Panksepp, Animal Rights, and the Blank Slate

So who is Jaak Panksepp?  Have a look at his YouTube talk on emotions at the bottom of this post, for starters.  A commenter recommended him, and I discovered the advice was well worth taking.  Panksepp’s The Archaeology of Mind, which he co-authored with Lucy Biven, was a revelation to me.  The book describes a set of basic emotional systems that exist in all, or virtually all, mammals, including humans.  In the words of the authors:

…the ancient subcortical regions of mammalian brains contain at least seven emotional, or affective, systems:  SEEKING (expectancy), FEAR (anxiety), RAGE (anger), LUST (sexual excitement), CARE (nurturance), PANIC/GRIEF (sadness), and PLAY (social joy).  Each of these systems controls distinct but specific types of behaviors associated with many overlapping physiological changes.

This is not just another laundry list of “instincts” of the type often proposed by psychologists at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  Panksepp is a neuroscientist, and has verified experimentally the unique signatures of these emotional systems in the ancient regions of the brain shared by humans and other mammals.  Again quoting from the book,

As far as we know right now, primal emotional systems are made up of neuroanatomies and neurochemistries that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species.  This suggests that these systems evolved a very long time ago and that at a basic emotional and motivational level, all mammals are more similar than they are different.  Deep in the ancient affective recesses of our brains, we remain evolutionarily kin.

If you are an astute student of the Blank Slate phenomenon, dear reader, no doubt you are already aware of the heretical nature of this passage.  That’s right!  The Blank Slaters were prone to instantly condemn any suggestion that there were similarities between humans and other animals as “anthropomorphism.”  In fact, if you read the book you will find that their reaction to Panksepp and others doing similar research has been every bit as allergic as their reaction to anyone suggesting the existence of human nature.  However, in the field of animal behavior, they are anything but a quaint artifact of the past.  Diehard disciples of the behaviorist John B. Watson and his latter day follower B. F. Skinner, Blank Slaters of the first water, still haunt the halls of academia in significant numbers, and still control the message in any number of “scientific” journals.  There they have been following their usual “scholarly” pursuit of ignoring and/or vilifying anyone who dares to disagree with them ever since the heyday of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin.  In the process they have managed to suppress or distort a great deal of valuable research bearing directly on the wellsprings of human behavior.

We learn from the book that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been as damaging for other animals as it has been for us.  Among other things, it has served as the justification for indifference to or denial of the feelings and consciousness of animals.  The possibility that this attitude has contributed to some rather gross instances of animal abuse has been drawing increasing attention from those who are concerned about their welfare.  See for example, the website of Panksepp admirer Temple Grandin.  According to Panksepp & Bevin,

Another of Descartes’ big errors was the idea that animals are without consciousness, without experiences, because they lack the subtle nonmaterial stuff from which the human mind is made.  This notion lingers on today in the belief that animals do not think about nor even feel their emotional responses.

Many emotion researchers as well as neuroscience colleagues make a sharp distinction between affect and emotion, seeing emotion as purely behavioral and physiological responses that are devoid of affective experience.  They see emotional arousal as merely a set of physiological responses that include emotion-associated behaviors and a variety of visceral (hormonal/autonomic) responses, without actually experiencing anything – many researchers believe that other animals may not feel their emotional arousals.  We disagree.

Some justify this rather counter-intuitive belief by suggesting that it is impossible to really experience or be conscious of emotions (affects) without language.  Panksepp & Bevins’ response:

Words cannot describe the experience of seeing the color red to someone who is blind.  Words do not describe affects either.  One cannot explain what it feels like to be angry, frightened, lustful, tender, lonely, playful, or excited, except indirectly in metaphors.  Words are only labels for affective experiences that we have all had – primary affective experiences that we universally recognize.  But because they are hidden in our minds, arising from ancient prelinguistic capacities of our brains, we have found no way to talk about them coherently.

With such excuses, and the fact that they could not “see” feelings and emotions in their experiments with “reinforcement” and “conditioning,” the behaviorists concluded that the feelings of the animals they were using in their experiments didn’t matter.  It was outside the realm of “science.”  Again from the book,

Much as we admire the scientific finesses of these conditioning experiments, we part company with (Joseph) LeDoux and many of the others who conduct this kind of work when it comes to understanding what emotional feelings really are.  This is because they studiously ignore the feelings of their animals, and they often claim that the existence or nonexistence of the animals’ feelings is a nonscientific issue (although there are some signs of changing sentiments on these momentous issues).  In any event…, LeDoux has specifically endorsed the read-out theory – to the effect that affects are created by neocortical working-memory functions, uniquely expanded in human brains.  In other words, he see affects as a higher-order cognitive construct (perhaps only elaborated in humans), and thereby he envisions the striking FEAR responses of his animals to be purely physiological effects with no experiential consequences.

…And when we analyze the punishing properties of electrical stimulation here in animals, we get the strongest aversive responses imaginable at the lowest levels of brain stimulation, and humans experience the most fearful states of mind imaginable.  Such issues of affective experience should haunt fear-conditioners much more than they apparently do.

The evidence strongly indicates that there are primary-process emotional networks in the brain that help generate phenomenal affective experiences in all mammals, and perhaps in many other vertebrates and invertebrates.

It’s stunning, really.  Anyone who has ever owned a dog is aware of how similar their emotional responses can often be to those of humans, and how well they remember them.  Like humans, they are mammals.  Like humans, their brains include a cortex.  It would hardly be “parsimonious” to simply assume that humans represent some kind of a radical departure when it comes to the ability to experience and remember emotions, and that other animals lack this ability, in defiance of centuries of such “common sense” observations that they can.  All this mass of evidence apparently isn’t “scientific,” and therefore doesn’t count, because these latter day Blank Slaters can’t observe in their mazes and shock boxes what appears obvious to everyone else in the world.  “Anthropomorphism!”  From such profound reasoning we are apparently to conclude that pain in animals doesn’t matter.

