Templeton pays $1 million for an unanswerable question: do keas feel joy?

July 1, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Keas, Nestor notabilis, are the world’s only alpine parrots, found in New Zealand. What is it like to be a kea?

When Tom Nagel wrote his famous article about what it is like to be a bat, he concluded that although bats may have consciousness, the content of that consciousness is inaccessible to us. He’s pretty much right about that, though, as I note below, perhaps some subjective sensations can be sussed out in nonhuman animals. But it would be hard, and probably impossible.

But the way to do this is not the way that the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) and the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) are doing. They’ve just spent a million dollars on grants to see if animals feel joy. The description of the project is below at stuff.co.nz (click on screenshot).

This is one of those wonky Templeton projects where the organization throws a pot of money at a bizarre issue, one unlikely to have any useful results. I’ll leave it to you to guess whether the results will be anything more than “keas like to do X and don’t like to do Y.”

But I digress. Here’s the project:

Two New Zealand professors have joined a team of international researchers to try to answer one burning question – can animals, like humans, feel emotion?

Experts from Scotland, the United States and New Zealand, including University of Canterbury (UC) associate professor Ximena Nelson and the University of Auckland’s Dr Alex Taylor, are taking part in the joyful by nature research project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

The Scottish and American researchers would focus on dolphins and apes, while Nelson and Taylor would focus on New Zealand’s native kea, the world’s only alpine parrot and a species well-known for their unique social attributes.

Experts believe the study could have significant implications for animal welfare and ethics.

. . . . The John Templeton foundation has provided $1 million funding for the research which has been given a three-year term, with an option for a two-year extension.)

(This is a bit confusing, because it seems that two branches of the Templeton Empire are funding the same work.)

First of all, even if we could figure out if keas (or other species) felt “joy” in the same sense we do, would that really have “significant implications for animal welfare and ethics”? I don’t see how. What’s more important is whether they suffer and feel pain, prefer some conditions more than others, and whether we have the right to make animals suffer and die to improve our own well being. Whether they have emotions similar to those of humans is an anthropomorphic and misguided way to formulate an ethical policy.

But, more important is the presently unanswerable question of “do animals like keas experience joy”? Here are the data the article adduces to suggest it:

Many New Zealanders were familiar with kea as cheeky and destructive, but few would realise how remarkably intelligent they were, Nelson said.

“Their cognitive ability is similar or better than many primate species, or humans up to the age of 4,” Nelson said.

Cognitive ability, can, of course, be measured in various ways, and is much easier to assess than emotions. And it could be relevant to animal welfare and ethics. But that’s not what Templeton is funding (my emphasis below).

There were a number of factors into kea behaviour that suggested they feel emotion or joy, Nelson said.

Their babies are raised by adults in crèches, they play and roll around like children, kick stones and dance about and are naturally social creatures, she said.

“They get excited – [their warble] is like laughter.”

Animals develop play behaviour between one another for many reasons. An example of this is young cats or kittens, who play fight to hone their predatory skills. The reason why kea play is unclear.

. . .The lack of any obvious predator allowed kea “spare time” to do whatever they liked, which may have initiated their play behaviours, Nelson said.

Kea also appear to be affected by the seasons, just as humans are and responded in the same way and played in the snow and sun but hid from the rain, she said.

And there you have it: there is an alternative explanation to “play behavior” enacted because it’s fun. It’s enacted because it helps hone skills useful later in life. And, in fact, most ethologists think that play behavior is practice for adult skills (not just predatory ones; my ducks zoom and flap to practice flight motions). It could also be fun, but that would not be its raison d’être. (However, fun or joy could be the proximate stimulus that prompts the animals to begin doing adaptive behaviors.) But in the end the question remains: How do we know whether keas can experience joy?

We can’t, not in any way these researchers could find out. The only way I see to begin addressing this question is to do extensive brain analysis in humans and keas, finding out what areas of the brain (better yet, which neurons are activated) when a human feels joy and when a kea “plays.” If there are consistent neuronal patterns and brain areas associated with joy in humans, and those same areas light up when keas are playing, we might begin to wonder if keas feel something akin to joy.

But we don’t even know the brain patterns of joy in humans, and comparative studies of brain function between humans and birds is fraught with problems.  Further, keas are heavily endangered, and looking at their neurons and brains is out of the question.

I thought of one jocular way: teach the keas to speak English and then ask them if they feel joy. You can already figure out the problems with that, though this kind of self-report is how I know that other humans feel joy.

No, at present the question of whether keas (or any other creature, really) can feel joy like we do is unanswerable, and may be forever unanswerable. Templeton has wasted a million bucks, as they do so often, on a dumb project that can’t even address the questions of animal welfare it asks.

