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Newsletter – December 28th, 2023
Seeing with New Eyes in 2024: Here’s Why Thinking About Animals Matters
Newsletter – December 28th, 2023
Amidst the whirlwind of 2024 predictions, let’s shift our focus to something extraordinary—the world of animals.
You are likely to be receiving newsletters about predictions for 2024. So much has been predicted. Our economy: is a recession looming? Technology: is AI becoming sentient? Any additional wager will not add much, especially since two weeks ago we already rounded up the year with our future readiness indicator in pharma, technology, and fashion.
But I want to talk about the dog sitting on the couch next to you. For those who are not dog lovers or don’t have one, I apologize—imagine one instead.
The world is immense, and so should be our expanding minds. It’s curious the ignorance we often hold against animals. I, for one, always thought that dogs can’t see color, only black and white. That isn’t the case: they just don’t detect the full rainbow spectrum of color. Dogs possess two types of color receptors, known as cones, compared to the three types that humans have. In the eyes of a dog, the world unfolds in blues and yellows.
Yet dogs can see what we cannot: the ultraviolet light that is beyond our reach. Bees, birds, and butterflies—they all see a world that we cannot fathom. Ultraviolet light is the silent language they use to trace flowers, to find food, or to choose a mate.
In fact, humans are the outliers in not perceiving ultraviolet light. The only reality is in our perception. There is no true essence the color purple has. It is our brain and our retina that give rise to a particular hue.
And if the world of vision is so subjective, what about touch or pain?
Many historical thinkers have thought animals incapable of conscious experiences. Seventeenth-century philosopher Nicolas Malebranche wrote, “Animals eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it: they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Our contemporary views are less extreme. But what about insects, shrimps, crabs, snails, and fish?
In the early 2000s, Lynne Sneddon, along with Mike Gentle and Victoria Braithwaite, conducted an experiment that would change our understanding of fish. They took trout and injected them in the lips with either saline, the placebo-like variable, or bee venom or acetic acid, the substance that gives vinegar its bite. Fish that received saline injections didn’t change much. But the trout stung with acid exhibited strong reactions: they started breathing hard and wouldn’t eat; they lay on the tank’s gravel, rocking. Some rubbed their lips on the gravel or tank walls. They no longer shied away from new things, as if something else consumed their minds. But when given morphine, these effects disappeared. Sneddon and her team published their findings in 2003, when everyone said a hooked fish’s struggle was just reflex. Then, she conducted some more experiments. One involved zebrafish, which prefer an environment rich with plants and gravel. When these fish were subjected to pain and offered a choice between their preferred habitat and a barren tank with pain-relieving substances, they chose the latter. Why would a fish act like that, looking for something to kill the pain? The question about fish feeling pain had been answered, and this answer ran contrary to what we had assumed.
Think about this: such knowledge carries weight, vast in its economic implications. The distinction between pain and reflex is a cornerstone of morality. From this divide, laws emerge that govern human activities. It affects our cultural norms around catching, killing, eating, or experimenting on animals. A set of legal frameworks thus shapes how industries operate.
In the Western world, for example, dogs are protected from being eaten. Pigs, meanwhile, are classified as “livestock.” But why such classification? Then some people choose to eat chicken instead of pork because pigs seem smarter. But what science is telling us is this: even a fish knows pain and will avoid suffering if it can.
This line of thinking is not to tempt us into becoming vegans or animal activists. The point is to recognize “otherness.” It’s about seeing the world beyond our own lens. We will never smell the way a dog can. We will never understand what it is like to be a dolphin that sings in ultrasound. But through our curiosity and imagination, and through patient observation and technologies to observe further still, we can try to step into their worlds.
“What’s the point?” you may ask. It’s expanding the human mind, expanding our moral circle, so we aren’t so self-centered, always fueled with anguish and outrage triggered by TikTok, Instagram, and incessant media distractions. Ignoring others leads to self-absorption, making us dull and miserable. Thinking about animals makes us kinder and calmer. And that seems to make a nice New Year’s resolution, bringing a level of immediate joy.
Happy New Year!