Whatever else the soul might be, it seems safe to say that it is part of that dimension of consciousness that makes us most fully human–part of that which makes us thinking, feeling, caring beings. Could the same be true of the animal soul? Not so long ago, noble qualities like reason, emotion, and morality were all thought to be exclusively human traits. But the steady march of science is chipping away at old ideas. In 1960, Goodall observed chimpanzees at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve stripping leaves off twigs and using the sticks to fish termites out of their nests, thereby poking holes in the long-held belief that human beings were the only species to make tools.
“Now we must redefine tool,” said her mentor Louis Leakey, “redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” Since then, nearly all major arguments for human uniqueness ”claims that we alone possess rationality, self-consciousness, culture, empathy, language, morality, ”have been increasingly called into question. So if you still find yourself attached to the belief that animals are hopelessly undeveloped–dull of mind, poor of heart, and devoid of soul–breaking news from the scientific arena is here to recommend otherwise.
Let’s take reason, to start. According to Descartes, animals were mere machines, while men were machines with minds. Indeed, the bulk of Western thought, from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas on up, puts great stock in rationality as the basic factor setting human beings apart from the rest of animalkind. And since you can’t just walk up to a guinea pig or an anteater and ask it to describe its experience of cognition, it hasn’t exactly been easy to test this claim. One way scientists have tried to get at the problem is by searching for evidence of animal deception, a cognitive skill that depends on the ability to recognize that others have thoughts and intentions different from one’s own. They’ve shown that monkeys and baboons can distract each other in order to steal food, sneak around rocks to do things behind each others’ backs, and wait until others are distracted (like during fights) to put the moves on receptive females. Just recently, a raven named Hugin passed the deception test as well, fooling a dominant bird into hunting for food where Hugin knew there was none in order to buy himself some time alone where the food really was.
Impressive as Hugin’s trick may be, it must look like kids’ stuff to one of the most accomplished birds known to science: Alex the parrot. Only last summer, Alex raised the bar on avian intelligence to new heights by demonstrating a rough understanding of the number zero, a conceptual abstraction never fathomed by even the most learned mathematicians of ancient Greece. How did he do it? Trainer Dr. Irene Pepperberg laid out a tray with four groups of blocks on it ”two blue, three green, four yellow, and six orange” and then called out a number of blocks, asking Alex to identify the color of the corresponding group. But for some reason, he refused to cooperate, insisting instead on repeating the word “five” over and over again. When she finally replied “OK, smarty, what color five?” Alex quickly answered “None!” A bird with a brain the size of a walnut had understood the “absence of quantity,” something human children don’t typically grasp until age three or four.
How did Alex feel about his accomplishment? As recently as 10 years ago, researchers would have argued over whether it was possible for him to have felt anything at all. But scientists no longer dispute the presence of emotion in birds–or in many other species, for that matter. African elephants, for instance, “share with us a strong sense of family and death and they feel many of the same emotions,” Kenyan conservationist Daphne Sheldrick says. “Each one is … a unique individual with its own unique personality. They can be happy or sad, volatile or placid. They display envy, jealousy, throw tantrums and are fiercely competitive, and they can develop hang-ups which are reflected in behavior. … They grieve deeply for lost loved ones, even shedding tears and suffering depression. They have a sense of compassion that projects beyond their own kind and sometimes extends to others in distress.”
Animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff adds that elephants are known to stand silent guard over stillborn babies for days with their heads and ears sunk low; orphans who witness their mothers’ deaths “often wake up screaming.” Sea lion mothers howl and cry while killer whales dine on their babies, he says. Dolphins struggle painfully to resuscitate dead infants. Once, he even saw a grieving red fox bury the body of another who had been killed by a mountain lion: “She would kick up dirt, stop, look at the carcass, and intentionally kick again. I observed this ‘ritual’ for about 20 seconds. A few hours later I went to see the carcass, and it was totally buried.”
Now that most biologists have accepted that animals have richly varied emotional lives, a far more radical proposition is taking center stage in current research. Beyond simple raw emotion, some say, animals are displaying the subtler, more complex signs of moral sensibility. “There is good evidence that chimpanzees keep track of favors and repay them,” writes primatologist Frans de Waal. And it goes both ways, Bekoff tells me: “If you’re labeled as a cheater in a pack of wolves or a pack of coyotes or a group of chimpanzees, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting other individuals to interact with you.” He calls this “wild justice,” and it’s not just for primates and canines. Cows hold grudges and nurture friendships too. North African meerkats forfeit their own safety to stay beside wounded family members who would otherwise have to face death alone. Stronger rats sometimes even let the weaker ones win when they play at wrestling. And ”remarkable as it sounds” morality in animals also crosses species boundaries.
“You see animals help each other all the time,” Bekoff says. “Dogs and monkeys hug one another, console one another, travel with one another. During the tsunami last year, a baby hippopotamus was separated from his family and taken to an animal rescue shelter in Kenya. When he got there, he was adopted by a 130-year-old tortoise, and they’ve been inseparable ever since.” Not long ago, de Waal watched a bonobo named Kuni pick up an injured starling, take it outside, and place it on its feet. When it didn’t fly, she helped unfold its wings and then carefully tossed it into the air.
Then there are the stories of animal heroics that involve human beings, some of which have achieved the status of legend. Eleven-year-old Anthony Melton’s pet pig, Priscilla, made headlines in 1984 when she dove into a Houston lake to save his life. Swimming out to the boy, who was in over his head and starting to panic, she towed him to shore with her leash. In 1975, a woman shipwrecked off the Philippines was saved by a giant sea turtle that surfaced underneath her and carried her on its back for two full days until rescuers finally arrived. Once, an elderly Tennessee woman was even rescued by her pet canary. Upon seeing her trip and fall unconscious, the bird proceeded to find its way out of her house, which it had never left before. It then traveled the length of several football fields to her niece’s nearby home and banged hysterically against the windowpane until she finally got the message and went running to check up on her aunt. The canary promptly collapsed and died from the effort, but the old woman’s life was saved.
Of all such tales of interspecies love and bravado, perhaps the most enigmatic and the most miraculous involve dolphins, renowned the world over for keeping unconscious people afloat, shielding swimmers from sharks and sea lions from orcas, guarding pregnant whales while they give birth, and herding beached whales back to open sea. Most incredible of these might be the story of Pelorus Jack, a dolphin famous for guiding steamships through a notoriously treacherous channel off the coast of New Zealand around the turn of the last century. French Pass was known among sailors for claiming vessel after vessel in its swift jaws–that is, until Pelorus Jack came along. For over 20 years, every time a ship approached the mouth of the hazardous strait, he would unfailingly appear, bobbing along the surface to lead it safely through the rocks. On his watch, none ever foundered. Then in 1904, a drunkard on board a ship known as the Penguin took a potshot at him and Jack swam away trailing blood. Although he healed a few weeks later and diligently returned to his chosen task, nobody on the Penguin ever saw him again; it later ran aground in French Pass, and crew and passengers drowned.
While stories like these may provide the most direct and compelling evidence of soul and soulfulness among our animal kin, the meaning of the word “soul” itself is usually the domain of religion. It’s been hotly debated by philosophers and theologians alike down through the centuries, yet the true nature of the soul remains an alluring riddle—hard enough to fathom in human beings, let alone in the rest of the animal kingdom. Still, the question “Do animals have souls?” depends in no small measure on what you think the soul is in the first place.
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By Ross Robertson, EnlightenNext magazine