The Evolutionary Origins of Emotions Part 1: Can Animals Teach Us About Emotions?

When I was a wide-eyed undergraduate student, I was repeatedly warned by lecturers not to anthropomorphise. Anthropomorphising means ascribing human qualities to animals. Lecturers in as diverse subjects as psychology, biology and environmental geography: all cautioned against the error of anthropomorphising.

Why did I have to be so repeatedly warned about this? What’s so bad about understanding animals through a human/emotional frame of reference? The answer, like so many of the covert lessons of my university studies, seemed to be that our folk-psychological, common-sense understandings had to be disrupted and deconstructed for more sophisticated beliefs to emerge. The people are dumb, academics are smart.

And these academics certainly had their work cut out for them. The understanding of animals in terms of their proclivities, motives, personal quirks and emotional flaws is a deep and wide human phenomenon. Millennia-old mythologies from Polynesia to China to Greece to Africa are replete with anthropomorphised animals. Animals that we can understand and who can understand us, because of shared aspects of our psychologies.

Indigenous peoples, some of whom retain aspects of ancient hunter gatherer lifestyles to this day, speak in intimately personal ways about the animals with whom they share the environment. In his fantastic book Affluence with Abundance about the Khoisan Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, anthropologist, James Suzman records the deeply familiar manner that human hunters describe their prey:

“For them, focussing on animals was not a question of focusing on an animal’s humanlike characteristics but on assuming the whole perspective of the animal”


Trust the Smarties, not Yourself

But intellectual traditions from all settled, complex civilizations have sought to distance us from our neighbourly understanding of our animal cousins. Animism, the spirituality of nature, was seen as superstition by codified religions. Science and Enlightenment thinking encouraged us to see animals in a mechanical and reductionist way. Physical Machines, the philosopher Descartes called creatures.

Behaviourism has gone further and discouraged us to not only think about the internal psychological states of animals, but of people as well. The behaviour of People and animals are the response to what they learnt in their environments. Behaviourists did think that animals could teach us something – about learning. But not about personality and perspective, which neither animals nor humans possess.

Recently, the neuropsychological theory of emotions of Dr Lisa Feldman-Barret posits that animals don’t possess emotions at all. Human-beings “construct” emotions based on social conventions. Underlying these emotional constructions are simple feelings of positivity or negativity and psycho-physiological arousal or dampening. humans perceive these internal states and we stamp an emotional label on our experience, which then directs our emotional feelings, behaviours and gestures. In this theory, young children and animals do not possess emotions as they are non-verbal. However due to our predicting mind projecting our own adult human beliefs onto them, we describe them as having feelings like us.

Creature Teachers

Some psychologists and brain researchers have sought to understand the human brain and mind by studying animal brains. The late neuropsychologist, Dr Jaak Pankseep, used the triangulation method of, (1) stimulating and scanning brains of humans and animals, (2) directly observing instinctive animal behaviours and (3) stimulating and scanning the brains of human subjects and asking them about their emotional and motivational states.

Using this method, Dr Panksepp proposed that 7 neurological systems underlie much of the emotional lives of humans and other mammals. These systems, which he labelled SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF, CARE, LUST and PLAY. Panksepp uses capitals to describe these systems to differentiate from the common English use of these words.

In my view, Panksepp’s theory represents an intuitive and compelling understanding of human and animal motivational states. But perhaps I’m just falling into old superstitious, anthropomorphic thinking about animals and humans. I’m sure to my old lecturers, to Descartes, to Feldman-Barret and to the architects of the great world religions I’d been seen this way.

Either way, I’ll be writing an article about each of the Panksepp systems over the coming months, and you can decide for yourself.

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