Gathering Emotional Intelligence

Jason G. Goldman reviews Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise

It was just after six o’clock in the evening on an autumn day in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve. A researcher watched a female elephant known as Eleanor collapse. She was a matriarch, an elder within female-dominated elephant society. Her swollen trunk dragged on the ground. One of her tusks was broken, evidence of another recent fall. Another matriarch, Grace, ran toward her and tried to stabilize the ailing pachyderm with her tusks. But Eleanor’s back legs were too weak to support her massive body, and she fell again. The rest of her herd had continued their journey, but Grace stayed with Eleanor as day turned into night.

By eleven o’clock the next morning, Eleanor was dead. Over the next few days, no fewer than five other elephant groups visited Eleanor’s carcass. Several of these, like Grace, were completely unrelated to her. They poked at her lifeless body, sniffed it, and felt it with their feet and with their trunks. Did they know that they were touching death? Do elephants grieve?

This story is well known among animal cognition researchers, and it is one that Virginia Morell beautifully—almost poetically—recounts in her book Animal Wise. “Her six-month-old calf never left its mother’s side, even after park rangers cut out her tusks to make sure they did not fall into the hands of poachers,” she writes. By the calf’s ninth month, researchers had lost track of it and assumed it was “probably killed by a predator.” Like us, elephants are lost without their mothers.

But we’ve only just come to recognize this. Comparative cognition laboratories have historically relied upon just three animals. Morell recounts a conversation with one cognitive scientist who pointed out that decades of research were built upon “rats, pigeons, and college sophomores—preferably male.” It’s laughable now, but this is the thinking that dominated the fields of psychology and cognition for so long. Cognitive scientists have since adopted other species into their research programs, examining critters more familiar to anthropologists, ethologists, or evolutionary biologists.

Take dolphins and chimpanzees. On the surface, they’re tremendously different. But they are both, like humans, highly social. By comparing them, scientists can understand the evolution of sociality—and in doing so, might better grasp what it means to be human. Or consider Fido. Dogs are sensitive to human social cues in a way that even our closest cousins, the bonobos, are not. The list goes on: songbirds tell us about the evolution of language. Ants and bees teach us about group decision making. Fish are being used to investigate emotion.

The practical uses of knowledge derived from animal cognition research should be obvious, though perhaps it became so only in recent years. “It was very common in the last century,” Morell writes, “to manage wild animals almost as if they were vegetable crops. Even today, whale populations are referred to as ‘stocks,’ implying that they are farmed.” But a pod of whales is not like a field of carrots, an elephant herd is not like an apple orchard, a chimpanzee family is not a sheaf of wheat. It takes more than sunlight and water to build a bonobo.

Recent history has proven that husbandry and management programs are more successful when they’re informed by a species’ natural feeding habits, navigation skills, mating, parenting, and other social behaviors. But Morell leaves the reader with a very different sort of argument, one that appeals to our emotions—the very same emotions we share with other animals.

In a chapter on emotion and fish, Morell describes a study conducted by biologist Victoria Braithwaite. She injected a bit of bee venom into the lips of some trout. The fish behaved in a way that “suggested discomfort.” They rocked back and forth, which is unusual for trout but is also eerily similar to something distressed primates do. For three hours, the fish avoided food. Other trout, which had been injected with a harmless saline solution and had therefore felt the same needle-prick, “ate with as much gusto as did a group of untreated fish.” So the trout weren’t reacting in a simple, mindless, reflexive way to the injection.

If fish can feel pain, Morell pointedly asks, should we practice catch-and-release sport fishing? It is here that her narrative comes a bit too close to an animal-rights call to arms. Animals “cannot argue for their rights or how they might best be treated or farmed or managed,” she says. “Most animals have no voice that we can hear, unless we speak up for them.” What seems absent from this argument is a discussion about animal rights versus animal welfare. (Braithwaite provides one answer: it is more ethical to use barbless hooks.) But this is a small quibble with an otherwise compelling book.

“What do the minds of animals tell us about ourselves?” Morell asks in the final chapter of Animal Wise. She responds that “they have moments of anger, and sorrow, and love. Their animal minds tell us that they are our kin.” Instead of simply relying on animal cognition research to drive better or more effective conservation efforts, Morell argues, by studying animal cognition we will better understand our own place within the broader animal kingdom.

Animals grieve for their dead. Animals play. Animals teach. Some animals even seem to imagine. By peering into the minds of crows, monkeys, dolphins, or dogs, will we see our own reflections staring back? And if we do, will that spur us to treat our nonhuman cousins with empathy and compassion?

Humans are quick to draw superficial distinctions between groups within their own species in order to justify or rationalize the poor treatment of others. Can we expect better of our species when it comes to the way we treat other taxa? I’m not sure. ❧

Jason G. Goldman received his PhD in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on social cognition in animals. He writes “The Thoughtful Animal” blog on the Scientific American blog network.

Art: “Love Rat” by Banksy



  • karen June 18, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Doesn’t it seem that as we humans evolve or identify our emotional traits – that we begin to see more identifying traits of same in our animal counter parts? Empathy. Shouldn’t it be taught in U.S.Schools? Beautiful piece you’ve written Dr. Jason.


  • Virat Jolli June 19, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    Animals emotional intelligence is largely ignored world wide. If we inculcate the views expressed in this article it will make us better human being. But unfortunately its not the case.


  • david montague June 20, 2013 at 8:15 am

    I don’t fish and couldn’t care less about “catch and release” (believe me: if I’m going to waste time fishing, I’m going to keep anything edible which I catch!) But the mind-blowing/numbing silliness of suggesting that we should examine “Catch and release” on the basis of this experiment is obvious. Did the author not point out that a needle-prick didn’t inhibit the feeding of fish? Surely a needle-prick is essentially what’s involved in catching a fish with a hook…. and so if they’re not bothered, why should I be?


    • Adrian Dalton June 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm

      Um, I’d just like to point out that catching a fish with a hook involves a little more than a needle-prick. First, there is a real qualitative difference between pricking skin with a needle and gouging through skin and flesh with a barbed hook. If you don’t agree you could try it on yourself. Second, there is the small matter of suffocation. This is how the fish dies. A bit more excruciating than a needle prick, I would say.

      Sadly, it is just this sort of simplistic, non-empathetic “reasoning” that has caused our species to inflict so much suffering on animals (and humans).


  • (Review) Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures | Wild Muse January 23, 2014 at 10:48 am

    […] regarding thought and emotions in our animal friends (for more on this, read Jason Goldman’s wonderfully insightful review in Conservation magazine), nonfiction writers will adore it for its commanding combination of […]


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