Keas, of course, will be protected whether or not they feel joy. We refrain from bashing them on the head not because we know they feel joy, but because they’re amazing animals and are endangered. And if by some miracle we find out they can feel joy, well, that’s not useful for questions of animal welfare: we’d need to look at chickens and ducks and other fowl that we kill or cage.

Templeton, this looks like another million bucks down the drain.

Here’s a kea, photographed by me in New Zealand two years ago:

h/t: Gordon

62 thoughts on “Templeton pays $1 million for an unanswerable question: do keas feel joy?

  1. Seems to me that they could at least spend the money on a more important question. Like:

    Why does the porridge bird lay his egg in the air?

    1. Hey, why not ask Trump “why does the porridge bird lay his egg in the air?” and maybe the animatronic president will just shut down?

      My answer: because it’s a wind egg (also known as a cock egg – the porridge bird is male. Also known as a fart egg, also apropos).

  2. I posed these important questions to the crow who has taken up residence in the gazebo attached to my house. He is very personable, and his name is Stanley Crowalski. When I asked him if he felt emotions, he replied that he was feeling a bit down this morning, but he would feel real joy if the Templeton Foundation were to award a grant of a million seeds, berries, and worms directly to him.

      1. Despite his name, Stanley Crowalski would have to compete with the very Stella-like scream of the amazing and amazingly crazy, big mouth Budgett’s frog – featured in HIli Dialog I think yesterday

  3. I can sure think of a lot of animal charities that would do a lot of good with this money. What a waste.

  4. When dealing with the percetpual inner world of animals more than a century ago, Von Uexküll allready warned us that the subjective reality of other animals is not accesible to us.

  5. This actually raises some interesting questions, like one I’ve often wondered about — what about the kea’s distant ancestors, the dinosaurs? What kind of emotional life did they experience? And given time, would any dinosaur species have developed big brains, language, culture, technology?

    Another question this study brings to mind is, why do humans feel joy? What is joy, anyway, and what is play? Sure, kittens’ “play” is related to their future survival needs as predators — so is human play really any different? Surely kittens play because there is some kind of “reward” sensation — we can look at it as a purely deterministic phenomenon. But that’s what humans are doing too, right?

    We are often cautioned not to anthropomorphize non-human animal behaviors — but as long as we can watch cows enjoying playing with balls, I begin to wonder if the concept is backwards — our emotions may not be unique to us, and animals with emotions may go back a long way.

    I don’t know why Templeton is interested in this topic, but if it turns out that human-type emotions are common in the animal kingdom, not a special gift of Gawd, it may turn out to be a bit of an own goal.

    1. I do think that caution not to anthropomorphize is warranted, but I also think that given evolution as we understand it the most surprising state of affairs would be to find that our emotions are unique among animals. It doesn’t seem plausible. There is almost nothing, perhaps nothing at all, about us that is unique among animals. Most of the characteristics that set us apart from other animals, perhaps all, are merely matters of degree rather than kind.

      It seems very likely to me that most, perhaps all, of the emotions we experience are the result of evolved systems that are very likely considerably older than the human species. This is what we see in all kinds of traits, complexes of genes that have been kicking around for millions to tens of millions of years and more shared by large groups of species. Homeobox genes are an extreme example.

      Where humans no doubt differ is that our degree of intelligence allows us to reflect on the emotions we are experiencing. But I’d bet that the emotions we do experience are also experienced by lots of other animals, right down to the same neurotransmitters.

  6. Unanswerable, but an interesting question. Many years ago I spent some time flying sailplanes, a very enjoyable experience. Today I live in the hills overlooking a valley and watch vultures and ravens soaring on the updrafts. I have often wondered if they experience a sense of joy, or they’re just going about the daily chore of looking for food.

    1. Crows and ravens do barrel rolls; looks to me like it’s a heck of a lot of fun (if not joy) for the crows. What practical reason could there be for this?

      And what about the smiling, laughing foxes in Hili Dialog this morning? Is it simply anthropomorphic to say it’s pretty obvious that they’re having loads of fun?

  7. One good thing- maybe Templeton will bankrupt itself pursuing silly things like this? Let’s encourage them! Then again, they have loads of dosh while doing stupid things anyway, that’s their raisin d’etre. Still, maybe if they’re encouraged to redirect their stupidity in even more bizarre ways, the funds will dry up? Just a thought…

  8. “Whether they have emotions similar to those of humans is an anthropomorphic and misguided way to formulate an ethical policy.”

    IMHO, that’s a bit too strong. Our emotions and those of our fellow humans definitely inform our ethics, much as we would like to determine them objectively. Isn’t this work with animals just an attempt to extend the scope of what we care about when formulating our ethics?

