Beginning in 1998 with Song for the Blue Ocean, Carl Safina has written numerous books on the state of our oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. He is a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant” among a host of awards and founder of the Safina Center, which fights for healthy oceans. Safina’s writing appears in National Geographic, the New York Times and elsewhere. In 2011, he hosted the PBS series Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina. His latest book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, describes the social, emotional, and intellectual lives of animals, concentrating on elephants, orcas, and wolves. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman caught up with him on November 12, 2015 for this interview…
EarthTalk: What do we know today that we didn’t know twenty years ago about animal intelligence, especially in species like whales and dogs?
Safina: I think we know a few things. One is that we have a much better understanding of the similarities of brains among many animals, especially the idea that many animals have very similar brain structures and similar brain chemicals and that brain chemicals are the ones that create mood and motivation and that a lot of these things are exactly the same chemicals across these species. I don’t think that we understood that until fairly recently. You know, more people are understanding it better now. And we know a lot more about how other animals live in nature. We didn’t really start watching animals in nature until I was a child and the first people are still working, Jane Goodall may be the first and Cynthia Moss and Iain Douglas-Hamilton with elephants. These people are still alive and they’re still working. That’s how recent any attempt to understand the lives of wild animals is. So we understand them a lot better than we used to. And we understand who dogs are; we used to not realize that dogs were domesticated wolves. Their Latin name was a different species; now it’s change back to wolf, canis lupis domesticus. we consider the dog a sub-species of wolf, which is true. We know that from their DNA. And we understand that the way they are with us is, their loyalty, their devotion to family and group, comes from their biology as animals that live in families. Which, a wolf family you call a pack, but it’s a wolf family. So, those are the new things.
E: How widespread are these new ideas about intelligence across species that are considered less social and less intelligent, like rats or even birds or cockroaches? How widespread is biological and social and intellectual similarity.
Safina: Well, the more similar they are physically the more their brains look like us. A chimpanzee brain is almost identical to a human brain, it’s just smaller. It’s scaled down, it’s smaller, it has fewer neurons, but it’s built almost identically. And then a fish brain has some of the same structures. The way I look at it is that the more similar the other animal is to us, the more similar they are to us internally as well as mentally. So chimpanzees, you know they think, they plot, they are obsessed with status, they’re very emotional, they make some tools. They are rather similar to us. And other mammals are rather similar to us in many ways and they have to take care of their young by feeding them milk. They have the same sort of imperatives for bonding with their young, at least while they’re caring for them. Birds you can see many similar kinds of behaviors. We know some birds you can interact with them and have relationships with them and they can bond with each other and they can even bond with people. As you get down much further away outside of vertebrates, you mentioned what about cockroaches. Well I won’t say that much about cockroaches, I don’t have really a good grasp about what’s going on in the mind of a cockroach, if anything. It’s got a very, very different kind of a brain, and I don’t know. So, I’m willing to say that I know if my dog acts a certain way I’m very confident that the dog is happy or sad or hungry or wants to go out or has certain desires, wants to go for a walk. I’m not really sure what a cockroach feels.
E: How do you assess human rights versus animal rights? Are they roughly equivalent? Does it depend on the species?
Safina: Well, I have mixed feelings about the idea of animal rights. I think, other species, well first of all for those creatures that we control, like our domestic animals, I just think that you can gain a lot more by treating them as kindly and humanely as possible than worrying about rights from a legalistic point-of-view. I would say that the mental experience of other animals is on a sliding scale of relationality, just like it is for everything else about us. You know our physical bodies, some of them are more similar some are less similar, and I think their mental experiences the same thing can be said. So I think that’s why kindness is a much easier guide and a much more easy to understand guide than a legal definition of rights. You might say a chimpanzee has certain rights, but you can never just open a cage and release a chimpanzee into your neighborhood. We need to allow them to exist where they belong as chimpanzees in chimpanzee habitat. And we need to do the same thing with birds and fish and everything else, we can’t just drive these things out of existence. I think kindness and conservation are easier to understand guides than rights.
E: So the old conservationist ideal had it right. How do you respond to the idea of many research scientists that animals should be assumed not to have intelligence and human-type emotions unless proved otherwise?
Safina: I don’t think it’s any more scientific that a creature that has eyes and ears and a nose and acts like it knows what’s going on and has a relationship with you, to assume that it has no sensation of anything doesn’t seem scientific to me, it seems to go completely in the face of what is apparent. And I don’t think that there’s anything more scientific about assuming that it can’t experience anything at all than to assume that it sees with its eyes and it hears with its ears and it smells with its nose and it feels with its, with its skin. You know, I just think it’s absurd actually.
E: Why should environmentalists care about the status of animals? What does the long human relationship with animals, from a source of food to a source of affection, mean to the environmental movement?
Safina: Well, I think the environmental movement is all about the ability of the world to support life, and animals are certainly a very good example of life. So at the very least the idea that animals must remain, and must be allowed to remain, in viable populations, and not be driven out of existence is central to environmental thinking and environmental ethics.
E: So is this a legacy of the preservationist movement, that species should be preserved for their own sake? Or is it largely for the sake of humanity, since we need these species for a healthy planet?
Safina: For me it’s entirely for the sake of the animals, because we in our brief moment here have no moral claim to ending lineages of evolution on the Earth, depriving other animals of their life, or at least species of their existence. This is to me a grave, grave crime against the world and against generations who will follow as well as the creatures themselves. So I think it’s completely wrong, it’s unethical and immoral, and it ruins the beauty and diversity of the living world. People can live without most animals most of the time. And my concern is just that, that people can live without them. So, it’s simply a thing we need to do because it’s the right thing to do, to say that we are here briefly and in no way can we really justify, under no ethical or moral or philosophical principles can we justify ruining and wrecking the place that we find ourselves in and the species around us.