Gorillas certainly show emotion – but what do they feel?

Kesha (left) and Alf
Kesho (left) and Alf

From Friday’s paper:

Are emotions the sole preserve of humans, or do other animals feel joy and sadness as we do? It’s hard to look at the images, released yesterday, of two gorillas at Longleat Safari Park without thinking that they do. Kesho and Alf, two brothers, were reunited after three years apart. Kesho, the elder by four years, had since become a silverback, and is now about double the size of his younger sibling; but the two knew and greeted each other instantly, with hugs and backslaps, in an irresistably human way.

Apparent instances of human-like emotion are common among the great apes. In 2008, Gana, an 11-year-old female gorilla at Munster zoo, was photographed carrying the limp body of her dead son Claudio around with her for three days, apparently unable to accept his death. Last year similar shots emerged of Ruzuzi, a wild gorilla in a Congo national park, seemingly grieving for her baby, keeping it with her for a week. Chimpanzees, also, have been witnessed reacting in extremely human-like ways to the death of a relative.

Animals look like they are experiencing emotion. But are they? People are quick to see human-like attributes in all sorts of non-human objects: the Virgin Mary’s face in a Marmite lid, John F Kennedy’s profile in a rock in Hawaii. Nobody would believe that they are anything but coincidence. René Descartes, one of the first great rationalists, though likewise about apparent emotion in animals: he thought that the universe was mechanistic, that there was no thinking stuff in it except for God and the human soul.

Animals, says Descartes, are machines, (although, “having been made by the hands of God”, they are “incomparably better arranged… than any of those which can be invented by man”.) Even in his time, that was far from universally accepted. “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”, said Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian, who answered his own question with a firm yes.

Later, the question moved out of the realm of philosophy and into science. Charles Darwin was an early pioneer; he had intended to mention animal emotion in The Descent of Man, but his work expanded into a book of its own, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Darwin looked for similarities between human and animal facial expressions and behaviour, saying that “the young and the old of widely different races, both with man and animals, express the same state of mind by the same movements”. A century or so later, BF Skinner advocated ruling out “thinking” and “feeling” as explanations of animal behaviour, although it is simplistic to say that he believed that animals were automatons.

Modern science has gone further. Scans reveal that sensations of fear and anger, as well as many other emotions, appear to be related to parts of the brain found in all mammals. Darwin would say that all the benefits that we gain from fearing danger, enjoying food and loving our kin would be gained by any evolved animal. And the interactions of primate societies are so comparable to those of humans, which rely so heavily on emotion; it is hard not to conclude that Kesho and Alf were genuinely happy at their reunion.

We can never get inside the mind of an animal to find out how it feels: we can never know if it “feels” anything. But that is true of humans, too: I can never know what it is to be you, and so I can never be certain that you are not a zombie, walking and talking like a person but feeling and experiencing nothing. But we accept that our fellow humans are thinking beings. Whether or not animals can feel emotion is unknowable, but the safe bet is with Bentham, not Descartes.


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