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United by feelings: Universal emotions are the basis of our profound affinity with other animals

We must confront the constructionist view of emotion of animals. Rather than seeking linguistic confirmation that a creature is experiencing an emotion, observation of its behaviour proves more revealing.

STEPHEN T. ASMA: ‘In one scandalous passage of Charles Darwin’s “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”, he demonstrated that four ‘defining’ characteristics of Homo sapiens – tool use, language, aesthetic sensitivity and religion ­– are all present, if rudimentary, in nonhuman animals. Even morality, he argued, arose through natural selection… Yet Darwin’s revolutionary understanding of the evolved nature of human emotions has been neglected since…

When scientists turned again to the mind a century later, the computer was the model that both sparked the cognitive sciences revolution and served as its exclusive investigative tool. The computational model of the mind has been very powerful, but it has no way (and no need) to capture the biological ingredient of motivational feeling-states, and has been unconcerned with the evolved substrate to such processes…

What then is the new picture of our evolved emotional lives?… Unlike the computational approach to mind, the affective turn is deeply rooted in what we know about the brain as a biological reality. In the first decade of the new millennium, affective (or emotional) studies began to trickle into disciplines such as ethology (the study of animal behaviour). The primatologist Frans de Waal, for example, endeavoured to recognise, in a rigorous and scientific manner, the real emotions in our primate cousins…

The time has finally come for a defence of emotions as biological adaptations that do not merely follow or corrupt the dictates of reason, but successfully lead as well. Of course, this project rests on the assumption that there really are universal natural emotions inherited from our ancestors. Are emotions truly universal?… Over the past three decades, affective neuroscientists have engaged specialised technology to diligently map distinct neural pathways for the most basic, primary emotions…

Extensive research on the amygdala, for example, reveals that fear has a clear brain signature. And precise localised electrical stimulation of the brain reveals specific affective and behavioural responses in animals… We must confront the nonintuitive and seemingly absurd consequence of the constructionist view of emotion when it comes to the lives of nonhuman animals. If emotion depends on higher conceptual cognition, cultural context and language, then nonhuman animals and infants do not have an emotional life.

Diagnosing an emotion in a nonlinguistic subject is certainly very difficult. We cannot know for certain if animals are having emotions. But if this methodological barrier is true, it is only trivially true, and applies equally to our impossible direct access to other human minds as well, thus rendering us all into tragic solipsists.

Rather than seeking linguistic confirmation that a creature is indeed experiencing an emotion, observation of its behaviour proves more revealing. The clear implication of tying the experience of emotions to the possession of concepts is that all animals and babies do not have emotions because they lack language. This seems remarkably inconsistent with evidence from animal studies, developmental psychology, as well as common sense’. SOURCE…

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