Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sad news on the Eagle Cam

As reported on WEIT, the female eagle that has been observed on the EagleCam, has died after being hit by a jet plane. 
This is very sad news, as the eaglets (?) are still fledglings, and now have to be cared for by the father alone.  From what I read this morning, this mating pair had been together for 10 years.

There are a lot of emotional responses on the web stating how sad this news is, and hopes that the father will be able to cope with the loss, and be able to raise the chicks on his own. 

This has got me to thinking a few things about it:

Does the male know the female had been killed, or is it unaware of the fate of its mate?  For all I know, the male may only be experiencing a sense of loss as to why the female has not returned from hunting, or maybe even only being aware that the eaglets are more hungry than usual, and need more feeding.

I would not be surprised if the male is experiencing some emotion over it, as it is not out of the question that other animals can exhibit and express emotional responses.  Nearly everything about us as a living creature comes from our evolved past, and emotions seem to be a prime candidate for evolution.  Reacting to some event with an emotion can be a good short cut to the proper or appropriate reaction.  Some times it is misplaced, but generally it works out for the best.  It seems to me that emotions take place without engaging the rational parts of our brains; we experience some event, the emotional systems kick in first, we react, and then we rationalise our reaction in light of the event and our emotional response.

Empathy: We humans feel sad for the widower of another species, and it is not that mysterious.  The ability to feel empathy across species is not special to humans either.  For example, who has not experienced feeling sad, and having the family dog come over and lay their head in your lap and sigh?  The circuitry for feeling such emotions are built into all of us (us including non-human animals) and have been evolved into conscious creatures for a long time, although how far back I don’t know. It may be an interesting question for how closely we share these emotions with animals that branched from us in the distant past.

At a guess one way that can evolve in is to first have the kin protecting emotion to recognise when one of our relatives is in distress and to go to assist that relative.  As a social animal, this feeling is promoted in the well being of others of our herd and promotes a better means of survival for our herd, and the sense of empathy towards unrelated animals grows.  We then have the next step of recognising empathy towards unrelated species.  Remember that we are not typically enemies of other species, so without a sense of animosity towards them, we can imprint empathy to them.

Why are these particular animals so special that we invest emotions into their lives, while millions of other animals, some more conscious, some less, will die today due to human activities?  I know from my personal experience that humans do not need to kill or exploit animals to survive.  In fact, after tucking into my coffee and chocolate cake this morning (both vegan recipes) I know that we can have a rather luxurious life without exploiting conscious creatures.  So why is it so difficult to explain to people that the regretful emotion they are experiencing over animals they have known is just as valid to express over animals they have not known?

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