    The whole question of whether animals experience joy is a difficult one. Even if we understood human joy at the neurological level, would that be helpful in understanding a species whose brain architecture differs so much from ours? Any conclusions will be based somewhat on structural analogy at best.

    Most people see the behavior of other animals and identify it as joy. If it looks like joy, smells like joy, it’s probably joy. While some scientists might dismiss it as anthropomorphism, identifying emotions by behavioral observation seems like as valid a way to do it as any other since our brains differ so much from most other animals. Anthropomorphism is a good warning label but it doesn’t make conclusions wrong automatically.

    I’m not commenting on this Templeton project directly but considering the issue generally.

    1. Yes. I can imagine that neuroscience may someday be able to measure a brain state in humans who are reporting the experience of joy. They could then provide non-human animals with stimuli we might expect would give the them joy, like food and sex. If they observe the same brain states in the non-human animal, it would not be a stretch to say that it is “reporting” something akin to human joy. This research strategy would work best with animals more closely related to humans, such as non-human primates. The avian brain is sufficiently different from the mammalian brain that I doubt this approach would work with keas.

  9. I agree that humans will probably never be able to suss out what another animal is feeling/experiencing. I’d like to think we can anthropomorphize to some extent without being completely wrong.

    Yet on this morning’s Hili Dialogue, those foxes sure looked and sounded like they were experiencing joy. There was also the smiling golden retriever upon being scratched on the head a few days back.

    That being said, spending $1 million on this Kea study pretty much exemplifies the uselessness of Templeton and their “studies”.

    1. I don’t see how this situation is really much different from the fact that a human will never be able to suss out what another human is experiencing. The only difference is the assumption that humans all feel/experience the same thing more-or-less. We can tell each other that it is the same, but how can you actually know?

      1. I think it’s more parsimonious to assume that when a fellow human, whose genes are nearly identical to ours, tells us she feels joy, she’s more likely to feel joy than, say, a laughing fox or a kea. This is based on biological similarity and self report, neither of which other animals have in nearly the same degree.

        1. But it is all just a range of uncertainty. We’re almost identical chimps, can we not assume “joy” (and grief, etc) for them, too? Isn’t the line impossible to draw? (I think it is.)

        2. Emotions are pretty basic features of brains. Primal feelings would, IMO, be very early to appear in the evolution of brains since they are motivations for behavior that increases survival and reproduction. From a purely probabilistic point of view it would seem extremely unlikely that animals with complex nervous systems wouldn’t feel happiness/joy/contentment/whatEverYouWantToCallIt. Why would a fox or kea be exempt from this sort of neural response?

      2. Living with three cats, it is really difficult for me to imagine that cats don’t have feelings and states of mind. Do you think a cat purring in your lap does not feel contentment? To me it is obvious they do.

        What is interesting to me is that the default seems to be that animals don’t have feelings, and that researchers are going to see if they can prove they do. To me it would make more sense to assume animals do have feelings, and try to prove that they don’t.

        1. Whenever I hear someone say that animals don’t have feelings, I ask them how much time they’ve spent around animals. Usually the answer is “not much”, or sometimes, “none”.

          I think we can get so bogged down in trying too hard to avoid confirmation bias that we fail to give our (in my case, extensive) observations any credibility.

          A few years back, I had a feral cat coming to my outdoor feeders, that started out almost starving. In fact, it was this particular cat that motivated me to start putting out food for the ferals, when he tried, several times, to get into our house to eat. After a few months of having food available, he was sleek and healthy. One day I noticed him, after he’d eaten and drunk and groomed himself, literally dancing in the grass.

          He was an adult cat, so you couldn’t say that he was playing in practice for adulthood. He was just obviously happy. I’m sure that he eventually got taken by a predator, but he was around for almost three years, and I know we gave him a better life than the one he’d had before we started feeding him.


      3. I think the main reason humans can experience one another’s reality a lot better than other animals is language. Language is specific and words connote and denote specific emotions. Because of language and a universal acceptance of what happy/sad/angry means, I think we have a pretty good idea of what our fellow humans are feeling.

        1. But the question is not one of relative appreciation, it is whether the emotions exist. I don’t think there is any doubt that two people speaking mutually incompressible languages would grant that the other person has feelings. And we would not deny the existence of “joy” to people with language impairment.

          1. Fair points.
            Not really germane, but all this language talk reminded me of one of George Bernard Shaw’s quotes that has always intrigued me.

            The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

        2. And, if a baby cries, or coos, or miles, or laughs, or focuses intently on something, I’ll bet you can fairly accurately interpret the meanings anyway, even though the baby is pre-verbal.


