It used to be axiomatic that only humans had 'human' emotions and experienced the finer feelings of love, compassion and empathy or could consciously act altruistically from some higher motive or knowledge of right from wrong. This was assumed to set us above the 'brute' animals and, by one of those glorious pieces of circular reason characteristic of religions, was because we had been created as a higher life-form to the rest of creation - and of course the 'fact' that we had these higher emotions was evidence that we had been specially created and placed above the mere brute animals.
It was all a nicely circular, self-affirming, anthropocentric notion of human superiority which of course justified our ownership of the Earth and everything in it and casual cruelty in the way we treated 'our' animals - they don't experience pain the way we do and anyway won't remember it; they don't mind being confined to cages and pens because they can't want something better or miss freedom to roam; and of course they don't have feelings and emotions like we do. Animals formed the lower level of a pyramid of superiority with the white Christian ruling elite at the top next to God, the lower social orders and lesser races arranged beneath in order of skin colour and the animals below all that.
Thankfully in respect of animals, that arrogance has been under sustained attack for several decades now, ever since we discovered that other animals make and use tools, have intelligence, can and do use strategies which require self-awareness and have the ability to empathise with other members of their own species and even across species. There is growing realisation that sentience is by no means a uniquely human characteristic.
It took another blow yesterday with the publication of a paper showing that reaction to a baby's cry is not restricted to humans, or even to a mother to babies of her own species but it seems to be deeply rooted in mammalian psychology showing that it has an origin back in our early common evolutionary history. Susan Lingle, a biologist at the University of Winnipeg, Canada, and her colleagues have shown with a simple experiment that female deer respond to the cry of baby seals, dogs, cats, humans, marmots and even to baby bats when their ultrasonic cry is lowered in frequency to the level of other baby mammals.
Acoustic structure, behavioral context, and caregiver responses to infant distress vocalizations (cries) are similar across mammals, including humans. Are these similarities enough for animals to respond to distress vocalizations of taxonomically and ecologically distant species? We show that mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) mothers approach a speaker playing distress vocalizations of infant marmots (Marmota flaviventris), seals (Neophoca cinerea and Arctocephalus tropicalis), domestic cats (Felis catus), bats (Lasionycteris noctivagans), humans (Homo sapiens), and other mammals if the fundamental frequency (F0) falls or is manipulated to fall within the frequency range in which deer respond to young of their own species. They did not approach to predator sounds or to control sounds having the same F0 but a different structure. Our results suggest that acoustic traits of infant distress vocalizations that are essential for a response by caregivers, and a caregiver’s sensitivity to these acoustic traits, may be shared across diverse mammals.
Deer Mothers Are Sensitive to Infant Distress Vocalizations of Diverse Mammalian Species
Susan Lingle and Tobias Riede; The American Naturalist, Vol. 184, No. 4 (October 2014) (pp. 510-522)
Baby mammals all cry at a similar pitch and with a similar vocal pattern which is recognised by female mammals as a distress call. It takes no higher emotions or reasoning ability to react to a young animal in distress, all it takes is something that evolved millions of years ago in our common ancestor. We don't get the compelling need to have pity on a baby animal in distress from a magic creator who endowed us with special abilities but we share it in common with the other mammals who evolved along with us from an ancestor which evolved the ability to recognise the sound of a baby in distress.
It does not set us apart from the other animals but shows how close we are to them and they to us. A better view of our relationship to the rest of life on Earth than the rather arrogant and nasty religious one, I think.
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