The Marc Bekoff interview on Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship and Conservation

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

THE FULL TITLE of Marc Bekoff’s latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation.

In our interview today, Marc admits the first part of the title is to catch the eyes of new readers. Yes, he does address those two topics in his book, but they’re only part of this absolutely marvelous, world-circling voyage into the minds, emotions and values of non-human creatures.

If you haven’t discovered Marc Bekoff’s unique work until today, then you’re in for a real treat!

He has emerged as the world’s leading scientific voice translating the latest research on the psychology of animals—and human-animal relationships—into everyday language for general readers. He writes regularly for Psychology Today magazine. He writes so regularly, in fact, that he has produced more than 500 columns over the past five years. Don’t worry if you’ve missed this treasure-trove, until today. His new book collects the best of those hundreds of columns for readers … just like you.

At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we’re excited to tell you about this book—so excited, in fact, that in addition to this interview featuring our Editor David Crumm and Marc Bekoff … our colleague Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

Eager to find out more?
Let’s jump right to …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MARC BEKOFF
ON HIS NEW BOOK,
‘WHY DOGS HUMP …’

DAVID: Since we’re a magazine about spiritual and cultural diversity, I have to ask: Isn’t your basic message about the inherent value in animal life something that we’ve seen for centuries in Eastern religions—and, in the West, in the teachings of those Christian leaders who were sensitive to animal life? We all know about St. Francis, of course, but there were other Western Christian voices as well. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was famous for preaching that animals will be in heaven with us when we leave this world.

So, my question is: In this book, you’re really touching on a universal theme, right?

Marc Bekoff with a friend

Marc Bekoff with a friend. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

MARC: Absolutely. I was at a conference in 2012 at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of London and there was a good discussion there about how this relates to Jainism. In my earlier book, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart, I wrote about Buddhism and compassion for animals. There is a strong Buddhist emphasis on compassion for all beings and the unity we share.

I believe: We all are one. I don’t mean that in any frivolous sort of way. What I mean is: We all depend on one another. We all work very hard to have good, social, amicable relationships with one another. We need to be very careful about separating ourselves from other animals.

I’m not bashing humans. I do believe that humans are exceptional. We’re a wonderful species. We do horrific things, yes, but we also do amazing things.

DAVID: Then, the second question is: What you’re reporting in this new book is solid science as well. How do you do that?

MARC: When I write for Psychology Today or in books like this one, I take scientific work that’s being reported around the world and I make the findings digestible to non-researchers. And, I do provide all the references to the scientific work on this, so readers can go deeper if they want to learn more.

DAVID: You’ve got 326 footnotes neatly listed at the end of this book, if readers want to check further into what you’re describing in the chapters. How do you manage to find all of these studies?

MARC: I read widely, but I also have lots of people who are in touch with me constantly, sending me links to new articles and essays being published both in popular and scientific journals. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and my email is so overwhelming that I almost want to shut it down! But don’t misunderstand me when I say that. I love this work! Love it! You can’t go a day or two without finding a new headline about animal behavior, psychology and cognition.

DAVID: Here’s one of your columns that caught my eye—and I wound up telling friends about it: You wrote about rats helping each, motivated by what appears to be a clear sense of empathy. I certainly wouldn’t have expected empathy among rats. But you write that this is consistent with studies of mice and chickens that showed those species were capable of empathy and what you call “pro-social action.” You describe a study that was first reported in the journal Science in which researchers documented untrained laboratory rats trying to free some companions who were restrained—sparked to free them by empathy for those other rats. What floored me was when the researchers tried to keep the rats from paying attention to their restrained companions by giving them an option to go eat chocolate—and the rats still helped each other.

MARC: The pro-social behavior didn’t surprise me—but the chocolate part of their study, that did surprise me a bit. I’ve been studying social animals for decades. People tend to set up these basic boundaries in which they separate us from other animals. They’ll say, “We’re the only animals who show antruism.” And that’s obviously not true. What we’re seeing here are pro-social behaviors among these untrained rats—even when they’re offered chocolate not to do so.

NEW TITLES FOR NEW EXPLORERS

DAVID: When people read your book, they will discover a whole host of careers that—honestly—I knew little about until you explained them to us in your columns. Some of these admittedly are emerging fields, so please give us Marc Bekoff’s thumbnail explanation of each one, OK? And let’s start with Anthrozoology.

MARC: Anthrozoology is basically the scientific study of human-animal relationships. It’s the study of how we interact with other animals. This is broadly interdisciplinary work. You’ll find biologists involved in this kind of research—but you’ll also meet people in university English departments who are working on this, too.

DAVID: OK, next: Ethology.

MARC: Ethology is the study of animal behavior and it’s differentiated from comparative psychology by more of an interest in the ecology and evolution of behavior. People sometimes define ethology as the study of animal behavior by biologists rather than psychologists.

DAVID: Then, Cognitive Ethology.

