Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Q&A with Carl Safina

Carl Safina is the author of the new book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. His other books include The View from Lazy Point and A Sea in Flames. He is the inaugural endowed professor for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, and is founding president of The Safina Center. He lives on Long Island, New York.

Q: You write, "Scientists usually steer firmly from questions about the inner lives of animals." Why is this?

A: Scientists in the mid-1900s took the study of animal behavior from myth and stories to real science. At that time, there was essentially no neuroscience, no behavioral science (they were inventing it), almost no ecological science and virtually zero behavioral ecology (a term not coined until the 1980s).

So, building from scratch, those first behaviorists insisted on reporting behavior only, because there were no tools and techniques and no body of information on which to base investigation of motivation and the animal’s mind.

This was taught down the next generations and hardened into a rule. Worse, scientists were taught to assume that animals have no thoughts or emotions (it’s good not to assume) but, weirdly, that got translated into an insistence that they don’t.

But since the mid-1900s we have half a century of science and observation. So the old strictures are outdated and unreasonable. Everything we know about evolution and the brain, and everything we see animals do, leads logically to the conclusion that everything about life, including mental processes and experiences, exists along a continuum.

Only humans have human skeletons, but that doesn’t mean that only humans have skeletons. And it’s the same with minds. 

Q: In the book, you focus in particular on elephants, wolves, and whales and dolphins. Why did you pick these animals? 

A: They’re excellent examples of minds in action because they have structured social groups and they know who their friends and family members are, they seek status and get deposed, they lead complex lives, their lives follow the arc of a career—and they’re awesome. 

Q: You write, "The human understanding that we can bring to bear is out deepest insight into the living world: all life is one." How do you see the similarities among humans and other animals? 

A: All is on a continuum, so many things are similar. Brains of animals without backbones make the same chemicals that create motivation in human minds.

Imperatives of food, defense, mating; many animals are motivated to seek these things and as we get closer, for instance among mammals with their milk and maternal care, many survival-supporting behaviors and motivations are similar.

In the big picture, all we have is life and the next generation. We all pursue that. Tribal peoples who hunted and gathered (a few still exist today) with stone tools, no money or machines, nothing more complicated than bow-and-arrow, had the same minds we all have. So life is like a tree, everything on a continuum and connected. 

Q: You state, "It remains to be seen whether human intelligence will continue to succeed or become a catastrophe in Act 3." What do you predict?
A: It’s not smart to make predictions about what will happen because things change. But what will happen if we don’t change our present course is that humans will crowd other valid lives entirely out of existence.

This process is well underway in the rapid extinction catastrophe we are causing. Many, many animals are down to 1 to 10 percent of the numbers they had before the Industrial Revolution.

We need to see that their lives are as valid in this world as are our own species. That they, like us, do all they can to survive and keep their babies alive in the chain of being. They value their lives too.

And without them, we would be a crowded, dirty mass of alienated humans seeking connections and larger meaning that we’ve destroyed. So let’s not

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’ve been writing some academic things about the human relationship with nature through the lens of ethics and morality.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: We have two pound-puppies, Chula and Jude, two parrots, Rosebud and Kane, Frankie the kingsnake, and three hens. Love ‘em all.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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