Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

If a Lion Could Talk:
Animal Minds and the Evolution of Consciousness

by Stephen Budiansky
Free Press, 210 pages, $25

Stephen Budiansky’s If a Lion Could Talk is a skeptical look at animals and the claims made on their behalf by animal-welfare advocates. In his articles as a science writer for U.S. News & World Report, Budiansky has been the mainstream media’s chief debunker of such causes as protecting whales and elephants from sport and commercial hunting. Here he lays out the scientific evidence for his view that animals are fascinating, complicated, and mysterious beings, lacking, however, anything comparable to human reason, emotion, or consciousness, let alone moral “rights” of their own.

Budiansky contends that, bereft of language and a sense of self, even the higher creatures act on a kind of “unthinking intelligence,” driven by the instinct, impulse, or appetite of the moment. With their yelps, growls, purrs, and other physical expressions they often “mimic” human emotion and intelligence. Hence the tales of dogs, dolphins, or apes rescuing people from danger, elephants grieving for their young, or chimpanzees gazing into sunsets. Such stories, he writes, are the wishful thinking of those who would “knock man off his pedestal at the top of creation.” The true project of the animal-rights crowd is not merely to show that animals experience emotions and know things, but that they do so better than “selfish and brutal” mankind.

Most readers will tend to agree with Budiansky’s advice that we must view animals “with realism and restraint,” taking them on their own terms and steering clear of the anthropomorphic error. He brings a much-needed critical eye into the discussion. On the other hand, he has strayed from the old idea of dominion, with its sense of sovereignty over nature and corresponding duties. Budiansky claims that animals cannot reason as we do, marking a difference not in degree but in kind. But this raises the question: What does our reason require in our role as chief of creatures?

The Judeo-Christian view offers the animals some standing of their own in creation. One need not see them as equals to feel some concern for their welfare or to share a sense of fellowship with the creatures, each in its own way proclaiming God’s glory. Budiansky’s is a view of dominion without that moral sensibility, a vision of man as unbound evolutionary victor, a tyrant over nature unchecked by the very restraints of reason and ethics that set us apart from the animals.

Consider his theory of how we ourselves acquired moral consciousness. “Language,” writes Budiansky, “is the rocket that has escaped the gravitational pull of biological adaptation . . . into a realm where ethical thought becomes possible.” Unlike the animals, “we soar above whatever evolutionary purpose (or accident) drove its creation.” Indeed, “To imagine a god is the ultimate attribution of mental states. . . . This is the ultimate expression of Darwin’s ‘utopian animal,’ for, in so doing, man has created the ultimate moral conscience. . . . A literal ‘god’ is the ultimate container of this concept.”

In defense of the beasts of the field, at least it never enters into their furry heads that they created God. Budiansky makes light of the “deep ecology” movement with its spiritual pretensions, but it would be hard to find anything in environmentalist literature more incoherent than this “rocket” theory of human conscience. The whole construct is based—by his own admission—upon an audacious act of anthropomorphism running the other way, ascribing to “God” the designs and caprices of man. The problem, of course, is that however far we might “soar,” God and moral truth alike remain subjective states in the mind of man.

In Genesis, God sends the creatures into the world with a “blessing” of their own, reminding man to treat even property animals with mercy. On Budiansky’s view, animals are not only bereft of consciousness, but devoid of any individual moral claims on us. The non sequitur running through the book, and indeed the “animal-rights” debate, is that because the creatures cannot themselves grasp or act upon moral concepts, we are not obliged to act morally in our conduct toward them.

To argue for this, Budiansky has turned upon the creatures the same sort of scientific reductionism that probes and analyzes and theorizes human beings to death. He begins with Binti-Jua, the gorilla credited a few years back with saving a three-year-old boy who had fallen into her enclosure at a Chicago zoo. News reports “told how Binti picked up the unconscious boy, cradled him in her arms, and carried him gently to the door of the apes’ enclosure.” Witnesses described feeling a “chill” as the ape protected the boy from male cagemates. Footage of the drama hit CNN, and in the glorious days afterward Binti was showered with laurels and bananas from across the world. Then comes the “missing detail”: zookeepers had hosed the other gorillas away, and Binti had received maternal training that included carrying and retrieving a doll. “Binti was just doing what she had been trained to do,” Budiansky writes.

We may safely assume, however, that in Binti’s training sessions the doll (presumably a gorilla doll) wasn’t tossed over the outdoor railing amid shouting, hosing, and pandemonium. One recalls, too, that she did not merely cradle the boy but stroked him, having by then clearly perceived that the object on her lap was neither gorilla nor doll. Establishing cause for the male gorillas’ retreat is impossible—it all happened at once. On tape it is clear that as Binti scoops up the boy with the right arm, with the left she unmistakably signals to her cagemates, “Back off!”

