There has been a great debate throughout the scientific community over whether or not non-human animals are capable of having and expressing complex emotions. Some will say, non-human animals are denied this ability due to the fact that many do not hold the ability to speak, letting us know exactly how and what they feel. Using the senses available to us, like sight, we can SEE that they are capable of much more than some give them credit for. Language is not the ‘end all’ for emotional decision.
Emotions are a sensory experience. Without the senses of SEEing, HEARing, and SPEAKing, the intake and expression of these emotions would not be possible. If one of these senses is missing, then the others have to grow stronger to compensate for the loss. This enhances the experience that is being taken in and in turn, enhances what is being expressed by that individual. “The emergence of the capacity to experience and respond to emotion feelings may have been the most critical step in its evolution (5).” We need to consider the evolutionary process of where emotions come from and why we have them in the first place. When we do this, we can then be more open to other species having the same connections and expressions as well. Responding to the emotions we and other animals feel, does not have to come in the form of words. When you take a look at human evolution as a comparison, you can see that “emotions play a critical role in the evolution or consciousness and the operations of all mental processes (5).” There are so many similarities throughout the brain that make emotions possible, in not just humans but non-human animals as well, that we cannot keep ignoring the value of what is right in front of us.
Some may try using the argument that because there is no formal language possessed or expressed by other animals, they should not be considered as having emotions of their own; which is a false assumption. Some have languages of their own to express feelings and/or can be taught things such as sign language, and in the case of some avian species, actual human speech. Just because we do not see their communication on the same level as ours, does not mean that emotional expression gets thrown out the door. “Even adults have great difficulty articulating a precise description of their emotion feelings (5).” They are hard to pin-point especially during times of high perturbation or excitement. What determines a particular emotion and what cognitive content is expressed at that time includes such things as individual differences, learning styles, cultures, and what conceptual process is being used by the individual (5). These same determinants are not just found in human cultures but in non-human animal cultures as well. Even though they are used many times over as test subjects for human brain studies, we just do not know enough about how each species works for scientists to come to a full consensus on the topic. The future is in our hands to make sure that we learn more about the capabilities of these wonderful beings and share it with the rest of the world. It is the only way that the circle of compassion can be complete.
By Marc Bekoff