Peter Wohlleben’s ‘The Inner Life of Animals’: animals have feelings too

By Jessica Au
The author of ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ argues that animals experience emotions like we do

Nicolas Malebranche, the French rationalist, once wrote of animals: “They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” The poetic callousness of this statement has long roots in Western thinking, which grants humans special, and often separate, status, from biblical creation myths to the philosophies of ancient Greece. Aristotle’s natural hierarchy of living beings gave animals instincts but denied them reason; in Christian theology, Aquinas, inspired by this view, argued that animals were merely instruments that existed for human use; and Descartes famously denied them both language and consciousness, concluding that animals were simply automata. The scientific revolution of the 15th and 16th centuries saw the rise of materialism, which emphasised evidence from the physical world, and similarly, a system of Linnaean classification (birds, mammals, fish, insects and so on) sought to bring the vastness and diversity of nature into “order”. The rigours of the scientific method, which relies on testable hypotheses, did not bode well for the moral status of animals, whose inner lives remain contested today.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is how we choose to frame the question: is it one of science, or of philosophy? Is it, more radically, a question of intuition? Anyone who works or lives intimately with animals will probably be able to tell you, with deep conviction and in great detail, of their visible pleasures and displeasures: their quirks, their desire for play, their individually stamped fears and anxieties. As I write this, my cat lies curled up on my desk in a patch of sun: how not to believe that she has feelings, memories, a recognition of me even, when staring into those searching green liquid eyes? And yet how to know for sure? What’s missing is the bridge of language (indeed, Descartes based his arguments on the belief that animals could not use language rationally). So far, any attempts to communicate have proven too limited to answer this looming question.

Yet is the simplest explanation really the truest one? And does absence of evidence really mean evidence of absence? Not necessarily, according to the German forester Peter Wohlleben, who argues in The Inner Life of Animals: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World (Bodley Head; $29.99) for the benefit of the doubt, and more besides. One senses that Wohlleben would like doubt to be the axe that shatters the ice of our ignorance, and he begins by working on some deeply held assumptions. “The idea that there was an abrupt break in the course of evolution, and that at some point everything was reinvented, is an idea whose time is past,” he writes. Humans and animals have evolved similarly over many millions of years, and the phenomenon of life itself could mean that we are far more alike than we think. Wohlleben points out that the limbic system, which houses joy, grief, fear and desire, is a structure shared by humans and many mammals, including goats, dogs, horses and pigs, and, according to some scientists, birds and fish as well. Mirror neurons, which allow us to feel empathy, have already been discovered in apes, and scientists speculate that they may exist, too, in animals that live in herds or large groups.

New research also suggests that our own free will, the criterion so often used to hold humans apart, may not be so infallible after all. In 2008, the Max Planck Society published a study in which they asked participants to decide to push a button with either their right or their left hand. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) actually revealed what these decisions were before the participants became conscious of them, sometimes by seven seconds. Neuropsychologists have argued that our feelings of agency may be retrospective, that is, used to explain our actions to ourselves after the fact.

There’s also the idea that consciousness is a spectrum, rather than an either/or proposition, allowing animals to experience it by degrees. This distinction seems to matter less to Wohlleben, who points out that emotions arise from the unconscious part of the brain, and thus because “every species of animal experiences brain activity … every animal necessarily has emotions”. It is this range of emotions that most fascinates him, and where he spends most of the book’s time, on gratitude, grief, courage, deception and even anticipating the future. Vampire bats, for example, are altruistic in a sense: those who have a successful night hunting often regurgitate blood to feed those who were less so. Even more intriguingly, they are able to recognise and remember each other, and those who generously fed others in the past are always the first to be cared for in turn.

Wohlleben is not a stylist but a writer who wants to make hard science accessible. At the beginning of the book, he beckons us into his own Germanic forest as if through a magical doorway: “I would like to act as your interpreter [and] I hope this will help you see the animal world around you … not as mindless automatons driven by inflexible genetic code, but as stalwart souls and lovable rascals … Come on, I’ll show you what I mean.” While it is hard not to warm to this earnestness, the book does end up sacrificing depth for popular appeal. The chapters are short and hardly vary in shape; as soon as you feel momentum building, the topic is finished and we’re on to the next. There’s also something vaguely YouTube-like to all the stories of grateful magpies and cross-species adoption. One craves at times fewer anecdotes, and more heavy grappling.

After all, there is so much more to this question than the studies, as fascinating as they may be. We feel a clash here between our intuition, our denied instincts, and the scientific rigour that has made us the apex predator of this world. Our sense of our own unique intelligence tells us that we should, somehow, be able to solve this problem, and our imagination taunts us with the possibility that, yes, we could know what it is like to be a bat. And yet, for now at least, we can’t, and we don’t. Is this gap insurmountable? Or is it also humbling, even liberating, to know so little and yet suspect more.

Jessica Au

Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and an associate editor at Aeon.