During the 20th century, scientific behaviorism privileged the focus of research on observable animal behavior, while largely disregarding animals’ mental states and internal experience. But just as animals have their own personalities, some may share a capacity for perceptions that we would recognize as spiritual. Consider: if mammals at least possess the equipment needed to feel, then the sense of connection with nature and with one another that forms the foundation of soul is experienced by other beings.
Abrahamic religions clearly set humans apart as exceptional. As the thinking, reasoning, inventing animal, we are addressed as the stewards of the earth, participants in its ongoing creation. But what about all the other creatures on Earth? Surely they must have something to say also.
Rather than viewed in a strictly religious context, “soul” and “soulfulness” can be reinterpreted as reflecting a common capacity for many creatures to have felt experiences. From a Jewish perspective, what would it mean to view other creatures as possessing souls? How does that correspond to Jewish teachings on the lives of animals?
This Scientists in Synagogues event at Kol Ami: the Northern VA Reconstructionist Community on November 19, 2023 explored animal stories from two very distinct perspectives – contemporary encounters with and observations of animals, and the important metaphorical and allegorical roles that two animals in the Hebrew Bible play. The video in this post is of the first half of the talk by Michael Jawer, which discusses the first topic.Read Transcript
Gilah Langner: So we began, as I mentioned, in September, with an exploration of restoration ecology led by Dr. Betsy von Halle. Our topic today is animal sentience, which focuses more clearly on the creatures in creation with whom we share this incredible planet. The topic also grows out of a long-standing interest by our Kol Ami member Mike Jawer in personality, body, mind, connections, emotions and spirituality, whether in humans or nonhumans.
During the 20th century, scientific behaviorism focused research on observable animal behavior, while largely disregarding animals’ mental states and internal experience. I think in recent decades, as you’ll hear, there’s been a helpful pushback against that rigid behaviorism, which tended to ignore the evidence plainly in front of our eyes that animals have their own personalities and emotions. But what does it mean to share that aspect of life that we have always thought of as a characteristic of human beings? Does that expand our notion of being human or diminish it?
Mike Jawer is a Washington, DC-based writer, speaker and researcher. He’s the author and co author of three books: Sensitive Soul, Your Emotional Type, and The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Scientific American, the Journal of Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies, and many others with very long names.
He has lectured widely at universities including Georgetown, Maryland, Drexel and UVA, and he’s presented at numerous conferences and organizations. Mike blogs for Psychology Today, and his website is Michaeljawer.com. What a pleasure to have Mike with us this afternoon.
What Is It Like to Be a Turtle?
Mike Jawer: Rabbi Gilah, thank you very much. So great that you all are here. Very happy to see you. And folks online, the same.
For the past two months now, as my family can attest, I have been fascinated by, of all things, a pet turtle. Some of you know my daughter is now over in Scotland with her boyfriend, and she bequeathed my wife and I a good-sized turtle named Livy. We’d never owned a turtle before, just cats and dogs. And she doesn’t do the things that cats and dogs do. She’s not a mammal. But I’ve noticed that what she does do, she does with gusto – whether it’s eating, basking on her rock, which she was doing blissfully before I drove over here, or scooting around on the ground. And you might be surprised how quickly a turtle can move. She’s about yea big. And for those who are vitally interested in this, I can send you her photo later on. I’m her agent.
When the weather is nice as it is today, I’m apt to take her outside for a change of scene. She hasn’t requested this, but I do it. And what she’ll immediately do is burrow under some leaves or pack a sand cover. Clearly, turtles have this instinct to get out of sight, out of view. But I’ve also noticed she’s quite inquisitive. When we first brought her home to look around, she literally scuttled to every corner of our downstairs, and we fretted about losing sight of her. Fortunately, we didn’t, but you’d really be surprised at how quickly she could scoot around.
And actually, I find her endearing, which I never expected. How can I describe this? Well, first of all, she’s about as alien a creature as you could imagine. She’s not a mammal. She’s a reptile. And so she’ll look up at me, her eyes will blink like this occasionally – she’s got this dark green, scaly kind of skin. She’s got these plump flippers or whatever those appendages are called, but she does these things and she stretches out under the heat lamp, and it really makes a unique impression.
