If Goofy Could Talk

Frank Cioffi

Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy’s book is a collection of anecdotes, arguments and exhortations which insists on the analogies between human and animal being. The rationale given for this enterprise in Masson’s Preface is implausible: it is to bridge the ‘tremendous gap between the common sense view (that “animals have such feelings as happiness, anger and fear”) and that of official science ... the feelings of animals are a topic forbidden to scientific discourse.’ But the authors offer little evidence for their dubious claims. Behavioural scientists are not often permitted to speak for themselves and when they are what they say does not support the views imputed to them. The author of the entry on animals in the Oxford Companion to the Mind, the ethologist Robert Hinde, writes that ‘chimpanzees have a conception of the self and can dissemble and deceive others,’ and that there is strong evidence that ‘dogs have pleasant and unpleasant dreams.’ Someone must have forgotten to warn Hinde that such discourse is forbidden.

Masson/McCarthy complain of the restricted vocabulary which animal psychologists employ in their accounts of animal activities: that, for example, they prefer to speak of a ‘bond’ between animals rather than of their ‘loving’ one another. If researchers avoid terms like ‘love’ this is not because they are sceptical about animal sentience. Experimental psychologists were once reluctant to speak of a rat’s ‘hunger’, but this was because agreement is more forthcoming as to how long it is since an animal was last fed than on how hungry it is. Similarly, those experimenters who used the number of faecal boluses excreted by a rat as an index of its degree of fearfulness were not denying the reality of the rat’s fear, since it was the determinants of this very fear that their investigation aimed to disentangle. A wish to render data reproducible is more likely to be at work in the discursive restrictions which Masson deplores than the self-serving ‘financial and professional’ interests which he invokes.

Though Masson is no longer a psychoanalyst he has retained the bad habit of ad libitum interpretation, and too often imputes to animals, or those who study them, whatever motives his argument demands: for example, that experimentalists hold that ‘if something does not feel pain in the way a human being feels pain, it is permissible to hurt it,’ or that they need to be told that ‘animals are not there for us to drill holes into, clamp down, dissect, pull apart.’ In remarks like these the authors evince a conception of animal experimentation reminiscent of the mad doctor who kidnaps Pluto: ‘I’m very, very eager to start my cutting up / and graft a chicken’s gizzard to the wishbone of a pup.’

Masson/McCarthy think that the abilities and propensities which humans or Westerners, or Western scientists, or male Western scientists – the bad guys tend to get moved about in the course of the argument – deny to animals are dictated by the need to exploit them: ‘Many of the so-called differences are disguises for whatever a dominant power can impose.’ (Let me set the authors a good example of restrained and responsible hermeneutics by stating that I think it more likely that their index’s misidentification of ‘the adolescent Freud’ who, on page 156, climbs up a tree screaming, after being bitten by a sow, as ‘Freud, Sigmund’ rather than as ‘Freud, chimp’, is an innocent error rather than a Freudian one.)

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