Monday, February 3, 2014

When Elephants Weep

When Elephants Weep: the Emotional Lives of Animals
© 1995 Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy
291 pages

Humans pride themselves on not being  animals,  going so far as to describe any behavior we’re shamed of as ‘animal’.  Beasts have rude instincts; we have exalted Emotions,  gifts of the gods.  We may begrudgingly grant animals fear, or perhaps even affection – but love? Joy? Aesthetic reverence?   In When Elephants Weep, authors Masson and McCarthy explores the spectrum of animal emotions, from recording the patently obvious to flirting with anthropomorphism.  In their view, animals across the kingdom  can share the same basis emotions, and offered as evidence are hundreds of anecdotal claims of animals expressing behavior interpreted as emotional. Most of the subjects are mammals, but birds pepper the text and even insects make a stray appearance. Although anecdotes  are dismissed as evidence among purists of the scientific method,  many of the primate examples are corroborated in Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal’s work, and considering their frequency and similarity – and the fact that these two scientists made observations on different populations of chimpanzees --  many of the examples are respectable enough. The author does reach  sometimes, but the agenda here isn’t so much as to present an body of evidence convincing skeptics that  animals have emotions as it is to create room for suspecting they do; in the book's conclusion, the author argues that considering the diversity of emotions animals seem to display, we should treat them with more consideration; if they are capable of loneliness, despair, grief, and the like, perhaps keeping them in captivity or experimenting on them at length is more than problematic.  The variety of examples is commendable; there are primates, cetaceans, elephants, lions, tigers, and yes even bears.   Emotions are easier to believe among the higher mammals, and some -- anger, happiness, sadness -- more likely than more esoteric feelings, like awe at a sunset. The authors use any account that brings to mind human emotions, but

When Elephants Weep is enjoyable more as a reflection on animal behavior and than a sterling scientific enterprise, but enjoyable all the same. 

Any work by Frans de Waal or Jane Goodall
Silent Thunder: Among the Elephants

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