Most of us — scientists and animal lovers alike — agree by now that chimpanzees and elephants, birds and bunnies, dolphins and dogs may all feel love and joy and grief.
When stories of animal emotion go viral, as recently happened with two inseparable dog brothers, one of whom acts as a seeing-eye dog for the other, we share them not because we're knocked out with surprise by what animals feel but because we're touched and uplifted.
Still, fresh perspectives on animal emotion can push the boundaries and challenge lingering expectations that we humans are exceptional — more advanced or complex, or just plain superior — in the depth to which we connect emotionally to others, especially those outside our biological families. Last month in Aeon Magazine I published an essay in which I tried to do just that.
The catalyst for my essay was What Kinship Is... And Is Not, a book by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins about a concept he calls mutuality of being.
Sahlins argues that we humans — and only humans, among all the world's species — culturally construct kinship ties with others who aren't genetic relatives. In this way, Sahlins goes beyond recognition of the fact that human behavior is unique (as is chimpanzee behavior and bunny behavior) to embrace a sense of human exceptionalism in family formation.
Mutuality of being comes about, Sahlins writes, when people are "co-present in each other." It's not just about spending time together, although that helps. It's that people become so entwined in each other's lives, they feel alive in each other even when physically apart; they become kin to each other even when biologically unrelated. This often happens through the sharing of food, labor and memories.
Sahlins catalogs brilliantly the varied ways in which people construct family ties completely apart from their genetic relationships. Here's my description of one of his examples, taken from my Aeon write-up:
"Among the Ku Waru people of New Guinea, children become kin through an essential substance called kopong (grease) which originates in the soil. The Ku Waru call both father's sperm and mother's milk kopong, and it is through these two sources that conception of a child is said to occur. However, sweet potatoes and pork also contain kopong, and when people share these foods, the same fundamental connection emerges between them as does between parent and child: they become kin. The offspring of two Ku Waru brothers, Sahlins says, are 'as much related because they were sustained by the same soil as because their fathers were born of the same parents'. The children of immigrants to the community become full kin with those who share no genes with them by carrying out socially inscribed practices around kopong."
This is cultural anthropology at its best.
But I think Sahlins is wrong to exclude the possibility that other animals may forge emotional connections with nonrelatives through mutuality of being. This wouldn't happen through kopong or other human practices, of course, but why should it?
As I explain in my essay, cases have been reported of unrelated wild chimpanzees who construct remarkably close emotional bonds, and the same with wild elephants.
And look what happens when we venture beyond the realm of mammals. Again, from my essay:
"In 2005, two Moulard ducks were rescued from a foie gras factory and brought to Farm Sanctuary, an organization with safe-haven properties in New York and California. The two ducks, named Harper and Kohl, had suffered significant emotional and physical trauma at the factory. When they arrived at the sanctuary, both animals were frightened of humans, both had the liver disease hepatic lipidosis, and each had his own serious medical issues too.
"For four years at the sanctuary, they were nearly inseparable. When Kohl could no longer walk or his pain be treated effectively, he was euthanised, and Harper was allowed to watch. When Harper approached the still body of Kohl, he first prodded it, but then lay down and draped his neck over Kohl — for hours. In the following days and weeks, Harper withdrew socially, preferring to spend his time alone near a small pond where he had often gone with Kohl. Two months later, Harper died, too."
Certainly, we humans have our own linguistic and symbolic ways of expressing emotional connections that go beyond blood ties. But the strength of Harper and Kohl's bond — ending in Harper's grief and soon his own death — carries a profound lesson for us. We are united with, rather than divided from, our animal partners on this Earth by our shared ability to build familylike connections, even with the nonrelatives around us.