Primeval feelings: Pre-cognitive processes we share with, say, cats
Today the cleaning ladies are coming, and the preparatory signs are evident (e.g., beds stripped, sheets washed), so Molly knows that this is a Scary Day, though she may be hazy on the details of why.
And she has been unusually persistent and demanding for a lap—she pretty much pushed my computer out of the way— and has curled up and stuck firmly to my lap, even going to sleep, and completely unresponsive to my “I’m getting up” feints.
I’m aware that the obvious explanation is that a lap is a warm place, but the coincidence of her unusually strong lap demand/need (one drives the other) and the fact of the signs of the imminent arrival of the cleaning ladies (whom Molly does not like: she retreats to her hidey-hole in the closet—her version of a safe room—when they arrive and stays there until they leave) make it hard to ignore the possibility that, beyond warmth, Molly is motivated by a demand/need for the comfort of feeling safe.
One doesn’t want to anthropomorphize unnecessarily, of course, so my immediate thought was, “Do cats have feelings?—that is, in general, not just specifically a feeling of being ‘safe’?”
My immediate follow-on thought was that in lifeform evolution, the ability to distinguish “safe” and “not safe” would offer a decided survival advantage, so I would imagine that being able to make that distinction dates way back and is common to many (most? all?) lifeforms, certainly once some level of awareness is achieved. Being able to recognize safety offers a terrific survival advantage over being totally clueless about safety, and of course even better is actually deriving pleasure (an immediate reward that encourages behavior that has significant long-term benefits) from the feeling of being safe.
All organisms must, willy-nilly, be exposed to risks. Those that have a sense of “safety,” and in particular those that derive pleasure from the “safe” side of the menu, will automatically choose the safest course possible—i.e., they will minimize risk. On the whole, organisms that minimize risk will do better than organisms that don’t, pretty much by definition of “risk.” Thus the significant survival advantage that ensures that the ability to recognize safety, once acquired, is passed along.
Thus I would argue that Molly does derive pleasure from feeling safe, and thus her behavior is to some extent guided by feelings. Feelings arise early in evolution, pre-cognitive in origin and even now non-cognitive in operation. Feelings work at a deeper level than cognition, and surely evolution, having found a good device—the reward of immediate pleasure to encourage behavior with long-term evolutionary advantage—we would expect to see it in other contexts. Sex, for example, is important from the gene’s point of view, so it would follow that the pleasure reward would be substantial.
Another example: Consider the feeling of pleasure that one has after a good night’s rest: it’s a definite pleasure, and I think most have experienced it (and have experienced the displeasure of a poor night’s rest). The pleasure, though real, is certainly not so intense as sexual pleasure, but it’s in the same sort of ballpark as the pleasure from feeling safe: it’s better to have the pleasure than not, so one’s choices are pushed in a general direction. In one case, minimizing risk; in the other, being as well-rested as possible under the circumstances, which, along with the similar sort of pleasure that comes from having a substantial and nutritious meal, is known as “taking care of yourself,” which clearly improves chances of survival, so that’s another feeling that goes deep. And presumably Molly would have such feeliings, and indeed evidence shows that Molly seems motivated to be well-rested and thus, presumably, derives pleasure from it.
So I would say that it’s obvious that animals have feelings if not thoughts, and that some of the feelings that a cat, say, experiences are quite similar, as feelings, to those you and I feel. That sort of feeling is basic to the mechanism. And I think that is why some people do not want to eat animals that have such feelings. We’ve read about how pigs show absolute terror in the slaughterhouse. (For some reason, the meat industry wants to make it illegal to reveal (through video, for example—see link) what the industry does: the day-in, day-out routine: nothing special, just their regular work. That’s what they want to hide soe much that they seek to make it a felony to let people know. And such laws have been passed in some states, states in which business interests are more important than free-speech rights.)
I have to say, that took an unexpected direction. I need to think on this.
Meme lovers will note the absence of the meme, but feelings arrive in the organism’s evolution long before the ability to imitate behaviors and thus play host to memes. Feelings have meme-independent pathways, though I imagine memes can co-opt feelings (“… moon, … June”).