Budiansky doesn’t like primates generally, doubtless because they pose the greatest danger to his conviction that all creatures are but intriguing and affable automatons, objects of scientific or aesthetic appreciation but not of moral duty. When we get to Washo and Nim, the famed chimpanzees who were taught sign language, he belittles their childlike requests to trainers for toys or food or play and their crudeness of communication (things like “You me go out” and “Where cat?”). He never pauses to ask himself why automatons would crave human praise, what they mean by “you me” if they have no glimmer of selfhood or sense of other, or why on earth a chimp would have a pet kitten.

He cites researcher Herbert Terrace as having proved the chimps were “usually” just imitating trainers’ signs. What unusual signs they made we never learn. The trainers themselves describe Washo, for example, hiding in a tree signing “quiet quiet” to herself, and at one point the chimps signing to each other. Nor does Budiansky mention Terrace’s own finding that “certain usages of Nim’s signs were quite unexpected.” “At least two of them (bite and angry) appeared to function as substitutes for the physical expression of those actions and emotions.”

In passing, Budiansky lets it slip that when the chimps didn’t get what they wanted, they “would point, now deliberately and with a more expressive gesture, at the object they just named. . . . [They] clearly expected some sort of reward (either food, tickling, or praise) for having named and pointed to an object.” Now let’s think: A hand-pointing, praise-hungry, bipedal, ticklish attention-hound of reputed simian origin. Who does that bring to mind?

Odd in a book arguing that reason and ethics are what set man apart, which few doubted anyway, nowhere in If a Lion Could Talk does Budiansky specify any kind of conduct toward animals that would be ethically impermissible. Doubtless he is very kind to his own animals, the dog and horses he often mentions—though if dogs and horses could talk and read one imagines him waking up one morning to a quiet and deserted ranch. He seems to have got cornered by the relentless logic of his own theory: If there is no such thing as animal suffering, there can be no such thing as cruelty to animals. As God exists only in our minds, so His creatures exist only at our pleasure. Thus, “wonderful” and “mysterious” though animals are, for them “sentience is not sentience, and pain isn’t even pain.” “Or perhaps, following Daniel Dennett’s distinction, we should say that pain is not the same as suffering. . . . Our ability to have thoughts about our experiences turns emotions into something greater and sometimes far worse that mere pain.”

The distinction goes back well beyond Dennett, though “mere pain” carries the distinctive whiff of the behaviorist laboratory. C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain makes the similar point that animals experience “a succession of perceptions” but not “a perception of succession” to confer meaning upon suffering. Lewis adds, however: “How far up the scale such unconscious sentience may extend, I will not even guess. It is certainly difficult to suppose that the apes, the elephant, and the higher domestic animals have not, in some degree, a self or soul which connects experience and gives rise to rudimentary individuality.”

We might also ask how many of our own pains are felt on that grand, Lear-like scale of tragic suffering that Budiansky describes. A kick in the shorts does not send a man into an existential crisis or exquisite agony of soul. It just hurts, and like animals, we scream. When injured or abused, animals shriek, squeal, squawk, bark, growl, whinny, and whimper; some shake, perspire, and lose breath in danger; others get listless and refuse food in abandonment and separation. For all we know, their pain may sometimes seem more immediate, blunt, arbitrary, and inescapable than ours. Walk through an animal shelter or slaughter house and you wonder if animal suffering might not at times be all the more terrifying and all-encompassing without benefit of the words and concepts that for us, after all, confer not only meaning but consolation. Whatever’s going on inside their heads, it doesn’t seem “mere” to them.

Budiansky ignores other evidence of mental consciousness in animals, including, for example, the fact that many animals dream. What are they dreaming about if not past scenes and adventures, and what more evidence do you need that the dreamers have memory and mental awareness? Elephant calves and bear cubs who have seen their mothers killed have been observed waking up convulsed by nightmares, a datum Budiansky might want to keep in mind next time he champions the cause of trophy and ivory hunting.

Missing, too, are any explanations of the delight, relish, and contentment many animals seem to take in their own existence and often in our company. We are asked to believe that all these creatures in our midst dumbly plod and swim and fly about, preprogrammed to forage, hunt, and mate, denied even the smallest share in the world’s gifts or in its travails—a dreary thought that goes against everything we know about the Programmer himself.

I picture the lion, if he could talk, shaking his great mane in disbelief at the sheer hubris of it, and of all the canned hunts, baiting, high-tech safaris, and endless array of other loutish, exploitative, and cowardly things such theories are used to justify. Maybe he would advise Budiansky to make better use of his own mind and to just leave him to his glorious lionhood. 

Matthew Scully is a contributing editor to National Review.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift