The Language of African Trees, Part 1

By Tom Cole November 6, 2015

And why the sin of anthropomorphism isn’t so mortal any more

Going but not quite gone are the days when one of the biggest scientific sins was anthropomorphism—ascribing human characteristics to animals (or other unemotive, unthinking things, like lamposts). Until recently a doctoral thesis on, say, Mourning Rituals in a Tanzanian Elephant Herd would flunk you right out of the zoology—or any other—university department.

As Carl Safina writes in a magnificent new book I’m going to praise 430 or so words south of here, “Even the most informed, logical inferences about other animal’s motivations, emotions, and awareness could wreck your professional prospects. The mere question could….Suggesting that other animals can feel anything wasn’t just a conversation stopper; it was a career killer.”

I believe the shift away from anthropocentrism—the idea that our chesty species occupies the pinnacle of evolution—got a big, maybe crucial push by Jane Goodall. Her scientifically chaste but big-hearted research in the real—as opposed to laboratory—lives of chimpanzees made it close to impossible to deny them emotions, agency, not to mention more brains, talent, and personality than we ever thought.

group of chimps around sandwiche
The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences returned Jane Goodall’s first scientific paper on chimpanzees because she used names, rather than numbers, for her research subjects and called them “he” and “she” rather than “it.”

(I always wondered what one of those sternly anti-anthropomorphic professors thought when he went home to his anything-but-robotic dog, and how all that jumping around and doggy smooches couldn’t possibly mean that the pooch simply didn’t feel glad to see the old fellow.)

In his great book The Tiger, John Vaillant, the kind of writer/thinker who makes other writers wish they’d taken up spot welding instead, writes about how scientists have dismissed the experience of people and peoples who live in close quarters with animals as “arguments from inference—anecdotal and unprovable.” Which, he says, “misses the point: these feelings of trans-species understanding and communication have less to do with animals being humanized, or humans being ‘animalized,’ than with all parties simply being sensitized to nuances of the other’s presence and behavior.”

Of course, pendulums have a way of swinging out of balance. The wisest approach to this question, in my moderately humble opinion, is to break down the human/animal polarity and accept that we are a very interesting species of natural born animals, not some unique brand of sentient beings.

The inherent unknowability of animals and their societies—not to mention the innermost workings of your best human  friend—is worth keeping in mind, too; when I ponder our French Bulldog Mimi, a smart and muscular little Cleopatra, I realize that I’m as close as I’ll ever get to an encounter with an extraterrestrial.

author's bulldog
The author’s French Bulldog, Mimi, “a smart and muscular little Cleopatra…as close as I’ll ever get to an encounter with an extraterrestrial.”

For us Africa lovers and African animal observers, this is all catnip (a psychoactive substance that highlights the fact that cats have psyches). I don’t want to bore you with citations, because I want to get to the African trees that (okay: seem to) think. But three new books might be of interest: Frans de Waal’s forthcoming Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (nice title, Professor!), and two more books with upfront titles, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, and Dr. Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals  Think and Feel, a book the level-headed New York Review of Books calls “astonishing…a major milestone in our evolving understanding of our place in nature. It has the potential to change our relationship with the natural world.” (If you’re fascinated by elephants or outright love them, Safina’s first chapter, spent among the elephant families of Amboseli National Park—a place dear to Micato’s heart—will give you great and mind-expanding joy.)

This blog threatens to get out of hand, so I’m going to partition it. In my next entry, I’ll zero in on those talking African trees.

(Read The Language of African Trees, Part 2)

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