Bird Brains and Cross-Species Empathy

Speaking about empathy between humans and animals requires a robust philosophy of nature. Such a philosophy can guide us in thinking more deeply about what it means to be human and how the human animal can better be connected to the broader animal world.

Evolutionary biology tells us that dinosaurs are the distant ancestors of birds, who existed well before the arrival of human beings in the grand scale of life on Earth. Increasing evidence about the extraordinary behavior of birds in making tools and social interaction suggests that there is in the natural order a far earlier path to “complex cognition” than that which led to human intelligence: a path that started with dinosaurs. As one author has put it, some birds (e.g., crows and parrots) exhibit “an alien intelligence that links directly back to minds we’ve long believed to be forever lost to us, like the dinosaurs’, but that can also be wounded, under duress, in the same ways our minds can.”

These comments by Charles Siebert, a prominent science writer for the New York Times, appeared in his recent essay, “What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?” He is well-versed in contemporary analyses of animal behavior, especially as that behavior involves interactions with human beings. He also has written about attempts to grant the legal status of personhood to a chimpanzee. Indeed, the Nonhuman Rights Project—the litigant in favor of personhood for chimpanzees—considers other members of the great ape family (bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas), as well as dolphins, orcas, belugas, elephants, and African gray parrots to possess higher-order cognitive abilities, different from those of human beings only in degree.

Traumatized Parrots

PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] may seem a strange phenomenon to attribute to parrots, but Siebert writes about fascinating relationships between human beings who suffer from this disorder and a variety of traumatized parrots at the West Los Angeles Veteran Administration Medical Center. The Center has a garden, “Serenity Park,” that contains abandoned parrots who, as Seibert observes, are “twice-traumatized beings: denied first their natural will to flock [with other parrots] and then the company of the humans who owned them.” Some of the parrots also suffer from various physical afflictions.

Siebert describes the ways in which traumatized human beings and parrots bond with one another. In the process, both species experience mutual physical and psychological therapy. As one of the veterans Siebert interviewed remarks, “You can look into their eyes, any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul.”

According to Siebert, “abundant evidence” tells us that parrots possess “cognitive capacities and sensibilities remarkably similar to our own.” He refers to the classic case of Alex, an African gray parrot whose behavior was studied by its long-time companion, psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg. The parrot had “cognitive skills” that “tested as high as those of a 5-year-old child”; among others, he “mastered more than 100 words, grasped abstract concepts like absence and presence . . . and often gave orders to and toyed with the language of researchers who studied him, purposely giving them the wrong answers to their questions to alleviate his own boredom.”

Cognitive Capacities of Birds and Human Beings

Does the “similarity” to which Siebert points suggest only a difference in degree between the capacities and sensibilities of parrots and those of human beings? In describing the “cognitive capacities” of parrots and other animals and attributing to them “mastery of words,” “grasping of concepts,” and “purposely giving wrong answers to alleviate boredom,” we need to be especially careful in the verbs, adverbs, and nouns we predicate across species. This admonition is true of what we say not only about animals but also about angels and even God.

Intelligence, purposeful activity, sensibilities, and emotions seem evident in animal behavior—and our initial understanding of them begins with human experience. When we speak of these attributes beyond the realm of human affairs, we need to use the language of analogy. A parrot knows and acts in ways consistent with what it means to be a parrot: there is a kind of proportionality between the being or reality of a parrot and the behavior it manifests. It is an error to think that the difference between human cognitive capacities and those of parrots, for example, is a matter of degree, thus justifying the univocal use of these terms.

We also need to guard against various forms of dualism that separate body and soul in a way that ignores the physical, neurological foundations of cognition, sensibilities, and emotions. The neurosciences have helped us see the correlations between chemical-electrical processes in the brain and human perception, cognition, and emotion. Human beings are animals; we are creatures whose bodily functions are essential to who we are.

There are important questions in the philosophy of nature involved in comparisons of human and animal behavior. One obvious danger is to think that, since there is a neurological basis for the various activities in which human beings engage, therefore an explanation in the natural sciences alone offers (or, in principle, can offer) a complete account of these activities. A commitment to such philosophical materialism lies behind comparisons of human and animal behavior that conclude that certain behavior of parrots (or other animals) is “remarkably similar” to that of human beings.

Analyses of the brains of birds indicate that birds “think and learn,” to use Siebert’s terms, using very different parts of their brains from that which humans use. Still, the ratio of brain size to body size in birds “is similar to that of the higher primates.” This ratio, which scientists call an encephalization quotient, yields, according to Siebert, “in both species not only the usual indications of cognitive sophistication like problem solving and tool use but also two aspects of intelligence long thought to be exclusively human: episodic memory and theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states, like intention, desire and awareness, to yourself and others.” What has attracted Siebert’s attention is parrots’ capacity for desire and awareness—not their cognitive abilities, although perhaps there is some connection.

The Anatomy of Empathy

Serenity Park has achieved spectacular success in positively affecting the psychological states and behavior of many PTSD-afflicted veterans. That animal companionship can enhance psychological well-being is not a new discovery; domesticated animals have often had this effect on human beings. Some animals can sense human emotional states, at least in the sense of reacting to observed external behavior such as tone of voice. But it is not clear what meaning we should give to the kind of “sensing” we attribute to animal reactions.

