Conscious yelping vs. unconscious yelping!

I was watching an interesting TED talk by Sam Harris the other day – it was about the representation of human moral values as arguable scientific facts – when something he said provoked me to ask myself this question. Can the outward expression of distress in living creatures be taken as evidence of conscious inner experience in the distressed?

The relevant snippet from Harris’s talk that interests us is the “fact” that any human “moral value” boils down to empathizing with the unpleasant conscious experience one may create in other living creatures (and the consequences of this), if the said moral value is not upheld. Most of us don’t go about stabbing our neighbors and stealing their money because:

1. we can imagine this stabbing business being played out on ourselves and we empathize with the unpleasant experience it would induce in the victim. And

2. we anticipate some sort of retribution (a counter-attack, being charged for murder by the police etc).

The undercurrent is that we all assume either or both of the following:

A) Those worthy of moral attention are conscious and we empathize with them.

B) Those worthy of moral attention are capable of reacting in ways unpleasant to us (directly or indirectly through a complex social organization).

Lets leave this fact in the background for the moment, and move closer to the point I wish to make.

It is a reasonable hypothesis that cries of distress and associated “pain behavior” of animals (think of an unfortunate dog who has just being struck by a stone) is an inherited signaling mechanism of Darwinian survival value. For example, to gain parental or pack assistance to save one’s skin. Such assistance would obviously increase the chances of functional well-being of the survival machine (e.g. the dog) until past its reproductive age. Hence the evolution of yelping to a fine, universal art in mammals. Now here is my million dollar question; do the conscious restraints we recognize in the human experience of inducing distress in others for survival advantage, play a part in the convergent evolution of distress-signaling itself? In short, do animals yelp to attract the conscious sympathy of onlookers?

It would be interesting to figure out an experiment to determine if indeed the signaling of pain has an element of “canvassing for sympathy” evolved into it, apart from the purely unconscious “attention grabbing” purpose that it obviously serves. “I am being killed, gosh its awful. I’m having that same emotion that you have when you are being decimated, can’t you see? Take pity and help me / leave me alone (the latter to the attacker)” vs. “survival machine destruction in progress – STOP (unconscious signal to the same species)”. Is evidence of interspecies “assistance” in times of trouble (animal empathy) an indication? Perhaps it’s a start.

In conclusion, I suspect a gradual, parallel and mutually interrelated evolution of pain-signaling, feelings of pain and seeking conscious empathy from others when in pain. As opposed to the unconscious evolution of distress signaling between animals sans the experience of pain, and sans the empathy for it. If an animal can yelp, it can feel pain, and can tell others of its pain, and anticipate conscious pity. Perhaps stimulating others’ mirror neurons, in neurobiological terms. Alas, I’ve no proof whatsoever… don’t beat your dog…


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