So I don’t know how many hours that I spent, probably a month ago now, choosing particular rocks down by the local creek and coming back and putting them in her tank in such a configuration as it would be inviting for her to climb up – and actually sort of measured this, as far as the angle. “Is she going to be able to make it up? Is that too much of an angle? Not enough of an angle?” My wife thought I was a little bit nuts about this. But she found her way up there, and I felt triumphant when she was on top, just relaxing under this heat lamp.
Now, it could be that I’m at a stage in life where my interest is held by a creature that moves more slowly than most. I recognize that. But I also find that she displays, to my eyes, great dignity. She knows who she is – she is a red-eared slider. And she appears to have a sort of personality, which my daughter had said to me. She’s very inquisitive, she’s very curious. And as with a cat, I don’t feel that I own her. We’re just giving her a safe place to hang out. But most of all, I’m intrigued by what it might be like to be a turtle.
The Inner Lives of our Others
So almost 50 years ago – it was in 1974 – a philosopher named Thomas Nagel authored a paper titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” That paper has become quite famous. It’s cited time and time again. And today, the question of what nonhuman animals experience is front and center in the zeitgeist. Just this morning in the New York Times, Diane showed me (I hadn’t caught this), there is evidence of feelings in worms. And there’s been a lot – I’ve noticed, over the last year or so, insects, in particular, bees, the sentience of bees. There’s a guy named Lars Chitka, I believe, in the UK, who’s written more than one volume about consciousness in bees. And last year there were a couple of well-known books, a book called Sentient by Jackie Higgins, who Rabbi Gilah is reading right now, and a book called An Immense World, by Ed Young, who’s a journalist in DC. And these books illuminate the remarkable sensory capacities and perceptions of other creatures.
There’s also a book I read a couple of years ago called When Animals Dream, which I thought was pretty remarkable, by a philosopher – I think at Berkeley or someplace, University of California, San Francisco. His name is David Peña Guzman, and he looks at dreaming as evidence of mind – the idea that if a creature is dreaming, there’s something going on there that betokens sentience, and perhaps more.
There are other popular works: A book called What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe, whom I’m privileged to know, and a book called The Soul of an Octopus by Simon Montgomery, who I’m also privileged to know. They argue that “many nonhuman animals are individuals with lives that matter to them” – those are the words of Jonathan Balcombe. These observations are significant because the degree of care and concern that we give to animals seems to depend on how we picture their inner lives.
There’s a philosopher, I think, at the University of Chicago, by the name of Martha Nussbaum. She wrote a book last year called Justice for Animals, and she argues that human beings owe animals, as individual persons, individual creatures, the freedom to live out their lives according to their full capabilities, not our idea of what they should be or what they should do – but they should be sort of allowed to do their thing.
Now, of course, we’re animals ourselves, and we are animals that – we prize our capacity to think. Homo sapiens is the term, right? Our species is the “discerning person,” “the discerning being,” or “the wise being,” which we rarely are. But that’s what we apprise. And we tend to judge other animals by their smarts, by what we can see of their intellectual capacity.
But what I want to suggest is that it’s their sentience, it’s their capacity to feel, that is truly essential. And this is part of a general rewrite, I think, that’s [been] going on in the field of consciousness studies in the past 10 years. People have really taken issue with Descartes. He said “I think, therefore I am,” and people have been suggesting it’s “I feel, therefore I am.” And there are very good evolutionary reasons to presume that.
Emotion in non-human animals: Elephants
Michael Jawer: So I’m going to talk about elephants for a moment. They are very smart. They’re very intelligent. They live in close knit groups, and they give every appearance of emotions such as joy and sorrow. There’s very good evidence that they mourn their dead. And unfortunately, there’s also evidence that they experience something close to post-traumatic stress disorder. Baboons can become depressed, monkeys can become angry, pigs and calves can become terrified, parrots can be cranky, octopuses and crows clearly seem to prefer certain people – there are very good experiments about that. Fishes seek out caresses to relieve stress, and rats apparently enjoy being tickled – I kid you not.
And interestingly, while rats are considered generally to be ugly and disgusting, in experiments, a rat will show compassion by coming to the aid of a fellow rat in distress, even if it means having to share, or if it means not sharing a treasured piece of chocolate. Not all humans demonstrate this trait.
Now, three of the species that I mentioned, I want to tell a little bit more about them – elephants, dolphins, and orcas. First, we’ll take elephants. First, African elephants – consider the way that they belong to the same group, how they greet each other after a separation. They will rush together, flapping their ears and spinning in circles, emitting a loud chorus of rumbles and roars. It’s kind of like what I do when my Philadelphia Eagles score a touchdown – do that. But they do it as a group. And one biologist is convinced that, in her words, elephants feel a deep sense of joy at being reunited with friends. Their vocalizations express something like, “Wow, it’s simply fantastic to be with you again.” That is how they act.
Elephants are also apparently highly empathetic. Researchers have witnessed them assisting others, often assisting others who are injured. As I mentioned, they become agitated at the death of one of their own and behave in a way that indicates grief. One well-documented case is of a matriarch named Eleanor. Weakened by age, Eleanor was trying to walk. She kept collapsing, and a fellow matriarch named Grace kept trying to lift her onto her feet. Grace appeared distraught. Her facial glands were streaming. There are even examples of elephants becoming distressed when they come across the body of another species. In one instance, a young orphaned elephant shrieked and moaned when it discovered the remains of its rhinoceros companion, who had been killed by poachers. You can imagine that.
Emotion in Non-Human animals: Marine Mammals
Now, the stories that marine biologists tell about orcas and dolphins are equally striking. One orphaned orca named Luna showed up many years ago, I think maybe 15 years ago, in British Columbia’s Nootka Sound, miles from where he had been born. He immediately began interacting with the local boaters and fishermen. Luna would stay alongside a docked boat for hours as the people on it were busy delivering supplies and equipment. When the people left, Luna would leave also. Yet if just one person remained aboard sleeping, Luna would often stay with the boat all night.
Once, Luna played a little bit too energetically with the boat’s outboard engine, the skipper said, “Hey, Luna, could you leave that alone for a while?” And Luna immediately backed away. And I’m going to read a quote here that’s quite remarkable. This is in a book by a marine biologist and ethologist named Carl Safina. I think it’s called Without Words. But this is the skipper’s words. He said:
“A sense washed over me that this orca was just as aware of living as I was, that this orca could perceive all the details, that I could perceive the feeling of atmosphere and see the texture of emotions.”
And this is someone who lives very close to the sea, so that’s his perspective. On an equally poignant note, female bottle-nosed dolphins have been observed carrying dead calves – presumably their babies – on their back for days or even weeks. Observers infer it’s an expression of maternal grief. On one occasion, the mom was accompanied by four other dolphins, perhaps family members, who were providing emotional support.
Does emotion mean spirituality?
There are several important lessons to be drawn here. First, it’s likely that numerous species feel their way through life because, as Charles Darwin asserted, differences between species are a matter of degree, not kind.
Second, non-human animals are individuals with personalities. In the words of Jonathan Balcombe, “They have biographies, not merely biologies.” Absolutely wonderful phrase.
Third, other animals may be more aware of feelings than we are. They may feel them more intensely or experience different shades of feeling than we do. We don’t know. But I’ve termed this “living closer to the bone.” This might be because, unlike us, they don’t appear to ruminate or analyze. They don’t traffic in language and extensive analysis the way we do. So we would be foolish, in my opinion, to rule this capacity out. Even though they can’t tell us what they’re experiencing, it is possible that their palette of emotions or the palette of feelings is broader than ours.
Other animals may even have perceptions we would recognize as spiritual, in the secular sense, regarding others as individuals who have value. I would propose that’s a component of spirituality, sort of a baseline – you’ve got to recognize that other people, other parts of creation, have value, acting on a core sense of connectedness and being able to apprehend awe or beauty. I think these are three components at least, I would propose, of spirituality.
Consider that emotion always relates to our sense of ourselves in relation to others. When we emote, we’re moved to express something. We can express sorrow, we can express elation, loneliness, love, or jealousy, shame, indignation, fury. And again, these are what I express typically when I’m watching a Philadelphia sports team. We demonstrate devotion to others, or disdain. We have fun together. We mourn together. We express gratitude towards one another. We try to help other people. We try, sometimes, to rescue other people or other creatures. It boils down to fellow-feeling. And to the extent any individual of any species displays fellow feeling, I am arguing it is manifesting spirituality or soulfulness.
Awe and beauty
Three anecdotes will point up what I mean. The first concerns Jane Goodall and what she experienced in the Gombe Forest in the midst of her celebrated study of chimps in the 1960s. One particular day, she recalls – and I’ll quote – “Lost in awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness. It seemed to me that self was utterly absent. I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge to become one with the spirit power of life itself.”
