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1 January 2007 FEELINGS DO NOT A SCIENCE MAKE
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Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good. Jonathan Balcombe. Macmillan, New York, 2006. 256 pp. $24.95 (ISBN 1403986010 cloth).

Jonathan Balcombe has broken what he describes as the scientific taboo on discussing animal feelings. In Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, he argues that most scientists are still much too reluctant to talk about animals feeling happy or experiencing pleasure because of an unjustified fear of being considered anthropomorphic. He criticizes those who insist on sticking to observable behavior and refuse to take what he sees as the obvious next step of attributing conscious emotions to the animals they study. For him, it is implausible in the extreme to argue that we humans enjoy our food, the touch of companions, or sex and at the same time to argue that other species, showing similar behavior, do not. One of the photographs illustrates his point succinctly. The caption could have been “Red kangaroos copulating.”In fact it is “Red kangaroos enjoying sex.”

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Balcombe invites us to make our choice. When we watch animal behavior such as eating or mating, are we watching “just” behavior, or are we watching a combination of behavior and pleasure? He is full of praise for those scientists who do shake off their behaviorist shackles and unashamedly talk about animals consciously experiencing pleasure. He also supplies a wealth of fascinating information about animal behavior to support his idea that much of what animals do is pleasurable to them. He is particularly impressed by the capacity of many animals to play (engage in activity for pure enjoyment) or to do things such as masturbate or engage in nonreproductive sex that cannot be related to biological function in any simple way. It must be, he argues, because they enjoy it.

In many ways, the release of inhibitions on talking about the conscious emotional experiences of animals is to be welcomed. Thirty years ago, Donald Griffin argued that we should start asking questions about animal awareness in the context of cognition. Extending that inquiry to animal emotions is equally important. But there are also good reasons for not throwing caution entirely to the winds when it comes to the question of whether animals actually experience pleasure as we do. First, behaviorism—the belief that only observable behavior and physiology can be studied scientifically—does not deny the existence of animal consciousness altogether, as is sometimes claimed. It just says that the existence of conscious feelings cannot be tested empirically, and so the study of conscious emotions is outside the realm of science. There is a profound sense in which behaviorism is right: Theories about physiology and behavior make predictions that can be tested against the real world in a way that theories about consciousness cannot. As John B. Watson put it nearly a hundred years ago:“One can assume the presence or absence of consciousness anywhere in the phylogenetic scale without affecting the problems of behavior by one jot or tittle and without influencing in any way the mode of experimental attack upon them” (1913). This is not the same as denying consciousness in animals. It just points out the enormous difficulties of investigating it scientifically.

Although Balcombe repeatedly acknowledges that we cannot know for certain whether animals actually experience pleasure, he gives the impression of dismissing or underestimating the problems that behaviorism highlights in ascribing consciousness to animals. Consciousness is still the “hard problem.”We do not understand how it arises from within our own brains and so have no idea at all what to look for in the brains of other animals to decide whether they too are conscious. We cannot even say what would count as evidence for or against it. But in Balcombe's chapters on play, food, sex, love, and other pleasures, he seems to be being asking us to believe that there is no hard problem anymore, no need at all for philosophers and neuroscientists to be still scratching their heads and saying how profoundly mysterious consciousness is. The mind–body problem seems to have vanished in a simple mental switch from copulation to pleasurable sex.

Second, this book left me with an oddly depressing feeling that we were being urged to abandon all standards of scientific reasoning. The argument that we can't prove that animals consciously experience pleasure, but should assume they do anyway because it's so plausible, leaves no hurdles to be overcome, no standards by which a theory can be tested against reality. Anyone's guess or intuition about animal feelings becomes as good as anyone else's. Worse, there appears no longer to be any distinction between the anthropomorphism of Bambi and the scientific study of animal behavior. Those of us who do try to study animal behavior objectively would seem to be redundant, swept away on a tide of anthropomorphism. Balcombe has opened the floodgates and left us with no criteria for judging what might be true and what might be false.

I'm all for asking questions about animal consciousness. It is a biologically fascinating area, and one that is profoundly important for our ethical treatment of animals. But I also think it should not be done at the cost of abandoning the scientific method altogether, or of underestimating the implications of the fact that we don't understand the physical basis of our own consciousness, let alone that of other species. If we do wish to make a leap of analogy from our own experiences to those of other species and use anthropomorphism in our interpretation of their behavior, we should do this knowing what we are doing. A leap of analogy is just that—a leap away from what we can discover by scientific means. Behaviorism isn't wrong. It is just cautious, and shows us where the boundaries of hypothesis testing and evidence lie. Abandon those standards if you wish to. Follow Balcombe in using anthropomorphism to understand animal behavior if you feel that is the most fruitful way forward. But don't, please, confuse the two.

Reference cited

  1. J. B. Watson 1913. Psychology as the behaviorist sees it. Psychological Review 20:158–177. Google Scholar

MARIAN STAMP DAWKINS "FEELINGS DO NOT A SCIENCE MAKE," BioScience 57(1), 83-84, (1 January 2007). https://doi.org/10.1641/B570114
Published: 1 January 2007
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