Is It Unscientific to Say that an Animal is Happy?

Photo by: UPC

By Karen Davis, PhD
President of United Poultry Concerns

Many scientists willing to concede that birds and other animals can experience negative emotions such as fear, cry “anthropomorphism” and “sentimentality” if you dare to suggest that animals can experience happiness and pleasure, as well. Marian Stamp Dawkins, a professor of animal behavior in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, who has done a lot of experimental research into “what hens want” in industrial farming systems, scoffs at the presumption that the individuals of other species showing similar behavior to that of humans when eating, being touched by their companions, playing together, or having sex, enjoy the experience. She implies that people who believe that nonhuman animals have an evolved capacity to enjoy life have abandoned the rigorous intellectual standards that define the behaviorist science to which she subscribes. According to these standards, “the existence of conscious feelings cannot be tested empirically, and so the study of conscious emotions is outside the realm of science.”

Let us stipulate that there are dimensions of reality beyond science, just as there are scientific prospects that are beyond behaviorism. This said, there is a correlation in human life between things that we must do to survive and perpetuate ourselves and the pleasure we derive from doing these things. We have to eat to live, and eating is a primary pleasure in human life. We have to have sex in order to perpetuate our species, and sex is a primary pleasure in human life. We have to play in order to relieve tension – and (to risk tautology) enjoy ourselves. Why would it be more plausible, or plausible at all, to assume or conclude that other animals, engaging in the identical acts of eating, touching, playing together, and having sex that we do, have not been endowed by nature with the same incentives of pleasure and enjoyment to do the things that need to be done in order to survive and thrive?

The heart is hard in nature, and unfit
For human fellowship, as being void
Of sympathy, and therefore dead alike
To love and friendship both, that is not pleased
With sight of animals enjoying life,
Nor feels their happiness augment his own.

– From The Task by William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), 1731-1800. The part of this poem that addresses humanity’s cruelty to animals appears on page 59 of The Extended Circle: A Dictionary of Humane Thought edited by Jon Wynne-Tyson & published by Centaur Press (UK), 1985.

If we subscribe to the idea that we can never learn or make logical inferences about emotions, the same restriction applies to the emotions of human beings as well as to inferences about an animal’s, or anyone’s, fear. Why should we believe Marian Dawkins when she writes that Jonathan Balcombe’s book about animal pleasure left her with a “depressing feeling”? Why tell us about her feelings, which can’t be proved?

In addition, there are studies being done in which the pleasure centers in nonhuman animals’ brains are stimulated in such a way as to encourage or compel the animal to seek to perpetuate the pleasurable feeling, as indicated by his or her behavioral response to the stimulus. Do I err in my recollection that science has identified areas of the brain in certain species of nonhuman animals that are responsible for feelings of pleasure in those species?

Also, there is a standard of intellectual inquiry that calls for the simplest, most reasonable explanation of a given phenomenon. If I see sad body language such as drooping in one of our chickens, I conclude that the chicken is not feeling well and that this feeling probably reflects an adverse condition affecting the chicken. Conversely, if I see a chicken with her tail up, eating with gusto (pleasure!), eyes bright and alert, I conclude that her condition is good and that she feels happy. Why should I doubt these conclusions when the preponderance of evidence supports them?

What I see in scientists like Marian Dawkins, who scold people for daring to infer (or to argue) that recognizable expressions of happiness in an animal most likely mean that the animal is feeling good, is stinginess, a niggardly attitude and a crabbed spirit hiding behind a guise of so-called objectivity and principled, never-ending doubt. Probably when a person views nonhuman animals mainly or entirely, for years, in laboratory settings that elicit little more than dullness and dread in the animals being manipulated for study, one loses one’s sense of continuity with these “objects,” while extrapolating the deadening anthropomorphic determinism of the laboratory environment to the entire world, excepting one’s own professional, inbred culture of animal control.

It could be that, over time, these circumstances have the effect of eroding the capacity for spontaneous happiness and pleasure in the behaviorist to such an extent that the behaviorist’s own diminished emotional capacity becomes the scientific standard by which she or he judges everything else. When this happens, the so-called science is little more than self-massage, the scientist little more than a self-medicator, a self-referential system incapable of making a worthwhile contribution to life outside the institution.

This essay is a response to “Feelings Do Not a Science Make,” Marian Stamp Dawkins’ criticism of Jonathan Balcombe’s book, Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, Macmillan, 2006.

Dawkins’ review appeared in BioScience Jan. 2007. Vol. 57 No. 1, pp. 83-84.

Karen Davis, PhD