Carl Safina: What Do Animals Tell Us About Ourselves — And Our Place In The World?

Aug 16, 2019
Originally published on August 19, 2019 1:45 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Anthropomorphic

About Carl Safina's TED Talk

Ecologist Carl Safina says humans aren't the only ones who love, grieve, or think. He argues if animals are more complex then we once thought, shouldn't we reconsider the ethics of how we treat them?

About Carl Safina

Carl Safina is an ecologist and conservationist who studies the relationship between humans and the natural world, specifically, how humans can better care for animal and plant life.

He is the Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University, and he is also the founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.

He is the author of several books including Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel and Song For The Blue Ocean. His writing has won several awards including a MacAurthur "genius" prize, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. He was also the host of the 10-part PBS series Saving The Ocean With Carl Safina.

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So have you ever looked at your pet and wished you could just read their minds, wondered if they really love you and wished you understood what they were thinking?

CARL SAFINA: Well, it's hard to know what our own spouses are thinking sometimes.

RAZ: (Laughter).

SAFINA: I mean, not knowing what they're thinking is not exactly a totally different experience from being around humans.

RAZ: This is ecologist Carl Safina. Carl studies our human relationship with the natural world, and he says wondering if your dog loves you is the wrong question to ask.

SAFINA: It is the wrong question. It's a question that we all ask, and it's a question that we all would like answered. But the question of - do you love me? - is more about my insecurity about our relationship. It's not really a way that I can get to know you. So my question for animals became, who are you? And - who are you? - opens a door. It's really a different kind of question. It's a different kind of perspective. You open yourself to see who they are. That's really very different than, do you love me? You know, the interest is an interest in life itself. It's who we are here with. Who are they? Therefore, it's also, who are we? And what is the nature of life? You know, all of those things are part of watching animals.

RAZ: Here's more from Carl Safina on the TED stage.


SAFINA: There are capacities of the human mind that we tend to think are capacities only of the human mind. But is that true? What are other beings doing with those brains? What are they thinking and feeling? Is there a way to know? I think there are several ways in. We can look at evolution, and we can watch what they do. First thing to remember is our brain is inherited. A neuron, a nerve cell, looks the same in a crayfish, a bird or you. What does that say about the minds of crayfish? Well, it turns out that if you give a crayfish a lot of little, tiny electric shocks every time it tries to come out of its burrow, it will develop anxiety. If you give the crayfish the same drug used to treat anxiety disorder in humans, it relaxes and comes out and explores.

Octopuses use tools, as well as do most apes, and they recognize human faces. Killer whales teach, and killer whales share food. People who seem to know only one thing about animal behavior know that you must never attribute human thoughts and emotions to other species. Well, I think that's silly because attributing human thoughts and emotions to other species is the best first guess about what they're doing and how they're feeling because their brains are basically the same as ours. They have the same structures. The same hormones that create mood and motivation in us are in those brains, as well. We see helping where help is needed. We see curiosity in the young. We see the bonds of family connections. We recognize affection. And then we ask, are they conscious?

RAZ: We can think about human consciousness - right? - as like a movie in our mind. Like, we are all experiencing our own movies. We are the star of our own movie. And that's kind of a simplistic way to describe consciousness, which is this really complex thing. We still don't have a full understanding of what human consciousness actually is. What animates us? Why am I saying these words? What's generating that, you know? And I wonder - is there a version that probably exists in a variety of animal species?

SAFINA: Well, you know, first of all, a lot of the words we use in this topic around animals and consciousness and experience mean very different things to different people. So they need to be defined for the purposes of our conversation. You know, we started out by saying, do dogs love us? Well, what do humans mean by the word love?

RAZ: Yeah.

SAFINA: You could say, I love my children. You could also say, I love ice cream. It's the same word. You mean different things by it. So if we're going to talk about consciousness, we have to decide what the definition for our purposes is. Neurologically speaking, consciousness is the thing that feels like something.

RAZ: Yeah.

SAFINA: It's a felt experience. That's consciousness. And almost certainly, across a huge spectrum of animals, the experience of consciousness differs, but it probably differs in degree rather than in kind. Probably everything that happens in our mind there's a version of that happens in a nonhuman mind.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, we have this natural tendency to see the world and the animal world through the human prism because it sort of allows us to create touchpoints - you know, maybe ways that we relate to other animal species. But what you're saying is that that's the wrong way to look at it. We actually have to turn it, reverse it, start from the other side.

