Friday, December 15, 2017

Joy and Happiness: Emotions for Humans Only?

This is an absolutely delightful photo from the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. Do animals laugh? Do they feel joy and delight? Or, are we just anthropomorphizing them?

There are animals who laugh — rats tickle each other to elicit laughter — and animals who have behaviors that seem to serve no purpose other than having fun. 

Behavioral scientists have been experimenting with animals for years with the understanding that some animal reactions will be similar to human behaviors. For example, the experiment that stressed rat mothers to see how it affected their care of babies, with the conjecture that what was bad for rat mothers would be bad for human mothers.

Of course pet owners have always thought their companions express love, happiness, regret, shame and jealousy. But knowing if these are real emotions being felt, or just instinctual social behaviors evolved for self preservation is still being researched. When my dog chewed up the garbage and seemed so ashamed and embarrassed, was that because of a real sense of having done wrong? Was it just a reflex learned because of my previous reactions to such a mess? Considering the amount of shared genetic material between humans and the animal kingdom, and the perceived similarities in behavior, who can say if we are projecting emotions onto animals, or they are projecting them onto us?

In any event, photos like this one, that we so strongly identify with, can go a long way toward making humans think twice about destroying animal habitats and pushing populations to extinction. After all, wouldn't they suffer, just as humans suffer when displaced and robbed of their ability to survive? Considering what is going on in the world, are we just racing each other over the cliff?

Yes, we have much more in common with the animal kingdom, and each other, than laughter. But it is a good place to start. And sometimes, it takes a tiny mouse to remind us. We are all in this together.