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July 17, 2006

If a lion could talk


what would it say?

Stephen Budiansky found this question compelling enough to use it for the title of his 1998 book (above) exploring animal intelligence and the nature of consciousness.

Now comes Jonathan Balcombe


with "Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good."

It's the first book-length survey of the question of whether animals experience pleasure.

Marcela Valdes did a short interview with Balcombe which appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Book World, and follows.

    Fido Wants Fun, Too

    Since the 1859 publication of Darwin's The Origin of the Species , scientists have indulged a rather Hobbesian view of animals: that they're selfish, brutish and bent on nothing but survival. But D.C.-based biologist Jonathan Balcombe takes issue with the Hobbesian view. On a recent Sunday, working the podium at Politics & Prose book store, the poised, almost balletic scientist argued for a full range of bestial motivations. Beyond hunger, reproduction, survival and pain, Balcombe posited pleasure. His animal-loving audience purred.

    Balcombe first stumbled upon his idea in Assateague, Va., while spying on two fish crows happily grooming each other in a marsh.

    Stepping back from his telescope, Balcombe thought, "What have I read about pleasure in animals?" By that point, he'd studied biology for 10 years in three different universities. He'd spent countless hours probing through scholarly journals and reading books about nature. "My jaw rather dropped," he said, "to realize that I hadn't read anything" on the subject.

    Thus Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (Macmillan, $24.95), the first survey of pleasure in animals, was born.

    Going against his training, Balcombe prowled for other examples of pleasure, turning up more than enough for a book. The results contribute, he says, to "a revolution" in the field.

    Balcombe baited his audience with tidbits of research -- lettuce-loving iguanas, bunnies who somersault in joy-induced flips. Lemurs and capuchin monkeys, he said, harvest millipedes for nibbling and rubbing on their lips, savoring the "very powerful defense chemicals" the millipedes produce. The monkeys "get floppy and drooly," he said. "They kind of hang out. And in parallel with certain human behavior that might be familiar to some, they pass [the millipede] around." The audience laughed.

    Balcombe doesn't throw Darwin out with the bathwater. He's simply broadening the field of interpretation. Pleasure, he argues, is adaptive. "The way I like to put it," he said, "is: Just as pain is nature's way of punishing bad or dangerous behaviors, pleasure is nature's way of rewarding good or adaptive behaviors."

    But he's quick to admit that, in the case of the aforementioned monkeys, pleasure could be "maladaptive" as well. A lemur under the influence "might be more vulnerable to predation," he said. "Or he might fall out of a tree."


I remember once reading an interview with a writer whose name I've since forgotten in which the questioner asked him if he'd like to be able to enter the mind of another person and see what it felt like to be them.

The author replied that he'd find it far more interesting to enter the mind and consciousness of a dog.


To even begin to understand what it means to be human we need at the very least to feel โ€” not just imagine โ€” what it is like to be alive and other than human.

John C. Lilly spent his life investigating the nature of the dolphin mind: his 1967 book, "The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence" is a classic.

It costs $2 (used) at Amazon.


Not a bad price for a book that might well cause you to take a new look at yourself and the nature of identity in an ever more mysterious world.

July 17, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Martin Seligman is studying happiness in humans, with pleasure one aspect of this state.

See authentichappiness.com.

Posted by: Mb | Jul 17, 2006 9:45:00 PM

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