I am moved by this simple line drawing. Although hard to see, it is a map locating some organisms on this planet, calling attention to the fact that we are all close relatives on earth, emerging from a common origin. We are connected in what many call the circle of life, an image that appeals to me, showing continuity, with no living organism on top. Viewing life in this way clarifies our relationship with and responsibility for other species.
The circle is large and interconnected as the Hillis Plot image demonstrates. Even though the diagram only represents a small portion of life on the planet, about 3,000 organisms, the circle shows how insignificant we are in the midst of so many other species on earth. All of the tiny lines on the periphery of the circle are the names of species, including humans (“You are here”).
It's important to envision earth as one whole, as with the Hillis Plot, including all life on the planet, without reducing or minimizing any individual—human or nonhuman. We are outnumbered, and many species possess traits in common with us.
For example, one of our highest capacities, empathy, has been traced backward, or reverse engineered, through evolutionary lines to other species. If we can see that evolution is a continuum with related organisms, we can see that human beings, while unique, are not elite, but just another slot on the Hillis Plot.
The Hillis Plot elevates all life on the planet by making species equal. Biologist Marc Bekoff, currently emeritus professor at the University of Colorado—Boulder and prolific author, recognizes the value of all species, and calls for everyone to participate in "figuring out how common sense and ‘science sense’ are reconciled, and, most important, asking what the roles are of compassion, kindness, generosity, respect, grace, humility, and love in what we call science” ("Minding" 912). He suggests that these higher aspects of our nature should protect all species, and that we should be concerned for others.
Rather than isolating himself within biology, Bekoff reaches out to other fields to share knowledge. By linking animal studies with literature, biology, evolutionary studies, and psychology, we might move closer to a vision which incorporates all species on earth, into our past, present, and future—(re)conceiving a society of diverse species sharing the same home and deserving the same pity ("Minding" 143-144).
Cognitive ethology is the specific discipline of Bekoff, and he is one of the foremost scholars in the field. Cognitive refers to the mind, and ethology shares the same root as the word ethics:ethos. So, he studies our ethical and mental relationships with animals. Darwin was perhaps the first ethologist which means that he attempted to understand the inner lives of animals, in their natural habitat (Bekoff, Wild 25). Cognitive ethology is an interdisciplinary study of the minds and emotions of animals.
Scholars from disciplines as diverse as biology, evolutionary psychology, and neuropsychology collectively explore “how animals think and what they feel, and this includes their emotions, beliefs, reasoning, information processing, consciousness, and self-awareness” (Emotional 30).
Bekoff outlines a variety of interests that fall within the purview of cognitive ethologists: “they hope to trace mental continuity among different species; they want to discover how and why intellectual skills and emotions evolve; and they want to unlock the worlds of the animals themselves” (Emotional 30). Cognitive ethology moves toward understanding and empathizing with animals.
Expanding our vision of life through scholars like Bekoff enlightens and betters humanity. By concerning ourselves with our relatives, we protect our common existence on earth.
Bekoff, Marc. The Emotional Lives of Animals : A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—And Why they Matter. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007. Print.
---. "Minding Animals, Minding Earth: Old Brains, New Bottlenecks." Zygon 38.4 (2003): 911-41. Print.
Bekoff, Marc, and Jessica Pierce . Wild Justice : The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.