During the transition from an old year to a new year I like to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past year and plan for the next year. Doing so brings out gratitude for all I have, a gratefulness that I sometimes must drag out of myself other times of the year. Sure, I know I have everything I need when pressed to think about it, but I do not think daily about it as evidenced in grumpy comments such as, “Ugh, look at all the dishes in the sink.” Instead I should be happy to have a sink and water running from a tap – both of which I have lived without. It is hard to wash dishes in a bathtub. And then, of course, I need to be grateful for the bathtub, which also was lacking at Halcyon for a good four years, and which millions of people in the world do not have.
There are times when I feel my kitchen is too small; I have to move things to work. On gratitude-filled days I am thankful for my beautiful soapstone countertop, which is, not surprisingly, much more beautiful and easier to clean than the plywood countertop we had for several years while renovating the kitchen. On days when I am filled with experiential wisdom, I also know that a larger kitchen can suffer from the same problem of seeming too small.
Kitchens, or whatever the little things we grump about, pale in comparison to things that really matter: health, family, shelter, livelihood, and chances to learn and grow every day. When I set New Year’s goals, I am much more in tune with all these aspects in my life for which I have gratitude.
Believe it or not these thoughts led to my frequent ponderings on similarities and differences between human animals and other animals. Can animals feel gratitude? I don’t remember when I first heard of or learned about evolution. What I do remember is suddenly recalling every zoo trip I’d ever taken where I would stare at the gorillas and see humans. I’d literally be reminded of, if not a particular person, at least the mannerisms and physical attributes that makes up the character of any one person. It was easy for me to understand Darwin’s continuity theory. Grossly simplified, continuity means that the differences between humans and other animals is one of degrees, not of kind. We have since discovered animal intelligences, levels of consciousness, and similarities in the structure and functions of nervous systems in animals and humans – all in support of continuity. So if we are more similar in structure and function with animals than we used to understand, what about gratitude?
Asking this question of course, begs the more general question of whether animals experience emotion. There is much anecdotal evidence, but more importantly a growing body of scientific studies that show that some animals do indeed experience emotions. Elephants and many other mammals show sadness at the loss of another member of their group. Dogs certainly appear happy, fearful, or content in different situations. While much of what animals do is instinctual, there are also enough observations of animal behavior to conclude there are emotions regulating some of their behavior. I’ve included just a sampling of research found on the Internet at the end of this essay.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the generally accepted idea of a hierarchy of animals based on brain size and intelligence – an intelligence defined by human experience. I’ve always had a gut feeling (which by the way is also not such a whimsical notion given recent studies on the gut being our ‘second brain’) that there may be different ways of reacting to stimuli, of communicating, and of thinking compared to how humans engage with their environment, and that we just don’t yet have the means to observe it. I’ve always likened my we just can’t see it notion to how Carl Sagan wrote about his belief in the presence of alien life in space in Pale Blue Dot: He told us to imagine if we were looking at Earth but our technologies only allowed us the precision to see things the size of automobiles. We might perceive that life existed on the planet and that that life (cars) used wheels instead of legs and lived in large rectangular dwellings (garages). In other words, our technology is not yet good enough for us to see/know/discover all possibilities in space.
The same is true with our understanding of animal communication and intelligence. I often recall this metaphor when I am wondering about other life at Halcyon, and when I read studies of animal intelligence and emotion. I often stare across the garden or a field and wonder what is happening in a sort of parallel universe sense that I cannot perceive with my senses. I see, but I can’t know it all. We can’t forget about plants either. There are people studying the intelligence or sensory abilities of plants. I thoroughly enjoyed the recent New Yorker article by Michael Pollen, The Intelligent Plant. I felt a kid-like excitement when I read this parallel to Sagan’s metaphor which a plant researcher claims inspired him as a child: a Star Trek episode called Wink of an Eye which portrayed an alien species from a radically increased time dimension that thought humans were immobile and hence inert, and used them as they saw fit. Can we loosen our human-centered world-view in order to ‘see’ other ways of being?
If we can accept Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences for humans (http://infed.org/mobi/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-and-education/), is it such a stretch to imagine intelligences in other life? After all it would be a difference in kind which we are used to understanding in humans – chemical chatter of plants versus vocal chatter of humans versus sonic frequencies of animals – and in degrees when we compare true neuronal signaling behavior between animals. Intelligence, behavior, reactions, and emotions, they seem interrelated to me and integral to all life. It is simply a matter of degrees and kinds. It is all very exciting to me.
There is clearly a lot to learn, a lot to study, and a lot of growing to do on our part, for example, to reconcile different definitions of intelligence and consciousness. Given the discord in the plant science community about this new idea of plant neurobiology, some of these ideas about intelligence and emotion in other life may take a long time to be accepted as scientific truth – if current studies indicating such intelligence are indeed valid and repeatable. This journey may be considerably long given the shocking statistic I heard on National Public Radio recently that only 50% of the population knows that there is DNA in a tomato. Really? What population was this?
Freezing rain started while I was drafting this post. Ugh. I will have to go thaw the chickens’ water because I don’t have their water heater set up yet. Actually, that’s not what I am thinking or feeling. What I am feeling is gratitude that I have some chickens to take care of, that I live at Halcyon, and for a husband who supports my endeavors. I am also feeling gratitude toward all the scientists working to enhance our understanding of the life with which we share the earth.
What I am thinking is: Will my chickens be grateful?
Chamovitz, Michael. What a Plant Knows. 2012. Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York.
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. 1994. Random House.