I just listened to a fascinating interview with BBC’s Martin Bell, the noted war correspondent. You can listen to it here. You can’t help but admire the man not for anything he says but for what he leaves unsaid. When his interviewer, the psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Clare asked him about how he could keep going on going back to war zones while so many reporters avoided them, he replied about some of the reporters he had seen who could go only so far and no further. But then he made one of the most remarkable statements in the program when he said that this was something one doesn’t really know about until one is under fire and that there is nothing moral about it, it is like having a long nose or a short nose.
He also spoke of his father, the first compiler of the Times crossword and noted rural journalist and author Adrian Bell. He said that his father could write more eloquently about his back garden than he could about a war zone.
But there is drama all around us, and the world is a place of unimaginable cruelty. It just happens at scales we aren’t used to. Natural death is rare in the animal kingdom and the number of unpleasant ways there are to die don’t bear thinking about. By sheer numbers, insects are the most successful animals. But the life lived by an insect is one of unimaginable horror where every turn conceals a predator. Death can come swiftly or with agonizing slowness as is the case of flies caught in the grip of a venus flytrap, digested in the acid of a pitcher plant or caterpillars injected with the eggs of a wasp. If insects felt pain, what kind of a world would that be?
Many academics would be careful entering a dispute about whether or not insects or many animals feel pain “as we understand it”. Instead, they would prefer to call it emotion like behavior.
There is a strong tradition in zoology against anthropomorphism, that is against attributing human like emotions onto animals. This dates back to the 19th century when dubious claims of animals displaying human like attributes abounded. The most famous was a case in 1907 of Clever Hans. The horse Hans was owned by a mathematics teacher Wilhelm von Osten who believed he had taught the horse how to add, subtract, multiply, divide, tell the time, track the calendar, read, spell and understand German. His owner demonstrated this by asking Hans questions to which he would stamp his hoof a requisite number of times.
Wilhelm von Osten with Hans
When psychologist Oskar Pfungst investigated this, he found that Hans did not understand any of the questions, but instead responded to unconscious physical signals coming from the questioner. Pfungst found that when Hans approached the correst answer, the questioner’s face and body posture showed signs of increasing tension which was released when Hans made his final correct tap. This provided the cue for Hans to stop tapping.
Such incidents warned scientists against ‘reading too much’ into animal behaviour, especially in terms of their motivation. But it also raised an interesting question, did horses rely so extensively on body language for their own communication? Also, why would an animal be so sensitive to the physiological changes connected with different emotional states unless its own kind also understood and felt different emotions?
“Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy and love, by their stridulation.”
~Charles Darwin (1872)