Thank you, Eva, for articulating a hope *with* corals even if not *for* them. "When we confront these problems, we encounter our indebtedness to [and "obligate partnerships" with] other organisms through our shared life on Earth." Yes, yes.
Thank you for this eloquent and insightful piece!
I’ve been interested lately in theorists who posit that humans are dependent on technology and culture in the same way that other animals depend on instinct and on physical attributes such as fur, claws, teeth, and speed for survival (in the book, The Moral Menagerie, for example, philosopher Marc R. Fellenz cites deep ecologist John Livingston for this idea). Culture then is not something humans produced so much as a species characteristic, not necessarily any more interesting than the adaptive traits of other animals.
For me, the relevance of this observation to your essay is that it highlights how unusually interdependent humans are as a species, how radically vulnerable we are without each other, not just during our comparatively long childhood, but throughout our lives. In Man the Hunted, anthropologists Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman argue that it’s a deeply-felt awareness of this vulnerability, developed during our long evolutionary history as a prey species, that is paradoxically responsible for our adamant cultural denial of it, and our tendency to assert our supremacy over the rest of nature, a fictional independence of our species from it, and our individual autonomy and independence from each other. I see this at work in the keeping captive of members of various could-be human predator species, but also in the sort of political rhetoric you identify, a turning against each other out of the fear prompted by suppressed recognition of our vulnerability, when in truth we are always and only protected from that vulnerability through community. If we could acknowledge our shared vulnerability, perhaps we could spread the protections a little more broadly, within our own species and beyond, not drawing lines between the insured and the uninsured, for example, and viewing the needs of the latter group as somehow a threat to the well-being of the former.
Of course, when financial resources have been convincingly equated with access to technology and to influence, it’s frightening to ally oneself with those who seem not to control those resources, but I’m hopeful that the Occupy movement is addressing that particular fear. The 99% don’t have to, and in fact can’t, depend on the 1%; we can and must depend on each other.
On the question of whether nonhuman animals experience empathy and/or compassion, research with mice conducted at McGill University seems to suggest at least some other mammals do have the capacity for empathy. In a study from 2006, McGill researchers showed that mice who see other mice in pain are more sensitive to pain themselves than mice subjected to pain when alone. In 2010, researchers in the same lab developed a “mouse grimace scale” comparable to the human cartoon face scale used to rate pain, suggesting that, as with humans, mice can use visual facial cues to recognize pain in each other. Reading the studies together, commentators suggest that, again as with humans, facial reactions to pain makes sense in an adaptive framework if those who see the reactions respond empathetically. Note that human researchers now also recognize the visual facial cues of mice in pain, but they will use that knowledge to determine whether they have induced sufficient pain in a given mouse when conducting various experiments. Humans certainly have the capacity to experience empathy and compassion for each other and for members of other species, but certainly, too, we can be trained to unlearn, ignore, or devalue that capacity.
Whether or which other animals can experience empathy or compassion across species lines might be a more difficult question, but the story of killer whales partnering with humans in Eden, Australia, to hunt baleen whales, might provide some clues. According to reports of those who remember the hunts, it was the killer whales who sought the assistance of the humans, and, once the interspecies partnership was established, notified the humans when baleen whales were in the vicinity and the hunt should start. Although consideration of the experience of the baleen whales was meager on the part of both other species, with regard to the humans, the killer whales seemed at the very least to recognize us as subjects with whom they could communicate and work together toward a common goal, not just as another potential meal. They seemed to be considering the question that humans ask all too infrequently of each other and across species lines: what as-of-yet unexplored but mutually beneficial relationships might be possible among us?
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