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.)

The reluctance of researchers to employ the vocabulary that Masson and McCarthy would force on them cannot be dismissed as a way of rationalising the mistreatment of animals, since this same austerity is characteristic of the investigation of much human behaviour. The authors have confounded a methodological precept with an ontological thesis – and when an anti-mentalistic thesis is advanced, as by some philosophers and AI enthusiasts, it generally encompasses both humans and animals. When Galton decided to use the number of fidgets a person indulged in during a given period as a criterion of how bored they were, he was not denying the subjective reality of ennui.

If there are people who do not believe that animals feel pain or fear, then The Elephant’s Tears will acquaint them with the data and arguments with which they will have to contend; for the rest of us much of the book is open to the objection that it tells us too much about animals’ feelings that we already believe. However, the authors do intermittently advance the more instructive, though disputable, thesis that animals are not only capable of feeling, but that their feelings are comparable in complexity to human ones. They are even tasteless enough to compare the feelings of animals being slaughtered to those of the victims of the Holocaust, and of a steer being spared to Anne Frank being spared. They also suggest that there might be an equivalent of Yad Va Shem’s Avenue of Righteousness among the whales: ‘Perhaps whales sing sagas of great acts of sacrifice by whale cows of days gone by.’

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who is a splendid storyteller and has some splendid stories to tell, also wishes to persuade us that we have underestimated the analogies between humans and animals and, because her accounts are so circumstantial, she often succeeds. The most surprising revelation of The Hidden Life of Dogs is the extent of their social organisation. Though many of us have kept dogs we have not had much opportunity, as Thomas has, to observe a group of them over a long period. A comparable degree of complexity emerges in her account of feline life in The Tribe of Tiger. She asks, for example, what happens to female cats when a new male attempts a takeover? ‘How do they feel about the challenges to their resident husbands?’ Her answer to this involves imputing a considerable degree of foresight to the cats involved. She thinks the female may cultivate the challenger just in case his challenge is successful, so that he may spare her kittens on the assumption that they might be his. But can we comfortably impute this inference to a cat?

The thing that does most to inhibit our assimilation of humans to animals is the human possession of language – ‘our glorious uniqueness’ as Masson/McCarthy derisively put it. (Hugh Kingsmill found the linguistic criterion insufficiently stringent and suggested that had the lyrics of the ‘Eton Boating Song’ been composed by one of the higher apes it would have been hailed by creationists as proof of an impassable gulf between men and primates.)

The extent of the analogy between animal being and our own isn’t resolved by pointing out how often and spontaneously we describe animal activities in a language normally applied to humans. The crucial and unanswered question is how much of the original force of these descriptions is left when we do so. Though Thomas recounts several Irving Goffmanian episodes in which animals deploy presentational strategies that are also deployed by humans, we would naturally take these characterisations as figurative. Her solution to the puzzle of why her husky, Misha, on his journeys from home territory, strained awkwardly to spray his scent as high up on markers as he could, is that he wished to convey to any dogs that came to sniff it that he was much larger than he really was – a canine equivalent of wearing shoulder-pads or elevator shoes. Another example: Ms Thomas was once advised that if she encountered a lion in her path she was to display neither fear nor belligerence but to preserve the dignity of both parties by walking away from it at an oblique angle. However, when she found herself in this predicament she was too disconcerted to recall or act on the advice. Fortunately, this confrontation-evading tactic was deployed by the lion. Yet we don’t feel it appropriate to speak of the lion as following advice, or as suddenly remembering the advice it was to follow, or as congratulating itself on its presence of mind in following it or reproaching itself for failing to do so.

The problem is this: we often form representations of the subjective life of animals. What are we up to when we do so? What, for example, is the status of the internal soliloquy that Tolstoy imputes to the hound dog, Laska, in Anna Karenina? Is it more than a façon de parler? We appear to be imputing to animals mental states which, when imputed to human beings, are normally known – and perhaps only knowable – through their verbalisations. Thomas poses the general problems of reconstituting the animal Lebenswelt vividly: ‘like most people who hunger to know more about the lives of animals, I have always wished to enter into the consciousness of non-human creatures. I would like to know what the world looks like to a dog, for instance, or sounds like or smells like. I would like to visit a dog’s mind, to know what he’s thinking or feeling.’

How could we know that someone – whether another or even ourselves – had succeeded in such an enterprise? We would naturally feel that the sentiments that Saki has the cat Tobermory express could not with equal appropriateness have been imputed to a dog, nor the interior monologue Tolstoy imputes to the hound to a cat, but what can we infer from their appositeness? May we not be in the realm of ‘If Goofy could talk what would he sound like?’, where there is no question of correspondence to an external reality but only of consonance with our impressions? Saki’s description of Tobermory’s ‘velvet tread and studied unconcern’ is felicitous, but could a cat’s unconcern really be ‘studied’? How can we identify our delusive projections and distinguish them from reality? I don’t know. We would all agree that Basil Fawlty chastising his recalcitrant Mini was under a momentary misapprehension; but beyond cases like these consensus often disintegrates.

B.F. Skinner, the arch-behaviourist, provides an instance of the power and ubiquity of our anthropomorphising impulse when he interprets the behaviour of a wolf who not only avoided the hunter’s traps but shat all over them as a manifestation of contempt. It is this kind of account which moves many to speak of anthropomorphic projection. Why should a wolf think excreta derisive?

Wittgenstein, in some obscure but suggestive remarks, admonishes us to ‘remember that the spirit of the snake, of the lion, is your spirit.’ His answer to the question of why I give the lion or the snake or any other creature the particular ‘spirit’ I do is that I give them the spirit I would have ‘if’, for example, ‘I were to look like the snake and do what it does.’ But what kind of knowledge is the knowledge of the ‘spirit’ I would have if I ‘looked like the snake and did what it does’?

Consider Thomas’s idyllic account of the final consummation of her desire to share her dogs’ feelings. ‘When dogs feel serene and pleased with life, they do nothing. So there on the hillside, in the warm autumn afternoon, nothing was what we did. ... While the shadows grew long we lay calmly, feeling the moment, the calmness, the warm light of the red sun – each of us happy enough with the others, unworried, each of us quiet and serene.’ This may remind some of us of the desultory conversation in a barracks or school dorm at lights out, on the edge of sleep, but that can’t be what it was like for Thomas’s dogs.

Though Thomas’s vision of her dogs ‘fleeting the time away carelessly as they did in the golden age’ conveys poignantly what she felt, how akin can it be to what the dogs felt? She herself tells us that ‘primates feel pure, flat immobility as boredom, but dogs feel it as peace,’ so that what was for a restless primate like Thomas just a blissful interlude was for the dogs a staple of their existence. And it is this tension between primate life and vicarious participation in canine life that gives her experience its distinctiveness.

The impression made on us by animals is often a function of the relation between their being and ours. An analogy: to be taken with the pointy ears of Mr Spock of Star Trek you have to be human. If Spock’s fellow Vulcanians were inclined to car fetishism it is rather Captain Kirk’s ears which they would have found captivating. Moreover, if it weren’t for our prior enthralment with feline physiognomy the stories that Thomas recounts would be much less absorbing. The interest inspired by the big cats is not exhausted in resolving the explanatory puzzles they raise, or even in the correction of our misconceptions concerning them. An authoritative account of the felids tells us that ‘neither a cat nor a puma will ever attempt to jump on a prey from above, even when the prey is deliberately placed to make this easily possible’ (so much for the Tarzan and Jungle Jim strips). Contrast the impulse which finds gratification in this kind of revelation with that manifested in Freud’s observation that ‘the charm of certain animals who seem not to concern themselves with us, such as cats and large beasts of prey, lies in their narcissism, self-sufficiency and inaccessibility,’ or in Santayana’s rhetorical query: ‘Who as he watched the cat basking in the sun has not passed into that vigilant eye, felt all the leaps potential in that luxurious torpor?’

William James says of the tigers at Barnum’s menagerie, whose ‘existence, so intensely and vividly real’, caused him to feel ‘poignantly the unfathomableness of ontology’, that though their being is ‘so admirable that one yearns to be in some way its sharer, partner or accomplice’, it nevertheless remains intractably alien to us. In the light of James’s response it is tempting to read Wittgenstein’s much-quoted ‘if a lion could talk we wouldn’t understand it’ as a tribute to the unfathomable otherness of animals.