When Elephants Weep, The Emotional Life of Animals, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan MacCarthy. New York, NY; Delacorte Press, 1995. 236 pages, notes and index. Hardcover. $23.95.


The theme of this book is simple. As ordinary people, that is, as people not practicing "science," most of us understand that animals, at least some animals, have feelings and emotions. But, "By dint of rigorous training and great efforts of the mind, most modern scientists -- especially those who study the behavior of animals -- have succeeded in becoming almost blind to these matters." This theme is set out in the first paragraph of the book's prologue, and repeated, again and again, through all the ensuing chapters. Anecdote after anecdote is told, usually with great story-telling expertise (there are some exceptions) to drive home that statement over and over. Whether it be true or not is outside my area of expertise; what I can observe is that if the basic arguments had been made twice, once at the beginning and once at the end, the book might have been perhaps only 1/2 its length!


In one sense, the book is a naive plea for "credulity." But to ignore it on this account, or because it is  frustratingly repetitive, is to miss its value, a value this reviewer finds to be two-fold. One value lies in the appreciation the reader may gain of the complexity of the animal kingdom, one which is only partially in evidence to those who have house pets, and which may be quite opaque to those others (such as this reviewer, until last year) who have never had any animal inside the house more complex than a goldfish. The second value lies in the examination of the (purported) statements of certain biologists/philosophers, and asking oneself if they might constitute, in the words of George Orwell, "nonsense so bad only an intellectual could believe it!" THE SELFISH GENE comes in for such criticism, particularly where the author, Richard Dawkins, insists that "altruism -- something that has no place in nature..." and pictures animals as "robot survival machines."


Emotions come in many kinds, fear, hope, friendship, love, grief, joy, anger, compassion, shame, appreciation of beauty, and others; all these are discussed as the book progresses. Frequent references are made to a little-known work by Charles Darwin titled "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," although most of the references are to much more current works. The issue of anthropomorphism, "a form of scientific blasphemy," is met head on, and compared with the equally grievous sin of anthrocentrism.


In the prologue, Masson and MacCarthy pose the question this way: "...how can anyone know that an animal feels nothing if the question has never been investigated? To conclude without study that it has no feelings or cannot feel is to proceed on a prejudice, an unscientific bias, in the name of science...comparative psychology...discusses observable behavior and physical states of animals...but shies away from the mental states that are inextricably involved in that behavior."


Again, "...the causal explanations center on theories of 'ultimate causation,' -- the animal pairs because this increases reproductive success -- as distinguished from 'proximate causation,' -- the animal pairs because it has fallen in love." The authors point out that this policy of ignoring animal feelings and emotions makes it easier to support animal experimentation, particularly experimentation involving pain, loneliness and mental anguish. Such an argument is not their main thrust, though they do conclude the book with such discussions.


I must confess that I find the idea of two animals "falling in love" a little hard to swallow. Yet, in my own case, I know what "falling in love" means, first as an adolescent, then as a man in my mid-20s, in marriage, then as a first-time father, now as one of a "settled pair" with the offspring out on their own. One word – to cover a wide range of emotions and feelings. Not being a sophist, it is simple to extend that concept to human friends, to say, for instance, that "Doug and Jean are in love." It would sound ridiculous, of course, for me to say "Doug and Jean behave as a tight bonded pair." Yet this appears to be the only descriptive way some scientists (the book argues) will allow people to describe swans mated for life, female elephants nurturing their young, and the like.


Love, of course, is not the only emotion discussed, nor even the most controversial. Dolphins inventing games, a bear enjoying a sunset, an elephant who keeps a pet mouse, sadness, shame, compassion and most all the other feelings we know to be part of our own (human) life, and by extension, grant that other (humans) also experience them, are all shown to logically be part of at least some of the animal kingdom as well. Pet owners, speaking as "real people," usually say "It's obvious." Scientists, speaking as such, declare "It's an enormous claim." This book attempts to bridge the gap between these two groups. To the extent it raises the issue, it is successful. To the extent it tries to solve that issue, it is not. Too much reliance on anecdotes; too little science of measurement. But then, isn't that where most new ideas begin?  "What is anecdotal?" the authors ask. "It's a careful description of an unusual event." The discovery of penicillin was so initiated!


The book suffers greatly from one curious omission. Although there are well over 200 footnotes, these are nowhere noted in the text! A bibliography of about 200 citations is offered, alphabetical by author name, with no indication of which the authors thought to be important vs. secondary.


With all its failings, however, this book is highly recommended, for it does three things well.


1. It educates one about the complexity of

animal behavior,


2. It raises an important issue concerning the

fuzzy boundaries between anthropomorphism and anthrocentrism, and,


3. most importantly, it is fun to read! Kudos to the authors.


Reviewed by John W. Burgeson





Volume 48, Number 2, June 1996. Page 132.


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