whom morally literate citizens also aim to avoid causing unnecessary suffering.

In other ways–more tertiary ways–the question of animal consciousness does matter. Animal ethologists should keep striving to understand the deeper nature of an animal’s self-awareness because that understanding helps us think about the fairest ways to integrate animals into human culture. Should animals be allowed to offer testimony (non-verbal) in court? Should we hold animals accountable for dastardly deeds done to each other for seemingly “senseless” reasons, such as when one dog rips into another at the dog park? If a human claims to love his companion animal in a romantic way do we take that claim seriously? Do we entertain the notion that an animal, which some studies have shown are capable of romantic love, might love a human back?  Are there other ways for animals to consent without grammar and syntax? These questions are more complex than they might at first seem. We need to know more about the nature of animal self-awareness before we can responsibly develop answers.

Inevitably, it will be the case that we’ll make these explorations through human categories, biases, and presuppositions. Chances are slim, I imagine, that we’ll ever “get” the consciousness of a dog from a a dog’s perspective (or, as Thomas Nagel famously argued, a bat from the bat’s perspective). Even thinking we can do so is a logical contradiction. But that limitation should not inhibit our investigations. Imagine what we could discover if we took the resources we waste on vivisection and put them towards research into mammalian and avian consciousness?

There are many specific aspects of consciousness we might explore, but one that strikes me as especially important is this: the nature of an animal’s grasp of the past. Of course animals recollect. Squirrels know where they’ve stashed their cache, elephants remember where poachers hid, ants know where to go in that crazy maze, and chickens recall dozens of human faces. But recollection and memory are different. Recollection directs behavioral survival–where are those nuts?–but memory enables narration, and the control of narration allows us to weave more nuanced meaning into life. It’s perfectly possible that animals, most likely primates and whales, possess a consciousness that allows them to grasp their past as an abstraction that lends present existence, as well as future expectations, with continuity. Avery meaningful continuity.

Perhaps I’m drifting into dangerous waters with this claim, but I do wonder to what extent memory, and the life-affirming narration it allows, bears on the quality and meaning of life. Does a creature with a consciousness capable of arranging webs of memories into stories and myths and tall tales have a more meaningful life than a creature who lives life largely in the present but is able to poke into the past for isolated bits of survival data? And if so, does this distinction impact their moral standing in human society?

 I’m tweeting these days @the_pitchfork 

Animal Rights vs Fetal Rights

» January 26th, 2014

A brain dead  Texas woman carrying a four-month fetus is being kept on life support in a Fort Worth hospital. This is being done against a court order (and the wishes of her family) on the grounds that the hospital must do everything in its power to protect the “unborn child.” (Story is here.)

This case obviously highlights the combative politics surrounding abortion in Texas and elsewhere. But what really grabs me the most about this situation–despite the obvious sadness of it all–is the quandary it poses for ethical vegans who support a woman’s right to choose while insisting that all unnecessary animal exploitation is morally wrong.

Under “normal” circumstances, this quandary is (more or less) resolvable: a woman’s choice whether or not to carry a fetus becomes a moral consideration that outweighs the fetus’ right to life. For many vegans, this right to bodily autonomy is an acceptable competing moral consideration against the fetus’ viability.

But in the case of the Texas woman, choice has been eliminated from the equation by complete mental incapacitation. She is now (as I understand her condition) a vessel being kept nominally alive by machines for the sole purpose of nurturing the fetus. To my knowledge, she feels no pain and, although cases such as this are rare, there have been instances where a fetus under such conditions has survived.

This is a tough one for anyone who is pro-choice and pro-animal rights. After all, to grant the family’s wish to take the woman off life support and kill the fetus would be to allow the unnecessary destruction of a (proto?) sentient being, an allowance that many vegans would not even accept for questionably sentient animals such as insects and oysters. To deny the family’s wish, on the other hand, is to align yourself with abortion foes who believe that a woman’s choice is irrelevant in determining the fate of her own fetus.


Update: this just in.



