Are Animals Stuck in the Present?

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How are human beings different from all other animals? We've been asking that for a couple thousand years, and there are lots of "theories." They tend to be self-congratulatory, which I suppose is unsurprising. If dogs were asking how they're different from all other animals, they'd be going on and on about their supreme and supremely important sense of smell.

One of the theories that seems relatively humble, and has appeal even to a pro-animal ethicist like Peter Singer, is that animals are stuck in the present, while we "time travel" to the past and the future. The way we think about the future is selected by Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) as the distinctive human capacity.

It seems initially rather plausible. Dogs don't write history books or plan next summer's vacation. And this idea seems harmless and a lot less self-congratulatory than time-honored assertions like "we're rational and they're not."

A moment's thought, though, ought to slow us down. The animals we come in closest contact with are the dogs and cats who wander around our houses, waiting for their next meal. Animals in the wild, who actually have to fend for themselves, busy themselves with their future survival.

Think beaver lodges (like the photo), birds nests, migration, cached acorns or seeds. Animals are oriented to the future in many ways.

Now I know what 99.9% of people are going to say, at this point. It's just instinctive. That may be largely so, but what does that show? It doesn't show the behaviors are merely mechanical or unconscious. A beaver building a lodge is genuinely working on the coming winter's housing.

But, but, but...the beaver is surely not pondering next winter. He's not hoping it will be mild, or looking forward to skating. A beaver's not in the state of mind we'd be in if we were building a cabin for next winter.

But isn't it just flagrant anthropocentrism to suppose the only way to be oriented to the future is to be oriented by way of hopes, thoughts, and the like?

If a beaver is killed before next winter arrives, and never gets to finish and use his lodge, I think we can truthfully say he didn't get to compete his own project. It's not totally different when a person is working on a project and never completes it because of a fatal accident.

This has some importance from the point of view of ethics. I think we naturally feel that an animal's death is a tragedy--maybe just a small one, but still a tragedy. We feel bad if we hit even a squirrel in the road. But we're easily talked out of that reaction. It's inconvenient to feel bad about animal deaths because it makes it so much harder to eat a ham sandwich, set a mouse trap, or wear leather shoes.

The idea that animals live in the present gives us a great excuse. It doesn't matter if the squirrel is dead, because he had no notion of the future anyway! Possibly so--he had no notion. It doesn't mean he wasn't preparing for it. He may have been squirreling away acorns for months, and because of his death, he'll never enjoy them.

Call it a mini-tragedy, if you want, but don't call it nothing!


Anonymous said...

Ah, but I only think it matters if a human being is killed in a road accident to the extent (a) the she suffers around the time of dying, including mental suffering and (b) to the extent that other beings suffer because she is dead.

And I think the same about the squirrel.

I don't think that the fact that neither of them will ever enjoy their acorns matters, per se, at all.

There is of course an enormous scientific literature trying to tease out any differences between what animals think about the future about what humans do. I am packing for a little trip to Edinburgh at the moment, so no time to fish out refs, but one book about animal cognition which I thought was really good is this one.

Somewhat OT, but this is fascinating.

Jean Kazez said...

OK, well that's consistent anyway!

Enjoy your trip. Wish I was going to Edinburgh today.

rtk said...

Potentilla said the death of a human matters if it includes suffering, either on the part of the about to die person or her survivors. It would also matter in a tearless way to those who might have benefited by her contribution to society in general or to specific people she might have befriended.

Edinburgh! The Firth of Forth, the bridge, the wind, pedaling from Cambridge to the Orkneys. Lovely.