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What's it like to be an elephant?: Seeing animals for what they are


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At Public Books, Matt Margini review a host of books in various genres—including fiction, science writing, and philosophy—that attempt to de-anthropomorphize our view of animals. As these books—including a new text by the great primatologist Frans de Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?—suggest, when it comes to intelligence, affect, and empathy, humans have historically given far too much credit to themselves and far too little to animals. Read an excerpt from Margini’s review below, or the full text here:

What if giving voice to the voiceless meant listening to them, before pretending to know what they would say? That, at least, seems to be one of the main questions in What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?, a new collection by the Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret that offers a compendium of smart animals and dense humans. She calls it an “abecedary,” and indeed it looks a lot like one: divided into 26 micro-essays, one for each letter of the alphabet, the collection mimics a genre in which many of us first encounter animals as children. Instead of “A is for Aardvark,” we get “A is for Artists,” a micro-essay about animals that paint; instead of “G is for Gnu,” we get “G for Genius,” a chapter that asks, “With whom would extraterrestrials want to negotiate”—humans or cows? The tone and the structural conceit are entertainingly irreverent. But they’re also in keeping with the book’s lesson. Despret wants us to encounter animals anew, as though for the first time, freshly shorn of the premises and assumptions that make them look duller and more mechanistic than they really are. It takes a coarse sponge to get the crud off.

“For a long time, it has been difficult for animals not to be stupid,” Despret writes—not because they are stupid, but because the history of behavioral science across the 20th century is a history of making them look stupid. In almost every chapter, she tells a story about an experimental procedure, a scientific doctrine, or a philosophical position that rigs the game in favor of human superiority. In “E for Exhibitionists,” for instance, she asks if the self-evident measure of self-consciousness should really be whether an animal can recognize itself in a mirror: shouldn’t we take into account that some animals are simply less interested in mirrors than we are?

A few themes emerge from Despret’s playful, systematic prodding. One is that intelligence—even cognition—is always a moving target. As soon as one species crosses over the “cognitive Rubicon” and into the kingdom of the human, a new mountain rises in the distance, impossible to scale. In most situations, though, the animal stays exactly where it’s told to stay in the Great Chain of Being, because the experiment is designed to keep it there.

Image: Western lowland gorilla. Via Public Books.