Animal Winterlectures

The Institute for Animals in Philosophy and Science is organizing the Animal Winterlectures this winter. In these lectures dr. Esteban Rivas will again speak about recent developments in science and philosophy with regard to animals. The subjects of the lectures belong to his specialized knowledge, so these lectures are a good way to get acquainted with dr. Rivas. At the same time, he also hope to get to meet all kinds of enthusiastic people at these lectures, who are interested in broadening their knowledge about the behaviour of animals. The Animal Winterlectures will be held in the main building (Hoofdgebouw) of the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam. So if you’re thinking this Winter: I want some warmth and out of the winter depression, then come to one of these lectures on Saturday afternoon!

Though this announcement is in English, the four lectures will be held in the Dutch language.

Saturday 2 February: Recent research on the intelligence of dogs.

In the past 18 years a lot of new research has been done on the intelligence or cognition of dogs. At the universities of Leipzig and Budapest and all over the world many new studies are taking place that study what dogs can understand of the social and physical world around them. In this lecture I will present the results of these new studies. Subjects that will be presented, among others, are: What do dogs understand of what humans can see, hear and know? How do dogs solve problems and do they learn by social observation? What do dogs comprehend of human communicative signals, such as pointing and gaze direction? What are the results of language research with dogs, can they understand human words? With regard to their physical intelligence, what do dogs understand of their physical environment, like for example gravity? Do they understand that objects keep existing (object permanence) and how do dogs behave in exciting studies such as the magic cup? This lecture will be a shortened version of the extensive lecture day on the intelligence of dogs that I will be giving in the province of Drenthe on January 27.

Saturday 16 February: Valentine’s lecture: Affection across the species barrier.

The relationship between humans and dogs is a good example of the deep bond that can exist between members of two different animal species. Let alone the multitude of other animals, such as cats, horses and rodents with which humans can build op a good bond. Besides this, there also exist many intriguing cases of affection and special friendships between two different nonhuman animals. Nonhuman great apes can be thrilled by cats and dogs, an elephant and a sheep in a sanctuary who are inseparable and there is a pitbull dog who protects chicks and relates to them lovingly. Even between natural enemies a bond can sometimes exist. An example is a lioness who treated a young antelope as if he were her own child. The remarkable aspect of these relationships is that to feel affection for someone it doesn’t seem to matter to what species you belong. A lesson in love we could all use as an example. The cases of interspecific affection often involve animals in human captivity, such as zoos and sanctuaries, or when humans have animals of various species inside their homes. But also in the wild we sometimes see fascinating examples of affection between different species, like in the play between chimpanzees and baboons. In my lecture I will discuss the possible causes for the existence of these affections and friendships. Are the animals still young and do they maybe see another animal as a substitute parent? What is the neurochemistry of affection (brain opioids and hormones like oxytocin) and does that exist in nonhuman animals as well? Does empathy, the ability to take the perspective of another, also play a role?

Saturday  23 February: Consciousness and emotions in animals. In this lecture I will address the question whether other animals have the ability to experience things like pain and pleasure. Are animals robots without subjective experiences or do animals experience sensations and other things in a phenomenally conscious way? The French philosopher René Descartes claimed that nonhuman animals could not be conscious. Behaviorism in psychology also led to a taboo on the subject of consciousness in general. Even today there are still scholars who do not ascribe consciousness to animals, often based on the absence of ‘higher’ cognitive abilities and language (Bermond, Carruthers). In contrast are positions that argue for the presence of consciousness in animals by argueing from analogy, using systematic analyses of the nervous systems and behaviours of animals. I will present the work of Jaak Panksepp on affective neuroscience, which shows that at least all mammals, and birds too, share a number of brain centers for the same emotional systems. I will also discuss the various emotions of animals. Which particular emotions do they have? Pleasure, pain, jealousy, guilt, gratitude? Which animals seem to mourn deceased conspecifics? And what similarities exist between humans and other animals with regard to altered states of consciousness, such as dreaming and being under the influence of drugs?

Saturday 2 March: Language in animals and its moral relevance.

In this lecture I will give a review of the results of all language studies with nonhuman animals, which already take place for more than a century now. I will present the spoken language experiments with great apes, the sign language studies with great apes (including my own research), the projects in which bonobos and chimpanzees communicate with lexigrams (arbritrary symbols), the studies with dolphins and sealions on their understanding of commands given by human gestures, the work with the grey parrot Alex and his ability to speak human words and to use these to describe objects and finally the recent language research with dogs: border collie dogs who can understand hundreds of human words for objects and the Brazilian dog Sofia who uses lexigrams to indicate what she wants. Subsequently, I will tackle the question whether the capacity for language is of relevance to our ethics toward nonhuman animals. The theories of the philosophers R.G. Frey and Peter Carruthers about language and ethics will be discussed, as well as the way in which the Great Ape Project has used the results of language research with great apes in its moral argumentation. I will argue that the presence or absence of language and other cognitive abilities should not have moral consequences and by a discussion of Gary Francione’s work I will show that the capacity for sentience or (phenomenal) consciousness is a sufficient condition for moral equality among animals.

For whom? The Animal Winterlectures are organized for anyone who is interested in animals and would like to know more about recent developments in scientific research about language, intelligence, and emotions in animals, and in animal ethics. A special education is not required. The lectures will have room for questions and discussion, and will be enlivened by lots of pictures and short films. As was mentioned above, the lectures will be given in the Dutch language, but a passive knowledge of English is convenient, given that some of the films that I will show are not subtitled.

Time: Each lecture lasts 3 hours, starting at 12.30 and ending at 15.30 hours. This includes a short coffee and tea break.

Location: The lectures are held in the main building (Hoofdgebouw) of the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) at the De Boelelaan 1105 in Amsterdam. This location can be reached well by both public transport or car.

Price: Each individual lecture costs 25 euro. The four lectures together cost 90 euro (so a discount of 10 euro). Admission to the lectures is only given when payment has been received in advance.

Registration: You can register for the lectures by sending an email to In your message, specify which lectures you would like to attend.

I hope to see you this Winter in Amsterdam!


One thought on “Animal Winterlectures

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