SAFINA: I think both can be helpful, but mostly, people forget to do the second part of it. And we do have to just look at it from above.

RAZ: Yeah.

SAFINA: If we're going to talk about love, what do we mean by love? And then based on that definition of what we're going to mean by it, what evidence is there for love in a person, in a dog, in a jellyfish, in a bird? And you will see - in all of these cases, you will see a range of mental and emotional abilities.

RAZ: And love is one of those things that can be measured in so many different ways, right? Like, Barbara King was just talking about grief, right? And that is a way to measure love. And we know, certainly, that many animals grieve. You know, they grieve when they lose members of their pod or their group or their kin.

SAFINA: Right. And she says that you can see grief in a creature if, after the death of an individual that they knew, they changed their behavior. They may be searching for them, calling for them. They may eat less. They may spend a lot less time looking for food for a while. And then eventually, just as humans do, they have to get back to living. We had a couple of ducks - I mean, people don't normally think that ducks experience grief, but we had a couple of ducks, a mated pair. And when the male got sick and died rather suddenly over the period of just about a day and a half, the female spent weeks going to all the places in the yard where they might have been together, where they used to like to hang out. And she would call and call and call and call. Clearly, she missed him, and clearly, she was looking for him.


SAFINA: The things that make us human are not the things that we think make us human. What makes us human is that, of all these things that our minds and their minds have, we are the most extreme. We are the most compassionate, most violent, most creative and most destructive animal that has ever been on this planet. And we are all of those things all jumbled up together. But love is not the thing that makes us human. We're not the only ones who care about our mates. We're not the only ones who care about our children. It's not special to us.

RAZ: You are a conservationist, and you believe - and many people believe - that we humans have a moral responsibility to treat animals in a much different way than we currently treat them. We eat them. We kill them and hunt them and destroy their habitats. But it seems to me that there's also an intellectual argument for asking the question, who are you? - which is, look. If you're not going to accept the moral logic here, understand that these are complex beings that deserve your attention and deserve your respect. Is that...

SAFINA: Ah, yes, but that is the moral logic. They are complex beings that deserve our respect. Many of them have felt experience. For many of them, that felt experience is very vivid, and they form relationships with bonds, emotional bonds. And that should make us treat them in a way that is ethical. The other thing about that is there is a lot of predation in the natural world. All animals eat something. At the very least, they destroy complex plants. And many animals eat other animals. So I don't even think that killing something is necessarily the worst or most bizarre thing in the world, but destroying the ability of the planet to support life, which is what we actually are doing, is a very bizarre thing. And there is no wisdom tradition in any philosophy or any religion that has ever said that it's OK to ruin the world.

RAZ: I'm a little bit reluctant to ask you this question 'cause I don't - I'm not sure I want to hear the answer. But given what you've witnessed in the oceans and on land and watching the disappearance of animal habitats, are we in trouble? Are we going to be able to turn this around? Or do you think we humans are headed to a point of no return?

SAFINA: Well, I think the main problem is that humans will exist without a lot of the beauty in the world. And we will give ourselves a diminished existence by not valuing beauty above everything because, really, what makes life worth living is the different things we find beautiful, whether it's love for members of our family or the beauty of the sky or the beauty of seeing other living things or our gardens or whatever. Without beauty, existence is an incredibly grim prospect to consider.

I think the problem for all those other species and all that other life is that, for the most part, we don't really need them to exist, you know? There are no longer any elephants living in North America in the wild. There used to be back in the Pleistocene, but we do fine without wild elephants. The whole world could do fine without wild elephants. It would just be a really sad, sad thing to lose these literally miraculous beings. Multiply that by millions of species - all the warblers that migrate through in the springtime that most people aren't even aware of - and they've already missed that beauty.

My biggest nightmare is that I would wake up one day, and humans would be the only thing left in the world. And that's really the danger. If we desperately understood how we have an ethical responsibility not to ruin what has taken millions of years to come about, these things that have vivid lives and experiences and emotional relationships - if we understood all of that, we would act differently than we're acting.

RAZ: That's ecologist Carl Safina. He's written the book "Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel." You can find his full talk at


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Here on this mountaintop, oh, I got some wild, wild life. I got some news to tell you, oh, about some wild, wild life. Here comes the doctor in charge. Oh, she's got some wild, wild life.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show Anthropomorphic this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and J.C. Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin and Brent Baughman. Our intern is Emmanuel Johnson. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms and Anna Phelan. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.