Review - "The Emotional Lives of Animals" with Comments on Anecdotal Evidence

Anecdotal evidence: oxymoron or label of necessity? Within the sciences, anecdotal evidence (i.e., untested claims and stories) is typically treated as only a beginning step in the means of answering a question or, more commonly, is disregarded as useless. The reasons for this mutual understanding begin at the roots of how modern science works: something is unknown, it is tested against an informed suggestion, then it is argued (usually by retesting or investigating a competing hypothesis) until accepted or rejected by the scientific community (news networks and public school systems attempt to have a say in the process, too). Furthermore, if an event happens and a human observer is around to witness or experience it, unless a convincing, systematic attempt at recording the event takes place, the event might as well have not happened. Many field biologists carry some sort of notebook with them wherever they go for this purpose - unless an observation is recorded convincingly, why should anyone believe him or her?

Anecdotes are treated quite differently when we remove ourselves from the world of science. Belief in stories and hearsay 'evidence' is more rooted in emotional impact and similarity of belief between the belief and the believer, regardless of the truth behind the mask. You probably don't have to stretch your imagination very far to grasp how the rest of the world interprets what science calls anecdotal evidence (e.g., religion, politics, and even fad diets!). Hundreds and thousands of books on conspiracy theories, self-help, and what you should- and should-not wear after Labor Day are published every year. Consumers buy these books for various reasons, but generally these people accept the power of anecdotal evidence to explain problems in people's lives.

Marc Bekoff's The Emotional Lives of Animals is a book from the respected scientist which compiles several anecdotal stories in making a case for the pervasiveness of human-like emotions in non-human animals. I read this book as one of several I could have picked for SU's Intro to Animal Behavior course, required of all Animal Behavior majors, and I must say if I had known the pace of this book before I read it, I would have never tried.

My position at the time was one of transitioning from a prospective freshman business major to the fascinating world of animal behavior. Even though I then knew close to nothing about the fundamentals of the field, I already had a place in my heart for the feelings of animals, whatever they may be. Anyone with a pet dog or cat probably feels the same way. This acknowledged, I already had no reason to read the book. The more I flipped through its widely-spaced letters, the less interested I became as a reader.

Upon reading about two-thirds of the book, I set it down and never finished the rest. I had just lost interest. Probably because a more appropriate title for the book would be "The Emotional Perceptions of Humans." The whole book, across all non-human species, was the same story over and over again - humans having some level of epiphany when confronted with the knowledge that their token non-human animal could have emotions strikingly similar in appearance to their own.

Without any ability to refute the claims made in the story, there is no opportunity for contribution to either the arguments for or against the presence of emotions in non-human animals. The saddening truth is that Dr. Bekoff seems to acknowledge the lack of scientific novelty for his argument in the Preface, before the book proper has even begun:
"It's bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology, and social neuroscience supports the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives."
As with the rest of the book, Bekoff omits references to any of this past work in favor of beaming reviews from friend Jane Goodall, Ingrid Newkirk (cofounder/president of PETA), and the Dalai Lama to name a few.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Dr. Beckoff. He has an engaging personality and even signed my copy of this book, but I will hold that the book's thesis was uninteresting from the start.

Overall: 2/5; Save your money unless you are totally unconvinced that non-human animals can feel emotions.

SU Fleming Lecture Spring 2010: L-R -- Marc Bekoff, Carol Adams, Paul Waldau


Anonymous said...

Shame, that looked promising.

Anonymous said...

Kinda sorry to admit that I agree with you. I really want to like Bekoff's writing, but so far after this book, plus another one, his blog and two papers, you could say the same as you've written above about all of them. I so want to read the evidence of the claims, but he doesn't give any. I guess he feels he's beyond doing that, maybe.

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