We might conclude that traumatized parrots offer special advantages—leaving aside, of course, that trauma for a parrot may well mean something very different from trauma for a human being. What is striking in Siebert’s analysis is the judgment about the emotional state of the parrot and that somehow the parrot must choose to enter into a relationship with a particular human being. The parrot’s choice is the result of its supposed empathy for a particular, traumatized human being.

For the Greeks, from whose language the word originates, empathy [en and pathos] is an emotion that allows us to enter into or inhabit the suffering (or general experience) of others. Siebert describes the traditional meaning as feeling, for example, the fear another has over a threat, or the thrill of new experiences, or sorrow over loss. Empathy is an important feature of the “fabric of a community.” The capacity for empathy is a foundational feature of human society; empathy is crucial to moral judgment.

For contemporary neuroscience, empathy is a “neuronally ingrained bio-evolutionary tool for survival.” This tendency to view biological analysis primarily, if not exclusively, in the historical category of evolutionary development ignores the biological and ontological question of what a living thing is.

If we start and end with an exclusively neurological account of empathy, we identify it as “the shared neuronal circuitry that has now been mapped across species, from us to the other primates to elephants and whales and, we now know, to creatures with entirely different, non-mammalian brains, like crows and parrots.” Knowledge of the neuronal circuitry connected, that is, correlated, to certain behavior or to recognizable dispositions, can surely help us to understand better animal life, including human life. It is, however, a huge philosophical leap to identify empathy with a particular neuronal circuitry. It begs the question of what we mean by emotions in the first place. A similar error is evident when we identify thinking with states of and processes in the brain.

Identifying empathy with a neuronal state, Siebert concludes that, in the actions of both human patients and parrots, he witnessed “the extraordinary capacity conferred by that [neuronal] circuitry to recognize and respond to the specific infirmities, both psychic and physical (although those are essentially both one and the same) of another species.” The parenthetical remark, that physical and psychic are essentially one and the same, is the premise that allows Siebert to claim that the emotion of empathy must be similar in human beings and parrots since the neuronal circuitry is fundamentally the same.

A Philosophy of Empathy

But what is the empirical evidence that physical and psychic are one and the same? This is a bold philosophical claim. To reduce the emotion of empathy to neuronal activity is to argue that an emotion is nothing more than a physical-chemical reaction in the brain. Empirical analysis reveals nothing more than the kind of evidence susceptible to such analysis. All empirical analysis, however, occurs within categories in the philosophy of nature. If we accept as true the philosophical premise that only that which is empirically observable and measurable is real, then we are likely to conclude that there is nothing more to emotions (or to cognition, for that matter) than what is susceptible to such observation and measurement.

To examine empathy, or any emotion, we need a broader context than activity in the brain. As the word suggests, an emotion is a “being moved.” To be moved involves a prior “ableness” to be moved: a kind of potentiality that is actualized by some stimuli or agent. Potentialities are necessarily rooted in actual things. Individual existing things have all sorts of potentialities and these find their source in the various kinds of things which have these potentialities. We cannot say that a water molecule has emotions because of the actual thing a water molecule is. A certain sensory apparatus is required for there to be emotions in living things, but here we need to examine clearly the differences that exist among different kinds of living things.

Psychologists speak of “empathic care” based on a kind of “emotional contagion” that involves a perception of another’s moods or feelings. Among human beings this is a “cognitive empathy,” made possible by a common human nature.

A human emotion is not a discrete activity; it is a feature of the life of a human being precisely as a human being. Although we can abstract certain physical processes (such as processes in the brain) from human experience as a whole, and consider them separately from the whole, these processes remain human and are fully understood only in this context. When human beings experience empathy, they do so as the rational animals that they are. Whatever experiences parrots might have, they do so as the kind of animal they are.

If we think that the differences among natural entities are only the presence or absence of material parts and processes, we are likely to conclude that animate and inanimate things differ only in degree on some scale of material complexity. This kind of physical reductionism commits the philosophical error of ignoring the whole entity precisely as a unified whole. It is the human being as a whole that is capable of empathy. It is the whole human being, an actual unity, that has the potentiality to be moved in a way that we identify as the emotion of empathy. Such a potential to be moved is rooted in, and thus must ultimately be understood in terms of, the human being as a whole.

However much the neurosciences can provide valuable information about neuronal activity that can be correlated with the emotion of empathy, we need more than this information in order to understand empathy. Actual human beings are more than what the empirical sciences can describe; the empirical sciences help us to see the parts, but we need to look at the whole as well, and at the kind of causal agency exercised by the whole entity. This is true not only for human beings, but also for parrots.

To speak of cross-species empathy we do need information from the neurosciences, but we need in addition a robust philosophy of nature, including a philosophical anthropology. Fascinating accounts of the relationships between human beings and animals, such as those in Serenity Park, invite us to think more deeply about what it means to be human and how the human animal can be connected to the broader animal world. We might very well speak of parrots exhibiting empathy. Clarity calls for us to reflect on what human emotions are, since referring to empathy in parrots involves analogical claims based first of all on a good grasp of what empathy is in what we know best: human beings.

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