Animal Forum

Scientists are asking, "What is it like to be an animal?"
before they've understood what it means to be human.

When Spot sees Timmy riding his bike up the street, he leaps up and races to the front gate. Frantically dancing around the boy, pressing affectionately against him, he accompanies him to the front door, where Timmy disappears inside the house.

Spot gazes after him mournfully, giving a reproachful "Woof." After a few hopeful minutes, he resigns himself to his loss and resettles himself beneath the porch.

Spot's behavior is typical, as every dog lover will attest: man's best friend has unwavering devotion for his beloved master. Yet according to many authorities (including Timmy's father), Spot, being only an animal, doesn't have feelings; he's little more than a furry machine that reacts automatically to various stimuli. He doesn't have feelings like we do, merely conditioned responses. Nevertheless, he puts on a good show, sometimes seeming to perceive Timmy's emotional needs more astutely than Timmy's own family members. He seems to understand and relate to Timmy with far more sensitivity than Timmy's fourteen-year-old sister, for example, and Timmy's relationship with Spot constitutes Timmy's most satisfying friendship. So how can it be that Spot has no feelings?

Can an elephant feel sorrow? Do butterflies have worries or aspirations? Can you embarrass a squirrel, or a tiger, or a whale? What do animals think about? Or do they think at all? How is it that certain animals display such humanlike characteristics? These questions, although often asked by precocious six-year-olds, are generally considered to fall within the realm of speculative fiction and have long been ignored by investigative scientists.

Yet in 1981, under the auspices of the prestigious Dahlem Conference in Berlin, approximately fifty noted psychologists, philosophers, and scientists met to address this very issue. The conference was entitled "Animal Mind/ Human Mind," and discussion focused on the concepts of experience and consciousness in relation to animal behavior. Or, as one conferee, Donald Griffin of Rockefeller University in New York City, put it, "What's it like to be an animal of a particular species?"

Highlighting the conference were a number of presentations displaying the undeniable aptitude of various chimps, bumblebees, and dolphins. Lively debate flourished as distinguished scientists and philosophers attempted to define such terms as "consciousness" and "intelligence." Although much of the discussion dealt with the difficulty of agreeing on the usage of these terms, the conclusion was revolutionary. The conferees agreed that the most important question about the animal mind is no longer whether animals possess consciousness, but to what extent they possess consciousness.

For a student of Vedanta philosophy, the answers to such questions on animal behavior are clear. There are 8,400,000 different species of life or, to put it differently, 8,400,000 choices of bodies for the spirit soul. The particular body awarded to a spirit soul is determined by the state of consciousness that soul has developed in previous lives. Lower consciousness leads the soul to lower life forms, and higher consciousness leads to higher life forms. The lower species facilitate only the very basic functions of existence: eating, reproducing, defending, and sleeping. These lower species, however, are not merely functional machines created to fill up space and supply amusement for human beings. The spirit souls in these species have feelings and desires, although very limited and self-centered. Enwrapped in thoughts of "Where will I sleep? Where is my food?" the animals completely identify with the body as the self and must live in constant fear of death.

In contrast, human life is especially suited to inquiring philosophically, "Who am I? Why am I suffering? What is the purpose of my life?" By utilizing the advanced intelligence of the human mind, one can understand the temporary nature of this material world and also the eternal, spiritual nature of the self, as distinguished from the bodily covering. When one is thus self-realized, he can understand the spiritual identity of all creatures. The Bhagavad-gita teaches that one who is self-realized "sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater" (Bg. 5.18). Every human being has the responsibility of seeking this higher knowledge and acting in such a way that the less developed living beings are not exploited. If a human being, however, neglects this duty of self-realization, his position is no better than that of an animal.

So, it's encouraging to see that the scientific community is cautiously beginning to confirm the Vedic truth of the spiritual unity of all living beings. But through their arduous process of research, the full understanding will be slow in coining, although that full understanding has been recorded for thousands of years in the Vedic literature. To properly study the animal mentality one must first understand his own identity beyond the temporary material body. In other words, the question shouldn't be, "What's it like to be an animal?" but "What does it mean to be a human being?" If the scientists can provide the answer to the second question, then they can save themselves from experiencing firsthand the answer to the first.