Should Animals have the same rights as Humans? Both animals and humans exhibit behaviours in reaction to their environment. Some of this behaviour is learned and some instinctive.

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Finn O Hurley

Should Animals have the same rights as Humans?

Throughout human history animals have had a role to play.  They have been hunted for food and parts of their bodies have been used to clothe us, shelter us and provide us with tools.  As human society has developed animals have been domesticated for a range of purposes from transport to farming to companionship.   In modern times some people have questioned the idea that it is appropriate or civilised to utilise animals in these ways.  Those with extreme views on the subject reject the idea that animals should be used for food, clothing, sport, medical research or even as pets.   Such views are held for a number of reasons.  One is that our long history of interacting with animals in various ways has encouraged some people to interpret their behaviour in human terms.  This practice is known as anthropomorphism.  Giving an animal a name is part of this process and pet shops even supply a range of items such as beds and toys that encourage pet owners to think of their animals as having human qualities.    In this report I will be considering various behaviours, whether they are unique to humans or not and the implications this has for the consideration of whether animals should have equal rights with humans.

Both animals and humans exhibit behaviours in reaction to their environment.  Some of this behaviour is learned and some instinctive.  Behaviour is controlled by either the central nervous system (CNS) or hormones.  Behaviour controlled by the CNS is instinctive which means it is genetically controlled, is a reflex action and is reinforced by natural selection-the quicker and more efficiently the organism responds the better its  chance of survival.  Behaviour controlled by hormones is known as learned behaviour and is the result of experiences.

Instinctive behaviour is automatic and involuntary, it is not controlled by forethought and not based on prior experience.  For example, sea turtles which have just hatched on a beach will automatically move toward the ocean though they have never experienced being in that environment.  A further example of instinctive behaviour can be seen in woodlice.  Woodlice cannot control or regulate their water level which means they can dehydrate quickly.  Instinctively woodlice move to dark damp areas.  We conducted an experiment to demonstrate this behaviour.  We placed the woodlice in a box divided into four segments as follows:

After leaving the woodlice for a short amount of time we found they all congregated in the dark damp area which proves instinctive behaviour as woodlice naturally move to the area which provides the conditions needed to survive.  Another example of instinctive behaviour is seen in Herring Gulls.  Herring gull parents have a red mark on their beak.  When their young peck the marked area the parent regurgitates food.  Herring gull young are born with an instinctive knowledge of this process-their continued existence relies on this knowledge as they have not learned anything yet.  Their ‘begging’ behaviour is a fixed behaviour which occurs in response to a simple stimulus-the sight of the red dot.  Fixed behaviours lead to predictable responses and are vital to the survival of an organism with limited experience so they are reinforced by natural selection.   Niko Tinbergen examined which features of the beak induced chicks to peck by using models of herring gull heads in different shapes and colours. For each colour and shape combination Tinbergen measured the preferences of the baby chicks by counting their pecks in a standard time. Through this he discovered that newly born gull chicks have an innate preference for long, yellow beaks with red dots.  In other words evolution, through the genes, equips the young birds with prior knowledge of a world in which food comes out of adult herring gull beaks when a marked area is pecked. The models with red dots were pecked three times more than the other models.  In respect of instinctive behaviour animals and humans have some similarities.  Human babies have a number of instinctive reflexes such as the swimming reflex and the moro or startle reflex.  Adults also have these reflex responses for example if a person stands on a pin they will instinctively jerk their foot away and shout in pain .

Behaviour which changes as a result of experience is called learned behaviour.  Like humans, animals exhibit this sort of behaviour.  For example, a young kitten will initially only show interest in its food when it sees and tastes it.  Seeing and tasting are the primary stimuli which the kitten associates with food.  With age and experience it will start to associate secondary stimuli with food, for example the owner moving towards the cupboard where its food is kept, and will show interest in that activity.  The secondary stimulus itself is not directly linked to the possibility of food but the cat has learnt the association or become ‘conditioned’.   Some might argue that humans are different from animals as they learn cultural behavior, ie they learn a range of behaviors that are acceptable to society.  For example, it is instinctive to feed oneself but it is a learned cultural behavior to use a knife and fork, or pair or chopsticks, for the process.  However, animals can be taught culturally acceptable behavior by conditioning.   If you were to take a dog that has learned not to foul inside due to conditioning to a different house, it would still know not to foul there. This is because the dog has made a generalization; it knows not to foul in any house, not just the one in which it was taught.  

The Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov studied conditioned behavior scientifically.  He noticed that when food (the primary stimulus) was placed in a dog’s mouth the flow of saliva increased.   It was when he observed that the dogs drooled without the proper stimulus that he became interested in studying reflexes.  He observed that even when there was no food in sight, the dogs still drooled and theorised that they were in fact reacting to lab coats. Every time the dogs had been served food, the person serving it was wearing a lab coat. Therefore, the dogs associated lab coats with food.  In a series of experiments, he tried to figure out how these phenomena were linked.  Pavlov's discovery was that factors that previously had no relation to a given reflex could, through experience, trigger that reflex . This kind of learnt response is called conditioned reflex and the process by which dogs or humans learn to connect a stimulus to a reflex is called conditioning. (  Pavlov predicted that if a particular stimulus in the dog's surroundings were present when the dog was fed, then this stimulus would become associated with food and eventually through repetition cause salivation on its own. He set up an experiment in which he used a strong electric current as a stimulus.  This would normally result in an unconditioned defence reflex such as a violent coil away from the stimulus.  The dog was offered food when the shock was administered.  The conversion of the stimulus of the shock from a defence reflex into a conditioned reflex, the production of saliva, eventually resulted in a complete lack of defence reaction.  Instead the dog displayed an alimentary conditioned reflex by turning towards the area from which it received the food and drooling, as the table below shows:

This table shows a trend for the coil from the stimulus of the electric shock to decrease, then disappear after repeated administration of the shock.  This is because the dog learns to associate the administration of the electric shock with receiving food.  The fact that the dog recoils less is an example of habituation which I discuss later.  To improve this experiment I would administer the shock to a larger surface area to see how this affected the results.  This experiment was conducted over one day and was not repeated which means the results are not reliable.  In addition, the data could be seen as invalid because the dogs that participated were strays, their breed or background was unknown.  Knowing their background would enable one to determine what sort of conditioned reflexes have already been established in relation to a given stimulus and to theorise on how this might affect the results.  A different breed of dog may produce different levels of saliva which would mean that you can’t generalise about all dogs from the data collected.  To improve on the experiment I would use laboratory raised dogs of the same breed.

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Pavlov went on to condition the dogs to produce saliva in response to other stimuli, such as sound.  He presented them with the meat powder and auditory stimulus together several times.  The table below shows that  the dogs responded by associating the auditory stimulus with receiving food.  By pairing the auditory stimulus with the food (which normally produces the salivation response), the sound was able to acquire the ability to trigger the salivation response. The sound has become a conditioned stimulus which produces the conditioned response after repeated pairings between the sound and food.  Pavlov had shown how stimulus-response bonds ...

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