Q & A with Lori Marino, Ph.D
Meet Lori Marino, Ph.D.neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence who has studied the evolution of the brain and intelligence in dolphins, whales and primates. Dr. Marino is teaching Evolution: Biological Continuity and Adaptation for Humane Society University, which will be offered for the first time in 2014.
How did you enter into the world of neuroscience, animal psychology and advocacy?
I studied animal psychology and neuroscience throughout college and graduate school and was still under the impression that, as a scientist, it was not proper for me to advocate for other animals. I dabbled in the world of advocacy but it doesn’t compare to the intensity of my current advocacy efforts. I always had it in me to dive all the way in, eventually. The 2001 study I conducted with my colleague Diane Reiss, the first evidence for mirror self-recognition in bottlenose dolphins, was the defining experience of my professional career. In learning about the poor welfare of dolphins in captivity, and discovering the connection between captivity and dolphin slaughter, I took on the role of scholar-advocate which, for the past few years, is how I characterize myself professionally.
How did your career change after the dolphin study?
I realized that when I talked, people listened because they knew that I had studied cetacean and primate intelligence and brain evolution comprehensively. The dolphin study on self-recognition had been published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” The stereotype is that animal advocates are highly emotional rather than scientifically informed about issues pertaining to animals. It’s very powerful to be credentialed and to have papers published in the mainstream that support your stance on the issues.
Do many of the students you teach believe they have to choose between being a scholar and advocate?
Yes, many students believe you can’t be a scientist and advocate because the traditional model of science says that the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of advocacy are incompatible. If a student is studying neuroscience and she expresses concerns about animals it is ardently discouraged by faculty and mocked by other students. Often students are told they have to make a choice between the two, which is a form of academic bullying. The connection many students miss is that although the methods of science are objective, the conclusions drawn from the information one studies do not have to be neutral. Science is not just the accumulation of knowledge to be placed on a shelf. Gathering data invites perspectives beyond science in conversations across disciplines and fields, including ethics. Integrating this data into the fabric of our society can transform our relationship to animals.
What would you say to the student who thinks they have to make a choice between being a scholar and advocate?
If you become a scholar or scientist, you don’t give up being an advocate. You have to maintain your knowledge and apply it to advocacy. In fact, I think being a scholar-advocate for animals is an incredibly powerful position. I’ve learned that animal abusers are no match for real data and expertise. Humane Society University is unique, as it grooms students to be both animal scholars and advocates. The scholar-advocacy model effectively removes animal advocacy from the fringes and places it squarely where it should be: in mainstream culture.
How is the course you will be teaching in 2014, Evolution: Biological Continuity and Adaptation, relevant and important at this time in history?
It is important for students to be scientifically knowledgeable and critical thinkers. We’re losing species by the thousands, ecologies are disappearing and the situation is getting worse for most animals. We have to place animals in an evolutionary, historical and psychological context or there are no grounds on which to protect them.
Can we offer protection by removing animals from the wild or their natural habitats?
Putting animals in zoos to protect them is not the solution. If you understand evolution and biology, the context for adaptation is critically important. In an artificial environment like a zoo, individual animals suffer. Large social animals are especially vulnerable to captivity as their needs are so complex that it makes it difficult to replicate those needs in the unnatural environment of a zoo. Animals in captivity often die of stress-related diseases, develop psychological disorders, and have high mortality rates. If you care about the welfare of animals you don’t want them to suffer. The scientific data are in on this. There are multiple papers on the negative impacts of wild animals in captivity. Zoos are using the argument of protection as a rationale to put animals on display. This is a dangerous message: “Don’t worry about them in the wild because we have them right here in captivity.”
How do you think we can offer the most protection to animals?
I believe we should change our relationship to other animals by challenging the status of animals as merely property. I would like to see animals being accorded some level of legal personhood to offer them the greatest protection. At one point in history, human slaves were generally considered to be property and not persons. There was political pressure and a number of signature events that abolished slavery and ended the notion that some humans could be treated as property. This change was effected through legislation and its enforcement over a lengthy period of time but now there are global mandates and conventions against human slavery.
What is one of the most controversial issues that students will explore in your course?
The fact is that there is no scientific evidence that makes human animals qualitatively superior to non-human animals.
Aren’t we different from other animals?
Yes, but we’re not better than other animals. When you know who you are and you have the evidence for continuity and connectivity, then that impacts how we relate to other animals. The relationship between humans and non-humans has to be re-oriented. Somehow we got off track and we convinced ourselves that we were superior to all animals.
It seems that students in your class will be encouraged to challenge their perception of themselves? What can students expect to experience in the Evolution course?
I want students to have a good working knowledge of the mechanisms of evolution. This is not a religion course.This is a science course. I want you to be knowledgeable about the science. Creationism and Evolutionism are not two equally viable options. I also want students to critically think about these issues and to realize that there is no bright line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. People will be challenged to see themselves in a different light. When I have taught this topic in the past, students have said, “I have never come across these concepts before.” They may have moments of being uncomfortable but they will also have transformative moments as well.
What does a humane world look like to you?
We would be part of nature instead of separate from it. People would accept that they’re animals and would leave the other animals alone. If we can get to the point where we see other animals as deserving of our respect our behavior will change. We’ll be living in the world as very smart technological great apes who understand that we cannot survive for long outside of nature. Hopefully someday we will rejoin nature.