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Professor Stephen Newmyer’s Lecture

On Tuesday, October 26, 2010, Dr. Stephen Newmyer, Classics professor at Duquesne University, came to Hampden-Sydney College to give a lecture entitled “Mourning Doves and Crocodile Tears: Ancients and Moderns on Grief in Animals.” The lecture, an attempt to rationalize seemingly emotional behavior in animals, noted the origin of such questions in ancient Greece, and addressed the issue of feelings versus emotions; that is to say, for over 2,000 years, humans have been trying to translate animal behavior and response to stimuli into emotional descriptions with which we are familiar and to which we can easily relate. Dr. Newmyer suggested that once we can identify with more certainty the responses of animals to particular situations, we may then more readily place ourselves among the animals and make more connections between ourselves and nature, connections which have fallen by the wayside as we become more aware of our ‘humanity’. Dr. Newmyer also made mention of the Stoic philosophy regarding the animal emotion issue, which states that the ability to reason is required before one can experience emotion; in other words, self-reflection and the identification of consequences of actions in one’s own life are each necessary to experience emotion because otherwise response is only elicited through the stimulation of the senses, not through reason.

Dr. Newmyer uses an example given by the ancient Roman thinker Pliny the Elder, which notes the strange behavior of elephants under unfavorable circumstances. Pliny notes that a particular group of elephants, after witnessing the deaths of a few of their own inside the Colosseum, began to wail in unison, apparently mourning the deaths and recognizing that they (the mourners) could be next to die.

Though Dr. Newmyer conceded that neither side has sufficient evidence to prove with certainty that animals do indeed feel emotions akin to those experienced by humans, he notes that even in the modern day, it is a subject of much dispute. Furthermore, despite all the research and the age of the subject itself, we are no closer to determining the true nature of animal emotions.

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