Now, Jane Goodall’s perception of the unity of all nature is something I wonder if other animals can experience themselves. They might. She, for one, is convinced that chimps can be spiritual, and she gives some anecdotes about that.
The second account is also about a chimp. It’s by the late naturalist Adriaan Kortlandt. He once observed a wild chimp in the Congo – and I’ll quote him – “gaze at an especially beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors and forsaking his customary evening meal in the process.” I just think it’s such a wonderful scene. So the question is: was this chimp lost in reverie, marveling at the colors of the changing sky? We do that. Why not this chimp?
The last story, the last illustration, appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. A female humpback whale became ensnared in an appalling tangle of crab traps and weighted fishing lines, part of humankind’s voluminous seaborne waste. Literally hundreds of yards of nylon rope were tightly wrapped around her body and tail. One of the lines was in her mouth. The whale was badly cut and struggling to stay afloat. And to give you an idea of what she was up against, each of these dozen crab traps that hung off of her weighed a full 90 pounds. So thankfully, a rescue team dove underneath her, and they spent hours cutting away these ropes. And it was a dangerous enterprise, since one slap of this 50-foot whale’s tail could have killed them. Most remarkably, though, they did free her. And once this huge behemoth realized that she was free, she hung around. She didn’t swim away. She didn’t leave the scene. She swam in a large circle, and she nuzzled each diver in turn until she had touched them all. One of the divers said, “It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and we’d helped it. I never felt threatened.”
To me, these are all instances of spirituality on display. And I came across a book by a unitarian minister – we’re here at a unitarian universalist congregation in their space. And this unitarian minister is named Gary Kowalski, and he puts it this way. “Soul, he says, is down to earth. Soul is the marrow of our existence as sentient, sensitive beings. It’s soul that’s revealed in great works of art, and soul that’s lifted up in awe when we stand in silence under a night sky burning with billions of stars.” You just can’t say it better than that.
Lessons for Us
A pioneering neuroscientist by the name of Jaak Panksepp, who I was privileged to correspond with, believed that – and I’ll quote him here – “At the basic emotional level, all mammals are remarkably similar.” And I suspect that the more we learn about fish, birds, reptiles (like Livvy), cephalopods, and even insects and worms, we will recognize other fundamental similarities of feeling. As rapidly as our species is despoiling and destroying nature, we must open our minds to new possibilities. A generous dose of humility is in order. We have to move past the presumption that because of our tremendous mental powers, we must be the pinnacle of creation and somehow separate from all other creatures.” I mean, any glance at any front page, any news site, and you’ll see we’re not that smart.
So here I’ll quote Neil Degrasse Tyson. He says: “We are animals created by nature, as much a part of the natural world as the flowers, rivers, fish, birds, clouds, and trees. We are not superior to nature. We are her children.” Now, our Jewish ancestors lived in very different times. They sacrificed animals. It was a significant part of ancient ritual. But the Torah also makes it clear that wanton cruelty to animals is against God’s law. That bright line, it seems to me, can and should be expanded upon, here in 2023. Indeed, if we’re to safeguard any kind of decent life on Planet Earth, we must recognize and respect our core similarities with other creatures. Ultimately, we must engage our compassion to preserve and protect nature’s other emotional and spiritual beings. I’ll leave it there.
Gilah Lagner: Wonderful, Mike. Thank you. Thanks for opening our eyes and our minds to a whole new set of ideas. And as you brought up the Jewish angle on animal sentience, I just want to say a word or two about that. Some people would say that the opening chapters of the Torah, of the Book of Genesis, are particularly focused on establishing the superiority of human beings to all the rest of the creatures on Earth. We are the apex of creation, the last ones to be created right before the Sabbath. In chapter two of Genesis, we’re the ones who get to name all the other creatures, which is maybe a power relationship, if you would, over others. And the Torah uses two different words. So whether you choose to think of humankind as “tending to the Earth and all its creatures” or “ruling over all the rest of Creation” depends on which chapter of Genesis you’re reading. But that clear demarcation between human life and non-human life, some people would argue, has led to Western civilizations devaluing, extreme disregard, for non- human life, and the massive threat of species extinction that we are now consequently facing.
And yet, as Dr. Diane Sharon will be exploring with us, the Bible contains not only some remarkable concern for animal life, but two stories that feature animals in surprising ways. Why do these animals come to life, as it were, in the text, in the way that they do? And what does the Bible mean to accomplish with these stories? We’re about to find out.