MARC: Cognitive Ethology is the study of animal minds—asking questions about the evolution and ecology of animal minds. This is being done by a broad spectrum of academics: biologists, psychologists and even philosophers and theologians are involved in this. It’s called cognitive ethology mainly because, in order to fully understand the evolution of mind, cognitive skills and emotional interactions, you have to pay attention to what animals do in the wild. You can study animals in the lab, but that may be quite different than what we would see in the field.

DAVID: One more: Conservation Psychology.

MARC: I think of Conservation Psychology as a branch of Anthrozoology mainly because it deals with human beliefs and attitudes towards other animals and the environment. It’s really growing. Susan D. Clayton at the College of Wooster in Ohio is one of the leading figures in this field. She earlier published a book called, Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for NatureThen, she was the editor for the new Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology.

DAVID: Thanks for running through the titles of those emerging fields. We have a lot of readers who are parents, educators and media professionals. Many of our readers may know of young people who are interested in studying an emerging field. If so, there are four of them. Read Marc’s book and you’ll learn about even more types of research.

‘WHY DOGS HUMP AND …’

DAVID: That was pretty heavy-duty science, so let’s tackle the title of your book. Anyone who buys this book hoping to discover “Why Dogs Hump …” well, I think we should warn them. You conclude: We don’t know. There’s no scientific consensus on this behavior.

MARC: We put the phrase on the cover of the book because it’s an attention getter. But there is an important point in that chapter. It’s an important point that I’m trying to make throughout the book: People just assume we know everything about animal behavior—and we don’t. Here’s a behavior that we’ve all seen and people will tell you that they know what causes it. They’ll say it’s sexual. Or, they’ll say it’s a dominance behavior by dogs. But, the research shows neither explanation accounts for this behavior. We don’t know why this happens. There’s so much research needed even on very common behaviors we think we understand. That’s the point I make in that chapter.

DAVID: I’ll admit the phrase is attention getting. And, OK, it’s a valid point: Animal behaviors are greater mysteries than we may assume. One of the eye-opening chapters for me was about jellyfish. I’ve watched jellyfish along the ocean shore and I can’t imagine a less-intelligent creature. They look about as simple as empty plastic bags floating in the water. But you report on research that shows jellyfish are actually interacting with their environment in a more sophisticated way than people ever imagined.

MARC: We’re too mammal-centric in our thinking about the world. In fact, many of us are basically primateocentric—just paying attention to primates. Most humans are interested in big-brained animals, but what we’re learning in science today is that big brains don’t necessarily rule. For example, honey bees have small brains—but, as I write in this book, they can get depressed. They show the same neural psychological changes that we get when we get depressed. What I’m saying is: Keep the door open on what other animals can and cannot do.

DAVID: You argue that many animals are what we, as humans, would call “moral beings.” They are not simply driven by instincts and natural urges. You pose this, from the beginning of the book, as a provocative conclusion you see emerging from all of this research.

MARC: I pose that thought starting with a biological way of looking at this. I use Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity, which means that the differences among species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. I like the bumper sticker about animals that says: “If we have something—they have it, too.”

We see lots of examples of animals taking care of other animals in in need. You’ll read about an elephant who was taken care of by other animals in her group. She couldn’t walk without a l imp. She’d been injured for many many years and had a deformed right-rear leg. Other elephants waited for her. The matriarchs in her group made a point of seeing that she was fed. But we see this behavior beyond mothers looking out for others. There are many examples where animals seem to understand clearly that others are in need—and help them.

DAVID: And I’d say we’ve come full circle to the first question in the interview. If animals are moral beings, then Buddhism and Jainism and John Wesley were correct in pointing out that there is an over-arching spiritual connection we share with non-human animals.

MARC: Yes, this gets back to that Buddhist notion that there’s an umbrella of compassion, a unity. People may say to me: Why do you care about aninals? You should care about humans! Well, I do care about humans and it’s true of a lot of people who work with animals. But, the reverse is not always true. A lot of pepole who care about other people don’t always display compassion to other animals. I want to encourage more of that.
DAVID: I’m going to conclude our interview by recommending that people also read our 2010 interview, when you and I talked about your book, called, The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint. I began that interview by telling readers that your overall goal is “to win people over with the pure good-hearted logic about scientific and ethical positions.” Once again, today, you’ve made that eloquent point. We’ll talk again when your next book is published.

WANT MORE ON HUMAN-ANIMAL RELATIONSHIPS?

ReadTheSpirit publishes two popular books with stories about human-animal relationships: You can learn more about Conversations with My Old Dog and The Spiritual Wanderer in our bookstore.

AND, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Comments

  1. Those of us who have had pets, grow quite attuned to their moods and interactions with us.
    Can’t wait to read the essays.

  2. Duncan Newcomer says:

    “Queenlessness” is a chaotic emotional state of distress that bees have. The writer Susan Monk Kidd writes about it: when the Queen is gone. I write about it too,as a parable,at least,of what happens when the human “hive” losses the sacred feminine. Maybe that is just a metaphor,maybe not.
    And then the rescued farm animals I saw at the Farm Sanctuary near D.C. clearly showed love and peacefulness towards we humans. An animal “off” the food chain seems to know it.
    Can I tell you about my cat?