  10. Never mind all this ‘joy’ stuff. Do keas feel ‘spiritual’ and how should we help fulfil their needs?


    1. Maybe you’re not being sarcastic! I can well imagine some of the loons at Templeton thinking (wrong word but you know what I mean) that if animals can be shown to have human-type emotions, this would tie the whole of life together and demonstrate that we are all god’s creatures.

      But I suspect Peter N above is nearer the mark. This could well rebound on Templeton in ways they are not expecting.

  11. One possible interesting research project would be to try to discover whether those responsible for Templeton’s disbursements and awards actually think like humans do or follow some other paradigm.

  12. If extracting the sunlight from cucumbers had a religious interpretation, we know who would be funding the research.

  13. I’m of the tentative, provisional opinion of “yes, they do.” Then again, I’m of the opinion that what we call ’emotions’ in humans are similar if not identical to what we call (some) ‘instincts’ in animals, so it’s from that premise that I accept the notion that Keas feel emotions such as joy.

    In any event, while Nagel definitely contributed some thought provoking notions, “never say never” applies here; my optimistic side says there is likely some good science that can be done under the research question of whether birds can feel emotions such as joy. Of course, my pessimistic side says not to expect that good science to come out of a Templeton grant.

    1. You could write and ask for a cheque/check – who knows, they clearly have more money than sense so they might send you a million or two?

  14. The Templeton folks might have been well advised to consult with the sorts of people who spend their time with animals of various species.
    My confidence that my puppy feels joy is at least as strong as my confidence that other people experience it as I do.

  15. I can already answer the query as to whether kea or other animals feel joy. Now, if Templeton will just give me $1 million, I’ll happily divulge the answer.

  16. While I have no idea if kea feel ‘joy’ or if we can even define joy. They do seem to have fun, though. I recall sitting on the ground near the top of Routeburn Falls, and being approached by a kea who proceeded to try to loosen my boot laces, and certainly appeared to be having fun!

  17. While I have no idea if kea feel ‘joy’ or if we can even define joy. They do seem to have fun, though. I recall sitting on the ground near the top of Routeburn Falls, and being approached by a kea who proceeded to try to loosen my boot laces, and certainly appeared to be having fun! But joy? Who knows and does it matter?

  18. I can’t tell whether my cat feels emotions or anything at all. But he does really good imitations of:

    feed me
    brush me
    leave me alone

      1. Isn’t desire/wanting (for food or whatever) an emotion? Aren’t these actions just the physical expressions of internal emotional states? We would say so for human toddlers, so why not cats?

    1. Yes, I believe Occam’s Razor applies here. While we can’t always be absolutely sure of a cat’s moods and motivations, we can build an overall model that seems very consistent with interpreting their behavior to be somewhat analogous to our own after making adjustments for their size. While I don’t share their need to run after small animals, if I substitute “pizza” for “bird” I find I can relate.

  19. Heck, basic bodily functions, such as a satisfying crap, are betimes apt to fill me with joy, and elicit hallelujahs. There is evidence for God’s glory right there in each smear on the toilet paper.

    Maybe the most joy a kea feels is in the cloaca department.

  20. (However, fun or joy could be the proximate stimulus that prompts the animals to begin doing adaptive behaviors.)

    For birds and mammals, that would be the leading hypothesis for a mile, I’d say. And your comments about a neuropsychological approach are the obvious path forward.

    Given all the science-hindering projects that Templeton funds, this one is positively wonderful by comparison. At worst it produces nothing, at best it promotes neuropsychology and animal psychology.

  21. I wonder how they plan on distinguishing a concept like ‘joy’ from a concept like ‘pleasure’. It seems to me that these refer to different phenomenon, although it’s possible they are using them simultaneously here. I think making a case that animals feel pleasure and pain is much simpler than proving they feel something more abstract, such as ‘joy’. Pleasure and pain generally seem to break down to approach / avoidance behaviors related to the immediate regulation of homeostasis, while ‘joy’ is a bit harder to define in empirical terms.

  22. Maybe use grey parrots instaed of keas? The brightest grey parrots seem to be able to learn simple English.

    The problem would be, how do you teach a parrot the meaning of joy if it can’t feel joy? Even if it says it feels joy, how can you be sure it means the same thing you mean?

    Of course, you have the similar problem with humans — how can you be absolutely sure that all the other people aren’t robots, programmed to pretend to feel joy and sadness and every other emotion in the rainbow, even though they don’t?

  23. After seeing cows being let out after spending months in their barn over winter (IIRC in Switzerland) jumping for joy and kicking out like children. I can’t help but wonder that some sort of euphoria is going on.
    It could be pent up energy being released, the smell of mountain air, who knows, but they feel the need to do it.

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