Do you have a problem with believing that we are genetically programmed to believe one thing or another? I am quite certain that some beliefs are built into our systems; they come as standard equipment on homo sapiens. Let’s try a little test and then see what you think (or what you believe).
Sex seems like a good subject for testing. We think of our personalities and tastes being intertwined with attractiveness. If you are a female, how appealing is an old, unkempt, smelly man covered with sores? Not your type? If we were describing another species, we would say he is not a fit mate. How about the question of a close blood relative, no matter how physically attractive? Predisposition: that’s a no-go. Again, not good for the gene pool. Now ask yourself what you think about intra-family sex? Are you against it? Does it seem like a question of morals and laws prohibiting something that is bad? Most would answer yes and would assume that it is a matter of learning and higher thought.
Mind you, we humans are incredibly flexible and adaptable, and you can certainly find examples of hard-wired beliefs and feelings, but I will let you look them up or imagine them yourselves—I want to get back to why we tend to see animals as not conscious, sentient, feeling beings.
Reward and Punishment
The emotional centers of our brains have simple and effective ways to control our behaviors and communication. The primary tools are also polar: reward and punishment. If we behave in ways that provide for the success and propagation of the species, we are rewarded by the dopamine class of euphoria rewards: eat ripe fruit, drink cool water, have sex, cuddle a baby and so on. The more important the behavior to the species, the stronger the reward: fat-filled comfort food brings out the “mmm, nice,” while orgasm supports the only truly necessary act for propagation with an inner party complete with fireworks, an open bar, beautifying goggles, and bouncers posted outside the locked gate keeping out distractions.
The regulators of emotions deliver punishment by inflicting pain. It has been shown that physical and emotional pains both activate the same areas of the brain. The pain that you feel when you set your hand on a hot stove is a mechanism that helps to prevent you from damaging your body, and the emotions directing your behavior instill a fear of the hot stove that prevents you from touching it again. In the same way, and from the same behavior-directing parts of the brain, the grief that you feel with the loss of a loved one is a kind of punishment that is intended to direct you to protect your loved ones. In both cases, physical and social, the pain introduced by the emotional directors within us will tend to prevent the repetition of the action that brought on the pain.
Ok, then, let’s compare.
Attraction in Different Species
A guy walking on the beach spots a pretty girl that he is about to pass by. He pulls in his belly and raises his chest a bit, smiles, and nods to her. She thinks, “Hmmm, he’s attractive,” looks away coquettishly, and glances back again with a smile.
A male bird in springtime sees a female, puffs out his chest, and puts on a little dance. The female flies to a perch nearby, but not too far away, as the male follows.
One of these would normally be described as a budding romance worthy of filmmakers, crackling with emotion and sex appeal. The other would be described as the male of the species demonstrating sexual maturity and the female judging the fitness of a potential mate. My point: these two scenes are identical to one another! Switch the scientific description with the movie script with either species. Neither of these females is consciously judging; they are both seeing that “he’s hot,” and then behaving in a way that is attractive to the male.
An interesting paradox is that we like to think of the intellect as distinctly human and emotion as distinctly human. People regularly dismiss the idea that animals have emotions. In reality, they have the same brain structures in the same places as ours that light up, just like ours do, when showing fear or pleasure.
For now, let’s stick to mammals. All of us mammals have the mid-brain structures responsible for emotions that are often referred to as the limbic system. The question of whether or not animals feel emotions is a completely and resoundingly answered question by those who study these things for a living: yes.
So here’s the paradox: we think of the intellect as higher thought, unavailable to “lower” forms of life, and we consider our emotions to be more basic. Yet, when we consider the “lower” animals, we assume that they do not possess emotions. So what are those animals’ brains for? We all have the same fundamental structure, from mice to macaques to Minnesotans. If the animals don’t have thoughts and don’t have emotions, then what are all those neurons doing inside the animals’ brains?