‘An Excerpt from Beyond Words’ – Guest blog by Carl Safina

Carl Safina is an author and conservationist. He was the first Professor for Nature and Humanity to be endowed at Stony Brook University in New York, where he co-chairs the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and runs the not-for-profit Safina Center. He hosted the PBS series Saving the Ocean. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, TIME, Audubon, and on the web at National Geographic News and Views, Literati Magazine, Huffington Post, CNN.com, and elsewhere. He is author of the classic book, Song for the Blue Ocean. Carl’s seventh book is Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel. He has kindly allowed me to display a section from the book.


For centuries, the fact that other animals don’t converse the way
humans do has been interpreted as evidence of empty minds. Of course,
that helps justify what we do to them. If they can’t think, there’s no
need to care what they think. So before we can get to communication,
we need to unbraid the tangled topics of communication, thinking, and

In the 1600s, René Descartes jumbled up communication, consciousness,
thought, human superiority, and religion. He asserted, incorrectly,
“Th e reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs
but that they have no thoughts.” He added, illogically, “If they thought as
we do, they would have an immortal soul like us.”

Voltaire disdainfully called out Descartes’s contradictions of logic,
even referring to him and his followers as “barbarians”: “What a pitiful,
what a sorry thing to have said that animals are machines bereft of understanding
and feeling,” wrote Voltaire. He continued:

“Is it because I speak to you, that you judge that I have feeling, memory,
ideas? Well, I do not speak to you; you see me going home looking disconsolate,
seeking a paper anxiously, opening the desk where I remember
having shut it, finding it, reading it joyfully. You judge that I have
experienced the feeling of distress and that of plea sure, that I have memory
and understanding. Bring the same judgment to bear on this dog
which has lost its master, which has sought him on every road with sorrowful
cries, which enters the house agitated, uneasy, which goes down
the stairs, up the stairs, from room to room, which at last finds in his study
the master it loves, and which shows him its joy by its cries of delight, by
its leaps, by its caresses. Barbarians seize this dog, which in friendship
surpasses man so prodigiously; they nail it on a table, and they dissect it
alive in order to show the mesenteric veins. You discover in it all the same
organs of feeling that are in yourself. Answer me, machinist, has nature
arranged all the means of feeling in this animal, so that it may not feel?
Has it nerves in order to be impassible? Do not suppose this impertinent
contradiction in nature.”

During the live dissections, or “vivisections” of his pre-anesthesia time,
Descartes’s ideas were used to discount the dogs’ and others’ cries of suffering.
Is a conscious, feeling non-human just too awful to accept? Why
did Descartes need to assert human superiority in terms that justified
causing suffering to other animals? I think the answer is precisely that the
terms did just that. Others objected. “Th e question is not, Can they
reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suff er?” challenged Jeremy Bentham
succinctly in 1789. “Every one has heard of the dog suffering under
vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator,” wrote Charles Darwin
in Th e Descent of Man. “Th is man, unless the operation was fully justified
by an increase of our knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must
have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.” Darwin jotted in his notebook
this searing one-liner: “Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do
not like to consider our equal.”

Sometimes it seems that humans do think but do not deeply feel. It
would be disturbing if a pig screamed, “I am in terror! Don’t kill me!”
Th is, of course, is exactly what a pig says as it’s being killed. It can’t
speak English, but neither can many people in France. Every other
animal I’ve known seems as interested in living as any human. In
fact, many humans seem less interested. Self-destructive behavior, for
instance, seems distinctly human. Depression-related suicide appears
non ex is tent in free-living animals. Most animals do everything they
can to stay alive.

From Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina

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