The Pain of Animals

» January 24th, 2014

In the most recent New York Review of Books (February 6, 2014), there’s an exchange in the “Letters” section worth highlighting. Christof Koch, author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist and a professor of biology and engineering at Cal Tech, wrote a terse response to Jason Epstein’s review of Dana Goodyear’s book on extreme eating. Koch wrote, “I was appalled that in Jason Epstein’s review . . .not a single mention is made of the fact that the penises, brains, hearts, and whole embryos that are now de rigueur to consume by our haute cuisine establishment derive from sentient creatures.” Thank you, Professor.

The NYRB has a habit of choosing the same writers to cover the same topics. That’s typically fine because, in general, they tend to be brilliant thinkers and writers. I’ve therefore always been curious exactly how Epstein got the foodie beat at a publications with the high intellectual standards of NYRB. I say this not to be snarky, but rather to confirm my general impression, honestly developed over several years, that Epstein’s reviews were thin soup compared to what appeared throughout the journal. To wit, he once praised one of Michael Pollan’s toss-off post-Omnivore Dilemma books on the grounds that, in following some of Pollan’s suggestions, he’d lost a few pounds. I’m pleased that Epstein lost some weight (I guess), but I hardly see how his body fat bears on the book’s intellectual meat, something that NYRB readers purportedly care about.

This is a long way of getting to the point that I was not terribly surprised to read Epstein’s response to Professor Koch’s letter. He wrote: “We are omnivores. We eat everything edible including ourselves. I deeply regret the suffering of animals but there are not enough vegetarians to solve the problem. . . I wish it were different but we are what we are.”* This is not made up, and it’s especially ironic that it appeared in a journal that first published Peter Singer’s work on speciesism in the 1970s. In any case , it does not take a great deal of mental elbow grease to realize that Epstein’s appeal to our innate omnivorism–”we are what we are”– totally evades the ethical implication of eating a goat’s phallus.

The fact that we are omnivores hardly means that “we are what we are.”  To the contrary, it means that we are what we want to be. We have a choice. We do not have to eat meat, and many of us choose not to. Just as men are, in evolutionary terms, sexual opportunists with a capacity to rape, we have deemed it wrong to rape. There’s plenty of evidence that even animals, predisposed to commit violent acts, choose to temper their vengeful and violent instincts with more cooperative actions. How sad if, at whatever point in time habitual male sexual aggression was “debated” by our forbears, a consensus emerged to say “well, yeah, rape is bad, but there just aren’t enough non-rapists for this behavioral change to happen. I wish it were otherwise but we are what we are.”

Mr. Epstein says that he wishes humans did not cause animal suffering. I don’t believe him. Because if he was sincere in this wish then he would have taken Professor Koch’s question seriously, considered the viable option of choosing not to eat animal brains, and, rather than hiding behind an essentialist platitude that might go over well with the foodie masses, questioned Dana Goodyear’s deceptively cruel book for celebrating a form of exploitation that we have every opportunity to end.


*The ellipses leave out a reference to Hitler which, frankly, I could not decipher the meaning of.”


How Traditional Journalism Screws Animals

» January 23rd, 2014

Last month, I wrote a short piece on the documentary “Blackfish” for, for whom I worked as a contributor. The piece centered on the documentary’s claim that orcas held in captivity become frustrated and may attack trainers as a result of their confinement. As a thinker and writer, I find such a proposition to be intuitively obvious, not to mention brilliantly documented in the film itself (and elsewhere).

I therefore had zero interest in pursuing (or even pretending to pursue) the disingenuous sort of “objectivity” that required a “fair and balanced” journalist to lend equal consideration to an absurd hypothesis, in this case the idea that orcas might actually enjoy captivity. As a blogger with a well-known animal rights perspective, I thought, why play that gameWhy allow a corporation that profits from taking orcas from the wild claim that mantle of false legitimacy?

Twenty fours hours after being published, the piece generated more traffic than my previous twelve articles combined. For a while, it was the most viewed article on the website, attracting over 77,000 views.

