On Our Must Read List: The Exultant Ark

"I think that there's more to lose by treating insects badly when they're sentient than by treating them well when they're not. And quite aside from whether they're sentient, they're part of the biotic matter out there. They're beautiful, they're alive." ~ Jonathan Balcombe

We haven't read it yet, so we can't recommend it, but The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, by Jonathan Balcombe, is definitely on our must-read list.

Exultant Ark celebrates a range of animal emotions & experiences through the pairing of stunning photos and a scientific context for what we know (or can surmise) about animal emotions and behavior.

The book recently received a positive review in The New York Times, and Wired Magazine has a great interview with Balcombe, as well as a slideshow of photos from the book. Here is a brief excerpt from the interview:

Wired.com: You write that "existing evidence, and common sense, supports the conclusion that all vertebrate animals are sentient," capable of feeling pain and pleasure, and of having experiences. "Common sense" is a red flag, though. Isn't that just another term for gut feeling, or even superstition?

Jonathan Balcombe: Pleasure is a private experience, well nigh impossible to prove, though of course scientists don't like the word "prove." And there are good reasons for being skeptical of making assumptions that are difficult to prove. But what I'm getting at is everyday experience: the capacity to be empathic in viewing other animals' experiences and comparing them to our own.

Nobody denies that other humans are sentient, though it's no more possible to prove another human being is sentient than it is to prove an animal's sentience. We don't accept such solipsism. It would be far-fetched. So let's stop drawing this line between humans and all other animals.

We accept, as we should, that we're sentient. Given that as a baseline, we know that sentience and consciousness have evolved. We might talk about where to draw the line taxonomically, but I find it really objectionable when scientists use the solipsist crutch to leave animals outside the circle of moral concern, which is the implication of all this.

Read the complete interview.

Connecting with animal emotions can be a powerful tool in broadening people’s levels of compassion. However, we have to remember that recognizing and accepting that animals have emotions doesn’t necessarily guarantee more compassionate treatment. Just look at how we treat each other. People also readily accept certain emotions in our "pets," for example, yet we abandon and abuse them at an alarming rate and easily neglect to transfer those same feelings of love and nurturing to the creatures on our dinner plates, and in our research labs, zoos, fur farms, and so on.

Additionally, there is danger in relying too much on the existence of observable emotions as justification for extending or withholding compassionate treatment. What does that mean for species in which emotions aren’t readily apparent? Does that mean that we treat mammals and a few other species with compassion, but other beings like slugs and snakes and sturgeons don’t make the cut?

Books like Exultant Ark offer us rich ground for exploring important issues about rights, morality, the "other," connection, the impact of our choices, and simply the joys of being alive.

~ Marsha

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