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Book Review:
Writer touts animal intelligence

Book Review: What We Owe Our Fellow Animals

Martha Nussbaum, 2022

An article, "What We Owe Our Fellow Animals," by Martha Nussbaum in the March 10, 2022 issue of the New York Review of Books is an extraordinary reflection on animal intelligence and emotions and on the ethical responsibility of humans in regard to animal welfare. Nussbaum is a moral philosopher at the University of Chicago.  Her new book, Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility will be published in December. This article is not about meat consumption, or about the destruction of large numbers of plant and animal species by humans; it's main ethical subject is animal research. 


Nussbaum combines prodigious knowledge regarding animal intelligence with an ability to think clearly and carefully about a wide range of ethical issues and dilemmas. She writes admirable clarity, a virtue which cannot be taken for granted among philosophers.  In this article, she reviews several books on animal intelligence, emotions, and cultural transmission of learning among apes, whales, dolphins, porpoises and birds. These books include Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves by Frans de Waal;  Dolphin Communication and Cognition: Past, Present and Future, ed.  by Denise Herzing and Christine Johnson; Deep Thinkers: Inside the Minds of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, ed. by Janet Mann; Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty and Achieve Peace by Carl Safina; and The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. 


It would be an understatement to assert that humans have underestimated and misperceived animal intelligence. Nussbaum comments that: "Now, a revolution in knowledge is revealing the enormous richness and cognitive complexity of animal lives, which prominently includes intricate social groupings, emotional responses and even cultural learning." And: "we share this fragile planet with other sentient animals whose efforts to live and flourish are thwarted in countless way by human negligence and obtuseness."  Nussbaum maintains that ".. to think clearly about our responsibility, we need to understand these animals as accurately as we can, what they are striving for, what capacities and responses they have as they try to flourish."        


Nussbaum comments: "Ape intelligence has long been acknowledged but the intelligence of birds, cetaceans, and rodents has been denied."  Humans are biased in favor of animals most like us, though "In the case of birds, "convergent evolution" has produced abilities similar to those of apes ( tool use, complicated social strategies, the ability to deceive others) through a totally different biological path" that does not include the neocortex. Nussbaum attacks the view that language "sets us utterly apart from the rest of sentient life. This view "neglects the tremendous richness of animal communicative systems, most of which are poorly understood," Nussbaum asserts. She criticizes "the false lure of metacognition: the idea that reflexive self consciousness is the be-all and end-all of intelligence and that we humans are unique in possessing it.  Nussbaum argues that "any creature who is capable of deceiving another creature is capable of metacognition, since to deceive you must be able to think about the mental state of another."  "Dogs, squirrels, many birds and no doubt a long list of other animals have this ability," Nussbaum maintains. 


Nussbaum states that until recently there has been "a reluctance to credit research findings that show that animals use tools, solve problems, communicate through complex systems, interact socially with intricate forms of organization and even have emotions such as fear, grief and envy. " She asserts correctly that "it is extremely difficult to get things right about animal lives and capacities." Even today, biologists and philosophers continue to debate whether animals with central nervous systems have feelings, though Antonio Damasio and others have argued convincingly that affect (not cognition) is the foundation of animal mind.  However, "in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, emotions (understood to be different than feelings) are understood as important pieces of animal survival equipment with clear links to behavior. ... they ascribe salience or importance to objects to which creatures are attached, Nussbaum writes. Nussbaum cites Damasio's work on emotions which "give us a map of goals or meanings so that we can chart our course through life.  She quotes De Waal: "Emotions are an essential part of our intellect."  


Nussbaum states: "Perhaps these books most fascinating new insights are those into animal social cognition and social complexity, which in many cases includes learning that is culturally, not just genetically transmitted."   She cites evidence from Safina's book regarding cultural transmission of learning among sperm whales, scarlet macaws and chimpanzees. Some of this evidence comes from controlled experiments, some from naturalistic studies of contextual variation, "cases in which two genetically similar subgroups  display different  strategies in response to different environmental challenges. " She maintains that  a clear case is "whale song where change passes from one group to another through imitation." Birdsong, according to Whitehead and Rendell, is also largely cultural. The social cohesion of sperm whales, orcas and dolphins "clearly involves social learning and communication," Nussbaum asserts. She offers a fascinating discussion of pilot whales and orcas who cease giving birth in their forties but live into their eighties. Nussbaum writes: "Scientists currently believe that the presence of healthier older females, not depleted by recent pregnancies or distracted by nursing has a knowledge transmitting function: they can, in effect, serve as the group's resident professors!"  Whitehead and Rendell conclude that "menopause may be wrapped up with culture and has evolved in both humans and the matrilineal whales because cultural information is so important to both." On a related note, one sure way of seriously damaging an oppressed human group is to undermine the emotional health and well being of middle aged and elderly females. This is also true, it seems, among some species of whales. 


Nussbaum argues that "many, if not most, animals are not automata or "brute beasts" but creatures with a point of view on the world and diverse ends toward which they strive .."  In treating animals as strictly instrumental to human ends, Nussbaum argues that "we cause immense injustice every day, and injustice cries out for accountability and remediation."  She maintains that "Elephants and whales can never be ethically kept in captivity" as these species require large territories and the freedom to roam far and wide. Nussbaum argues that to stop destroying animal species and to help them flourish, "..we need an ethical theory to direct our efforts in policy and law." She criticizes ethical perspectives such as "So Like Us" and Utilitarianism in part because they neglect " the sheer complexity and strangeness of animal lives"  and also because  Utilitarianism "neglects agency, treating animals as vessels of experience rather than active beings who move toward what they want and need."  She favors a Capabilities Approach (CA) in which the central question is "What is this creature actually able to do and to be?"  Nussbaum states: "I have recently been developing my theory into a theory of justice for nonhuman animals,"  a theory that is species specific and which seeks to establish a threshold "beneath which we should judge an animal's life to be unjustly thwarted."  Nussbaum comments regarding justice for nonhuman animals" "But we humans are not satisfied with non- torture. We seek flourishing:  free movement, free communication, rich interactions with others of our species (and other species too).  Why should we suppose that whales, dolphins, apes, elephants, parrots and so many other animals seek anything less?"

-- Dee Wilson

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