Then I got some interesting news. My editor emailed to say that Forbes had taken down my story. A managing editor wanted to see three changes before considering whether or not to repost it. These included: a) a quote from SeaWorld; b) another source to temper the anti-SeaWorld perspective of one of my sources; and c) the inclusion of empirical evidence suggesting that Sea World’s popularity was in fact not being harmed by “Blackfish’s” acclaim.

Here’s an important point to keep in mind as I assess these requests: by the standards of journalistic convention, they weren’t necessarily unreasonable. Although it was the first substantial editorial intervention of any sort I had experienced at, I can’t really claim to be shocked by it.

But as I considered making the requested changes, a realization hit me like a lightening bolt: if I gave into these demands I’d be stepping into a trap every bit as confining as a SeaWorld tank. Whether or not was selectively flashing the “objectivity” card to reconfigure a story to serve an external interest remains an open question. But what’s perfectly clear is that making the requested changes would have legitimated the journalistic tactics that systematically prevent the inclusion of animal perspectives in the mainstream media.

I have no interest in being a bullhorn for the power elite. Nor do I wish to support the practices that support such a role.

So I quit.


On December 27, 2013, the New York Times published an article entitled “Turkey Legs Conquer Land of Mouse Ears.” The piece reported that super-sized turkey legs (containing 36 grams of fat and 720 calories) were currently all the rage at Disney’s theme parks. Following standard journalistic convention, the reporter included a variety of colorful endorsements of this increasingly popular snack.

“It’s a chance to channel my inner cave woman,” one Disney patron was quoted saying while she gnawed on a leg.

“I could kiss ‘em, caress ‘em, and sleep with ‘em all day and night,” a commenter was quoted as writing.

“Our guests have come to demand these legs,” said Disney’s executive chef.

“There is nothing like the smell,” an executive at another theme park was quoted as saying.

“[They have] plenty of room to stretch their legs,” the President of the National Turkey Federation, an industry trade group, was quoted as saying about the big toms whose legs patrons were eating.

But the piece never quoted an animal advocate. That perspective made its only appearance in a brief letter to the Times from Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns.

Davis wrote: “Why are these Disney theme park turkey legs so big? Turkeys have been artificially bred to grow so large that their legs, big as they are, cannot support their body weight.” She continued, “In nature, turkeys are excellent runners whose favorite way of getting around is walking. Their domesticated cousins are sedentary cripples. What’s Disney-worthy about that?”



The Times turkey leg article is an ideal example of how poorly the mainstream media covers animal issues in general. Under the guise of objectivity, reporters solicit quotes from various parties who benefit from exploiting animals while ignoring the perspective of knowledgeable animal advocates whose dogs aren’t in that hunt. Even with a relatively benign pro-animal organization such as the Humane Society of the United States on hand to deliver neatly packaged quotables for reporters working on deadline, conventional journalistic practice in no way requires the inclusion of such a viewpoint. A letter or two from the fringe might help right the balance, but it’s usually too little too late.


My decision to quit Forbes over my SeaWorld story may seem drastic — media reports certainly made it seem that way. In fact it wasn’t. My editor and I parted on perfectly amicable terms, reluctantly respectful of each other’s perspective. More to the point, I ended up learning a valuable lesson: any future in which animals have a genuine voice in the media will require re-conceptualizing the meaning of responsible journalism. To that end, I want to explore in greater depth why I chose to walk away from the changes that my editors proposed.



a) The quote from a Sea World spokesperson.

In order to demonstrate Sea World’s disapproval of Blackfish, I quoted Sea World literature twice. So the last thing I thought my article required was an additional boilerplate remark from a SeaWorld spokesperson whose job it was to saturate the media with a pro-SeaWorld message. Instead, I decided it would be much more productive to involve Sea World in a substantive discussion on this specific question: did Sea World think orcas experienced stress in captivity?

With that goal in mind, I began to prepare a follow-up story by asking Fred Jacobs, a Sea World spokesperson, to comment on my claim that orcas became stressed in captivity. Next, I took his answer and asked the marine mammal biologist Dr. Naomi Rose to comment on it.

