30 June 2015

Dancing at the edge of fire

What is wonder? How far back does it go? Do non-human beings experience it?

There’s a well-known video (well-known, at least, to those of us who are interested in this sort of thing) in which the primatologist Jane Goodall suggests that our closest living cousins, the chimpanzees, experience awe and wonder. She says:
 I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display, or dance, is perhaps triggered by feelings of awe and wonder. The chimpanzee brain is similar to ours. They have emotions that are clearly similar to those that we call happiness and sadness and fear and despair and so forth. So why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind at spirituality? Which is, really, being amazed at things outside yourself... I think chimpanzees are as spiritual as we are, but they can’t analyze it. You get the feeling that it’s all locked up inside them, and the only way they can express it is through this fantastic rhythmic dance. 
In a fine post for Nautilus, Brandom Keim notes that (unsurprisingly) there have been plenty of sceptical responses to Goodall.  That said, some sceptics do accept that chimpanzees and other animals can have rich and complex emotional lives. (See note [1].)

Keim reports that Mary Lee Jensvold, also primatologist, sees “something deeper” going on than an automatic response to loud stimuli such as a waterfall. For Jensvold, it can be seen in the chimps “sitting quietly and staring at the waterfall afterwards.”

And, writes Keim, there are several of non-primate species with comparable mental potential:
Quite a few cetaceans, for example, including orcas with their remarkable tribal greeting ceremonies. Ditto elephants and their burial rites. Again: we can’t know what they’re thinking, but it’s unscientific not to consider the possibility.  “Perhaps numerous animals engage in these rituals,”  writes ethologist Marc Bekoff in The Emotional Lives of Animals, “but we haven’t been lucky enough to see them.”
What else might be going on with chimpanzees? asks Keim:
One particular report, published several years ago in the American Journal of Physical Anthroplogy, catches my imagination. In it researchers describe a group of chimps living at Fongoli, Senegal, in a savanna reminiscent of settings where the earliest humans evolved. The chimps, wrote the researchers, often dance at the edge of fires.

Note [1] In The Book of Barely Imagined Beings I quoted James Rachels
Plainly, the proper way to avoid anthropomorphism is not to forswear the use of 'human' psychological descriptions altogether, but to exercise caution in their application...If anthropomorphism is a sin, we should also be wary of the companion sin: the similarities between ourselves and other animals may too easily be underestimated.

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