Drawing the line on the emotions of animals and plants

The other night I attended a talk by Jeffrey Mason, author of When Elephants Weep among several other books. I was not familiar with his work prior to this talk. While the talk skipped around a number of topics, its main focus was on Mr. Mason’s assertions that animals have emotions akin to humans and therefore deserve a similar level of treatment and respect. This is now largely accepted as true, at least more true than had been commonly accepted years ago. I certainly concur. Additionally, I consider myself a supporter of animal rights, at least of the sort promoted by Jane Goodall if not PETA.

Still, Mr. Mason tended to make broad generalizations that went beyond what could be supported by evidence — such as when he claimed there was “nothing” you could learn about animals from studying them in a lab or that dogs should never be kept as pets because you are denying them their “ideal” existence (check out the negative reviews of his books on Amazon for less polite criticisms of his work and views). But what prompted me to write this posting was not Mr. Mason himself who, regardless of any difference in our views, I found to be a smart, witty and engaging speaker.

Rather, it was the more bizarre and extreme views expressed by members of the audience. Several people suggested that plants (trees in particular!) are as capable of emotional responses (such as fear) as animals and thus deserve similar deference. Going off in a different direction, one person noted that “it goes without saying” that dogs have telepathic capabilities and use them to communicate with humans. Given that there is no evidence of telepathic powers even in humans, it’s hard to imagine how this works. But I suppose that’s another story.

At least one audience member raised a telling point: “Where do we draw the line?” That is, where is the line that says organisms on this side have emotions and therefore need to be protected from human mistreatment while organisms on the other side do not merit this protection.

In trying to answer this question for myself, I gave some thought to the impressive HIV virus.

Here is an organism that measures less than 1/10,000 meters in diameter. It is nothing more than a couple of strands of genetic material, a few proteins and a shell to contain them. Yet, it displays what, from a human perspective, appears to be an incredible level of intelligence. Indeed, the best and brightest minds in the world have yet to find a way to defeat it, despite decades of trying. It manages to invade our immune cells and take them over, with the result that when these cells divide they produce more HIV, which in turn spreads to still more immune cells, eventually destroying enough immune cells that the body loses its ability to fight off infections. As stated on the How Stuff Works Web site : “HIV corrupts and disables the system that should be guarding against HIV.”

So where does that leave us? Should we conclude from the apparent intelligence of HIV that we need to be respectful in how we treat it? In particular, should we oppose attempts to kill the virus, in the same way that we might oppose those who attempt to kill dogs for sport or mistreat chimpanzees?

I am concerned that at least a few attendees in Mason’s audience would answer yes. But this is certainly not a conclusion I would reach. Instead, we should bear in mind that, just because an organism may behave in way that resembles an aspect of human behavior, doesn’t mean the behaviors are equivalent in any significant way. Ignoring this fact is the dark side of anthropomorphism. For another example, just because a plant emits an odor designed to attract insects (even if that odor resembles dead flesh, as in the case of stinking flowers), doesn’t mean that flowers have any conscious understanding of what they are doing or why. And it would be ludicrous to suggest that these flowers be accorded any “rights” based on their insect attractiveness.

As in any controversy, there may be fuzziness at the border line. It can sometimes be hard to draw a narrow and clear divide. In this case, individuals may not be able to agree on exactly what species fall on one side of the line and which ones go to the other. But that doesn’t mean that a line does not exist. And, even with a fuzzy line, distinctions can be quite clear once you move some distance away from the line itself.

In other words, it is not inconsistent to support the humane treatment of many animal species without having to support similar rights for trees and viruses. I’d like to think there is not much of a debate here. But after attending this talk, I am not sure. Anyway, it seems worth a mention.

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