BOOKS: When Elephants Weep

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1995:

When
Elephants
Weep:
The Emotional
Lives of Animals
by Jeffrey M. Masson
and Susan McCarthy.
Delacorte Press
(1540 Broadway, New
York, NY 10036), 1995;
291 pages, cloth, $23.95.
If only animals d i d n t have emo-
tions! It would be a great relief to many ani-
mal lovers to imagine that nonhumans lack
the capacity to experience fear, sorrow, and
grief, even at the expense of the more com-
fortable emotional states. It might be like liv-
ing among the Vulcans: no matter what we
might do to hurt them, we would receive only
an impassive and curious stare, if they
regarded us at all. But difficult as it may be to
empathize with suffering animals, it is even
harder to understand how some people could
deny that animals do suffer.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, former
Freudian psychoanalyst and author of many
books on human psychology, together with
journalist/biologist Susan McCarthy, make a
case for animal emotions that should convince
all but the intentionally obtuse. W h e n
Elephants Weep presents meticulously docu-
mented evidence of animal emotions, often
using—in a slightly mischievous fashion—
published observations of scientists who
themselves refuse to acknowledge the signifi-
cance of their own work. The reason, claim
Masson and McCarthy, is a fear of anthropo-
morphism so great as to drive many otherwise
rational scientists into most irrational atti-

tudes. Well aware of our close biological
kinship with most other species, a scientist
might still refuse to admit any psychological
kinship. Understanding the “survival values”
of many emotions demonstrated by evolution-
ary biology, the scientist may reduce all non-
human animal behavior to “simple” genetic
programming. Aware of the evolutionary
continuum of physiological and behavioral
characteristics, a scientist might still declare
only his own species capable of thought or
feeling, revealing a bias more appropriate to
medieval theology than the pursuit of factual
truth. Masson and McCarthy do not argue
that animals experience feelings exactly as
humans do. Indeed, they speculate that some
animal emotions may be quite different, and
even unknown to us. Yet they find anthropo-
morphism closer to the truth than its opposite.
The inability of animals to verbally express
themselves and the inability of scientists to
categorize or quantify nonverbal emotional
expression contributes to this anti-anthropo-
morphism, believe the authors.
Significantly, one of Charles
Darwin’s lesser known works, T h e
Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,
gives Masson and McCarthy much of their
grist. They note that Darwin was virtually the
first and last scientist to concern himself with
the subject of animal emotion, except for
experimental psychologists who induce psy-
chopathology in lab animals in order to use
them as surrogates for studying human men-
tal disease. Ironically, the branch of science
that most abuses animals most readily admits
their emotional kinship with us.
Denial
Normally, humans must deny ani-
mal consciousness or emotion in order to
fully exploit animals. One must normally
deny or diminish animals’ similarity to us in
order to torture them, or wear them, or eat
them. This state of denial doesn’t come natu-
rally, or easily. As even Freud recognized,
small children relate to animals as equals
until they are taught otherwise, usually
beginning at about age 3, as they begin try-
ing to understand their world, and are taught
that their beloved animals are “just” animals.
The process has become subtle, as children
are treated more gently, with much of the
burden of brainwashing now done by pro-
grams such as Sesame Street, with its danc-
ing dairy cows and Big Bird singing for a
chicken sandwich.
Masson and McCarthy manage to
stay on firm ground in their scientific argu-
ments through elegant logic. For example,
they point out that the anecdotal nature of the
evidence for animal behavior suggesting
“higher” emotions, such as compassion and
love, does not invalidate the possibility, or
probability, that animals do feel this way.
That behavior suggesting an emotion does
not always appear does not mean it cannot
appear. Certainly one cannot deny that
humans are capable of altruism just because
it is rarely evident. Masson and McCarthy
do not claim only the higher emotions for
animals. Rather, in the chapter “Animals as
Saints and Heroes,” they present examples
of the entire range, from the most sublime to
the most revolting expressions of feeling,
and argue against using animal behavior as a
standard for human conduct.
In one of their more powerful, yet
briefest, arguments, Masson and McCarthy
debunk the idea that emotions have devel-
oped in humans through evolutionary ascent:
“Belying the closely held belief that emotions
are the exclusively human products of our
unparalleled mental powers, the physical
pathways of human emotion are among the
most primitive. The part of the brain called
the limbic system, which is thought to medi-
ate emotion, is one of the most phylogeneti-
cally ancient parts of the human brain, so
much so that it is sometimes called ‘the rep-
tile brain.’ From a purely physical stand-
point, it would be a biological miracle if
humans were the only animals to feel.”
Simplest is best
The simplest explanation of a phe-
nomenon is often the most reliable, remind
Masson and McCarthy. If a thing seems to be
so, and there is no reason to think it is not so,
reason may be best served by assuming that it
is. If something is done to an animal which
would elicit fear in a human, and if the ani-
mal responds in a manner similar to that of a
frightened human, then the least convoluted
conclusion is that the animal feels fear.
No matter how much fellow feeling
the reader may already have for animals,
some of Masson’s and McCarthy’s ideas and
theories will be provocative. I especially
enjoyed the discussion of possible “zoomor-
phism,” in which animals sometimes seem to
impute their own attributes and desires to us,
as when the cat brings home a dead rodent for
our supper while the dog jealously guards his
bone. The section on counterphobias (an
attraction to that which is most dreaded) in
animals was fascinating. I found delightful
the discussion of animal aesthetics, in partic-
ular the preferred blue decor of the bower-
bird. And I found confirmation and expan-
sion of some of my own ideas in a very
detailed study of cat hunting and the playing
with prey that sometimes accompanies it.
When Elephants Weep d e f t l y
argues for “animal rights” without appearing
to advocate any particular philosophy, other
than to treat animals as we would like to be
treated––the simplest of all humane argu-
ments, and thus perhaps the most reliable.
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