Why the Blank Slate’s furious opposition to “anthropomorphism?”  In a sense, it’s actually an anachronism.  Recall that the fundamental dogma of the Blank Slate was the denial of human nature.  Obviously other mammals have a “nature.”  Clearly, the claim that dogs and cats must “learn” all their behavior from their “culture” was never going to fly.  Not so human beings.  Once upon a time the Blank Slaters claimed that everything in the human behavioral repertoire, with the possible exception of breathing, urinating, and defecating, was learned.  They even went so far as to include sex.  Even orgasms had to be “learned.”  It follows that the gulf between humans and animals had to be made as wide as possible.

Fast forward to about the year 2000.  As far as their denial of human nature was concerned, the Blank Slaters had lost control of the popular media.  To an increasing extent, they were also losing control of the message in academia.  Books and articles about innate human behavior began pouring from the presses, and people began speaking of human nature as a given.  The Blank Slaters had lost that battle.  The main reason for their “anthropomorphism” phobia had disappeared.  In the more sequestered field of “animal nature,” however, they could carry on as if nothing had happened without making laughing stocks of themselves.  No one was paying any attention except a few animal rights activists.  And carry on they did, with the same “scientific” methods they had used in the past.  Allow me to quote from Panksepp & Biven again to give you a taste of what I’m talking about:

It is noteworthy that Walter Hess, who first discovered the RAGE system in the cat brain in the mid-1930s (he won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1949), using localized stimulation of the hypothalamus, was among the first to suggest that the behavior was “sham rage.”  He confessed, however, in writings published after his retirement (as noted in Chapter 2:  e.g., The Biology of Mind [1964]), that he had always believed that the animals actually experienced true anger.  He admitted to having shared sentiments he did not himself believe.  Why?  He simply did not want to have his work marginalized by the then-dominant behaviorists who had no tolerance for talk about emotional experiences.  As a result, we still do not know much about how the RAGE system interacts with other cognitive and affective systems of the brain.

In an earlier chapter on The Evolution of Affective Consciousness they added,

In his retirement he admitted regrets about having been too timid, not true to his convictions, to claim that his animals had indeed felt real anger.  He confessed that he did this because he feared that such talk would lead to attacks by the powerful American behaviorists, who might thereby also marginalize his more concrete scientific discoveries.  To a modest extent, he tried to rectify his “mistake” in his last book, The Biology of Mind, but this work had little influence.

So much for the “self-correcting” nature of science.  It is anything but that when poisoned by ideological dogmas.  Panksepp and Biven conclude,

But now, thankfully, in our enlightened age, the ban has been lifted.  Or has it?  In fact, after the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s, the behaviorist bias has largely been retained but more implicitly by most, and it is still the prevailing view among many who study animal behavior.  It seems the educated public is not aware of that fact.  We hope the present book will change that and expose this residue of behaviorist fundamentalism for what it is:  an anachronism that only makes sense to people who have been schooled within a particular tradition, not something that makes any intrinsic sense in itself!  It is currently still blocking a rich discourse concerning the psychological, especially the affective, functions of animal brains and human minds.

This passage is particularly interesting because it demonstrates, as can be seen from the passage about “the cognitive revolution of the early 1970s,” that the authors were perfectly well aware of the larger battle with the Blank Slate orthodoxy over human nature.  However, that rather opaque allusion is about as close as they came to referring to it in the book.  One can hardly blame them for deciding to fight one battle at a time.  There is one interesting connection that I will point out for the cognoscenti.  In Chapter 6, Beyond Instincts, they write,

The genetically ingrained emotional systems of the brain reflect ancestral memories – adaptive affective functions of such universal importance for survival that they were built into the brain, rather than having to be learned afresh by each generation of individuals.  These genetically ingrained memories (instincts) serve as a solid platform for further developments in the emergence of both learning and higher-order reflective consciousness.

Compare this with a passage from the work of the brilliant South African naturalist Eugene Marais, which appeared in his The Soul of the Ape, written well before his death in 1936, but only published in 1969:

…it would be convenient to speak of instinct as phyletic memory.  There are many analogies between memory and instinct, and although these may not extend to fundamentals, they are still of such a nature that the term phyletic memory will always convey a clear understanding of the most characteristic attributes of instinct.

As it happens, the very charming and insightful introduction to The Soul of the Ape when it was finally published in 1969 was written by none other than Robert Ardrey!  He had an uncanny ability to find and appreciate the significance of the work of brilliant but little-known researchers like Marais.

As for Panksepp, I can only apologize for taking so long to discover him.  If nothing else, his work and teachings reveal that this is no time for complacency.  True, the Blank Slaters have been staggered, but they haven’t been defeated quite yet.  They’ve merely abandoned the battlefield and retreated to what would seem to be their last citadel; the field of animal behavior.  Unfortunately there is no Robert Ardrey around to pitch them headlong out of that last refuge, but they face a different challenge now.  They can no longer pretend to hold the moral high ground.  Their denial that animals can experience and remember their emotions in the same way as humans leaves the door wide open for the abuse of animals, both inside and outside the laboratory.  It is to be hoped that more animal rights activists like Temple Grandin will start paying attention.  I may not agree with them about eating red meat, but the maltreatment of animals, justified by reference to a bogus ideological dogma, is something that can definitely excite my own RAGE emotions.  I will have no problem standing shoulder to shoulder with them in this fight.