This “exchange,” which I ended up publishing on my blog, got several thousand views and was shared almost 5000 times on Facebook. In the end, it offers a far more accurate assessment of the essential question than a meaningless quote from a corporate spokesperson—obtained in the name of objectivity—could ever have provided.



b) An additional source to counterbalance my anti-SeaWorld source. 

The ideal source for my piece needed to have deep knowledge of SeaWorld without being affiliated with SeaWorld. That source also needed a deep knowledge of “Blackfish” without being affiliated with “Blackfish.”

David Kirby fit the bill nicely. Kirby has worked for over 25 years as an investigative journalist, including extensive stints covering health and science for the New York Times. His most recent book, Death at SeaWorld, was widely praised for the rigorous quality of its research.

When I learned that Kirby was unaffiliated with “Blackfish,” but was well-informed about the film (he’s written about the documentary elsewhere), I consulted him to comment on the documentary’s assertions. His take on SeaWorld and the impact of orca captivity was unequivocal. “Blackfish,” he said, was dead on the mark.

The problem with Kirby, as far as Forbes was concerned, had absolutely nothing to do with his work on SeaWorld. No one there suggested that he had gotten a single aspect of that story wrong. Instead, it was his earlier work on the vaccine-autism debate that stirred up trouble. Kirby’s 2005 book, Evidence of Harm, in addition to his more recent coverage of a controversial debate, evidently rankled a Forbes health and science staff writer, who complained to my editor about Kirby’s role in my piece.

In and of itself, such a move doesn’t pose a problem. But a health and science writer’s assessment of Kirby’s past coverage of a vaccine debate could only be relevant to my current story on SeaWorld under one circumstance: if Kirby’s vaccine work proved Kirby to be a crackpot. Was this the case?

The world’s leading medical journal certainly didn’t think so. The Lancet, while acknowledging that Kirby was biased, still calls Evidence of Harm “engrossing,” says that it “contains all the requisite facts,” and ultimately praises it for “prompt[ing] us to dig deeper into this vital issue.”


In light of these considerations, I saw no reason to provide a competing—or even an additional—perspective to supplement Kirby’s sound assessment of orca captivity.


c) Include empirical evidence showing that SeaWorld’s popularity might have been unharmed by Blackfish. 

In retrospect, the title of my article –“SeaWorld’s Popularity Tanks While The Blackfish Documentary Makes A Splash”–was poorly chosen. My error. The article itself never seeks to make such a connection.

To wit, I do not highlight the fact that, as a National Geographic headline explained, “Schoolchildren and Musicians Boycott SeaWorld in “Blackfish Flap.” I forgo mention of The Daily Beast’s claim that “‘Blackfish’ Prompts SeaWorld Mass Exodus for Bands; Boycott May be Imminent.” I left out of my article the story of a 12-year old girl directly inspired by “Blackfish” getting arrested for protesting SeaWorld’s presence at the Rose Bowl Parade.

Although I do mention that SeaWorld’s stock price had dropped in the wake of Blackfish’s release, I only do so to explain why the company recently took out full-page ads in major newspapers to counter what it deemed “inaccurate reports” swirling through the media.

Despite my article’s lack of attention to the impact of “Blackfish” on SeaWorld’s popularity, my editors pushed the hardest on this point. Specifically, they suggested that I include data showing that SeaWorld attendance rates did not correlate negatively with the rise of “Blackfish.”

In one sense, it would have been flat out strange for me to include such data. Again, the “Blackfish” impact on SeaWorld’s popularity wasn’t the concern of my article. More problematically, though, there were interpretive problems with using ticket sales as a valid measure of overall “popularity.” Ticket sales tell us how many people entered the park—and that’s really it. They could reflect a variety of unrelated factors, most notably weather. It struck me as sloppy to use increasing ticket sales to suggest that Blackfish was not causing a downturn in SeaWorld popularity.

If anything, my article indicated that SeaWorld’s popularity in the media (including the social media) had slumped in the wake of Blackfish. My emphasis on Blackfish’s popularity with a younger demographic, as well as Kirby’s assessment that SeaWorld was no longer “the media’s darling,” helped support that point, one that—barring a massive meta-analysis of online content—cannot be proven with hard numbers.

Forbes’s appeal to empirical data has the assuring ring of responsible journalism. But in this case—as in others in which the continued exploitation of animals is at stake—it’s inclusion would have led to the opposite outcome.


In the end, my experience coving SeaWorld for reminds me that it has never been easier for conventional media to use the basic standards of “objective journalism” to exclude animal interests while furthering those who profit from their exploitation. The good news is that (as sites such as The Dodo demonstrate) opportunities to pursue the kind of journalism that considers the interests of sentient animals are expanding rapidly. I don’t foresee any immediate journalistic revolutions on the horizon. But I do have faith that it won’t be long until you cannot write about turkey legs without writing about turkeys.


The Meat of Historical Reality

» December 28th, 2013

I’m currently writing an essay on the origins of American food for Pacific Standard. The topic brings me back to the subject matter of my first book A Revolution In Eating, a project I undertook before going vegan. Returning to the text I’m reminded about the late nights in my office (Mondays, 10 pm to 4 am!), all alone, taking simple pleasure in writing clean sentences, making a book and hoping to be part of something bigger.

At the same time, I’m struck by the content; namely, I’m reminded how deeply entrenched the American diet, from the start, was rooted in animal flesh. In many ways, it had to be this way. But, even at a time when people were in much greater physical proximity to animals, they slaughtered them systematically as a way of life, rarely commenting on the moral implications or noting any sense of emotional turmoil. I can’t really judge this activity and I don’t. It just was.

Today, as I often note, this is the hard history we have inherited. It’s a history that seems so habitual and natural that, even with the great strides we have made in understanding animal emotions and sentience, and even with a generation of animal rights activists having made a big mark on our collective mindset, the act of eating meat coasts through our cultural consciousness like a feather in a breeze–carelessly and even frivolously.

We love our pets, we weep over videos of animal abuse, we call for “humane” treatment, we celebrate the Endangered Species Act (passed on this day, with Nixon’s support, in 1973), and then we sit down to dinner, give thanks, exchange pleasantries, and dig into the flesh of an animal that screamed like hell when she was slaughtered. It’s gruesome on so many levels and, you can be sure of it, this time around I do judge.

I find both of these general observations to be discouraging to say the least. The more I consider the best way to add weight to the floating feather, to take it out of the air, the higher and happier that feather seems to float. In turn, the more I feel the reality of my own impotence, questioning as I do the constant tapping out of words in a vain attempt to raise awareness, all in an effort to bore a peep hole in the giant walls keeping us from seeing what’s required to bring animals to the table. How can people witness the horror and not act? The fact that I have to even ask this question, and that fact that are nodding your head, in a world pocked with such peep holes made by activists more effective than I am, is terrifying.

I vented a little about these ideas on a (hard) training run this morning. Fifteen miles is a lot of time to ponder issues such as the ethics of eating animals. But my friends willingly endure. The conversation did come to an end, though, and not only because we had reached “no-talking” pace, but because, as it was noted, “we legally kill people in Texas, so I think we have a ways to go before we stop killing animals.” As I said, discouraging.


“Is That Meat From A Factory Farm?”

» December 21st, 2013

If there’s a guiding tenet in my repertoire of ideas it’s that the promotion of “happy meat’ is still the promotion of eating animals and, as such, will always be an indirect but culturally powerful endorsement of the most efficient producer of animals goods–namely, factory farms. So, to promote “humane animal farms” as a viable alternative to factory farmed meat is not only illogical, it’s possibly even counter productive. That’s the Big Idea, as it were.

A conversation I had with an editor friend of mine last night shed fresh light on my hypothesis. My friend eats animals but generally those sourced from the right places–local, humane, organic, and so on. By any standard, he’s a conscientious consumer who knows the local food scene as intimately as anyone. He takes food and the ethics of eating seriously and follows the ideas here at The Pitchfork with more than due diligence.

In the course of our conversation—on that second beer (the Whip In’s “Bitterama”)— I noted how difficult eating away from home could be. Vegans are often placed in the awkward position of having to say “sorry, but I don’t eat that.” And we say it, and we mean it, and we do it because our chosen values dictate that we do so. For most of us, there’s never any question about the choice. As I explained this position to my friend, a question that had never occurred to me suddenly popped into my head: would a conscientious carnivore such as my friend reject, say, a hamburger served at a dinner party if it was sourced from a factory farm?

I think it’s a fascinating question.

The vegan asks, “is there meat in that pasta sauce”? But the conscientious carnivore never asks, “is that meat from a factory farm”? Why? That’s not an easy question to answer, but it has something to do with the clarity of convictions. The ethical vegan draws a line and, because what’s at stake is participation in the intentional and unnecessary death of a sentient animal, he holds firmly to that line and says “no thanks.”

By contrast, the conscientious carnivore draws a line and, because what’s at stake is ultimately not differentiated by participation in unnecessary death, he easily allows the line to blur. After all, the animal he eats, in the case of factory meat or happy meat, died so he could have that burger. Why make such a fuss at a dinner party when so little is at stake?

In any case, my friend admitted that he never asks such a question. Obviously, he’s not alone.

I think these differing reactions say a great deal about veganism as a radical and fundamentally subversive way to undermine the horrors of industrial animal agriculture. They also say a great deal about the comparative tepidity of the “small, local, organic” option as a path toward change. We can bitch and moan all we like about the evils of industrial agriculture, but until we start saying “no” to the real problem–eating animals–the titans of agribusiness will keep sleeping well at night, secure in the knowledge that we’ll never ask, “is that meat from a factory farm.”

[NB: There have been some great comments and conversations in the last few posts. Please check them out. I hope to respond to several in upcoming posts.]


The Caudate Nucleus

» October 8th, 2013

Every now and then you read a piece and think “ah, finally.” That’s how I felt—well, in addition to tremendous joy—while reading the piece below (which ran in Sunday’s Times). I imagine readers will find much to quibble with—such as using dogs for experimental purposes in the first place!—but this specific use of neuro-imaging to highlight the similarity between human and dog brains—”functional homology”—certainly does, as the author Gregory Berns writes, suggest “a rethinking of how we treat dogs.” They, too, may be people. Now, what about cows, pigs, chickens, fish . . .insects? 


By Gregory Berns

FOR the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.

Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.

Because dogs can’t speak, scientists have relied on behavioral observations to infer what dogs are thinking. It is a tricky business. You can’t ask a dog why he does something. And you certainly can’t ask him how he feels. The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.

Until now.

By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states. M.R.I.’s are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal. At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.

From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.

My dog Callie was the first. Rescued from a shelter, Callie was a skinny black terrier mix, what is called a feist in the southern Appalachians, from where she came. True to her roots, she preferred hunting squirrels and rabbits in the backyard to curling up in my lap. She had a natural inquisitiveness, which probably landed her in the shelter in the first place, but also made training a breeze.

With the help of my friend Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, we started teaching Callie to go into an M.R.I. simulator that I built in my living room. She learned to walk up steps into a tube, place her head in a custom-fitted chin rest, and hold rock-still for periods of up to 30 seconds. Oh, and she had to learn to wear earmuffs to protect her sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.

After months of training and some trial-and-error at the real M.R.I. scanner, we were rewarded with the first maps of brain activity. For our first tests, we measured Callie’s brain response to two hand signals in the scanner. In later experiments, not yet published, we determined which parts of her brain distinguished the scents of familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans.

Soon, the local dog community learned of our quest to determine what dogs are thinking. Within a year, we had assembled a team of a dozen dogs who were all “M.R.I.-certified.”

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.

Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.

But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

DOGS have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering.

But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.

One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. Many rescue groups already use the label of “guardian” to describe human caregivers, binding the human to his ward with an implicit responsibility to care for her. Failure to act as a good guardian runs the risk of having the dog placed elsewhere. But there are no laws that cover animals as wards, so the patchwork of rescue groups that operate under a guardianship model have little legal foundation to protect the animals’ interest.

If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.

I suspect that society is many years away from considering dogs as persons. However, recent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In two cases, the court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the rulings, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain was not mature in adolescence. Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the justices opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom.

Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings.


Gregory Berns is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

Future Present

» October 6th, 2013

For all the discussion that goes on about the comparative ethical implications of raising animals in industrial and non-industrialized settings, the easily overlooked point is that both systems, and for that matter any system that raises animals to kill them, engages in the troublesome behavior of ending an animal’s life unnecessarily and, in so doing, denying that animal a future of potential pleasure. Supporters of  the “death is just one day” or “everything dies” approach to rationalizing the “humane slaughter” of animals fail to consider the point that life is a phenomenon that’s given meaning not in the moment alone but by what has yet to happen as well.

In many ways our essential quality of life is contingent on the expectation of future happiness. The nit and grit of every moment—the here and now—is linked to the future in ways we rarely appreciate. About ten minutes ago my dogs misinterpreted my movements to think we were heading out for a walk. They began to huff with excitement and run back in forth in anticipation. They were thinking of the future and the happiness they would experience later.  Every act, in this sense, depends on having access to the future. Awareness of that access strikes me as critical to evaluating the argument that “death is just one day.”

We plan. And so much of what we do in the moment is intended to lay a foundation for future behavior. This is likely as true for sentient animals as it is for humans. It’s also an idea that might help us draw some distinctions between between animals that deserve equal moral consideration and those who do not. It seems unlikely that insects, to cite a controversial example, have conscious awareness of the future in the same way that farm animals do. Perhaps this could be one reason we might deny insects the same level of moral standing we grant to pigs, cows, and chickens.

Do note: behaving in a way that’s relevant for future activity and behaving in a way that self-consciously anticipates the future are not the same thing. Bees and ants and probably every insect acts in a way that’s relevant for the future, but they are not self-sconsciosly aware of it. Heading to the other margin, even mentally incapacitated humans are aware of a future, one that might very well bring a modicum of pleasure.

This idea of the future being embedded in the present, as well as the implications it has for our assessments of moral consideration, has been percolating with me for a few years. I’d like to pursue it more systematically, so I look forward to all thoughts and references you might have.



Seeds of Compassion

» August 7th, 2013

Michael Marder has a new book out called Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. I’ve yet to read it but that’s why we have long-form reviews, which the  LA Times recently ran. I’m on the fence about the whole post-humanism fad.

Intellectually speaking, I find the idea of humans conceptualizing existence from a non-human angle to be a deeply engaging, if un-winnable, mind game. I say un-winnable because what some want to impugn as the narcissism of human perspective I see as the inevitable and inescapable platform–the human psyche–from which we behold the world and our place in it. Barring death, the mind cannot escape itself. That said, I’m not dismissing post-humanism. As anyone who follows John Maher’s wonderful comments on this blog knows quite well, the post-humanist project is nothing if not compelling, and maybe even right, whatever that means. I take it seriously.

But then what do I do? My deeper concern with post-humanism is with its use in the larger project of reducing and eliminating the consumption of animals–my ultimate concern as an activist. Once we start recognizing vegetal agency, after all, we necessarily raise questions about the human decision to eat plants. And once we do that we creep towards the conclusion that the only way we can behave in an ethically consistent manner vis-a-vis our fellow animal, vegetable, and even mineral agents is to commit suicide. I, for one, ain’t drinking that Kool-Aid. There’s too much about humanism that I find too sweet to forego, like listening to the blues (the real kind) and admiring sycamores.

So if we’re not going to pull off a big Jim Jones, who, if not human-centric human beings, are going to marshal the compassion required to make taboo the act of slaughtering and eating animals? Trust me, I know we seem totally incapable of such a task, but something tells me we’re better positioned to undertake the project than the live oak in my front yard. Given the extent to which humans—yes, in our often but not always unthinking arrogance—have collectively transformed and rendered the environment dependent on human-driven preservation, whatever agency they once had is now indistinguishable with that of humans. Humans can consciously share information about ecological harmony. We can cajole, inspire, blog. Plants cannot.

Anyway, time for a second cup of coffee, a marvelous little plant that I am going to totally dominate by grinding into ash and subjecting to a stream of hot water.