What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?

Vinciane Despret blends science with story to give readers new ways to think about animals and our relationships with them.

What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Length: 280 pages
Author: Vinciane Despret
Price: $30.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-05

It’s fitting that the title of Vinciane Despret’s latest book takes the form of a question. It sets up expectations nicely as What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions? is full of questions.

The forward, written by Bruno Latour, also tries to prepare readers for what is to come. Latour begins, “Be prepared to read a lot of science but also to learn about the many ways to do good, bad, or terrible science. You are about to enter a new genre, that of scientific fables… true ways of understanding how difficult it is to figure out what animals are up to.” The emphasis should perhaps be on the “true ways of understanding”. Consider what might be two of the most popular ways of “understanding” animals. On the one hand, anecdotes -- my dog did this, my neighbor’s cat did that -- aren’t particularly scientific (although I would argue probably enough for many animal lovers). On the other hand, as both Latour and Despret contend, scientific experiments are often created under artificial conditions, which can also be problematic. The solution for Despret seems to be twofold: first, the genre of the scientific fable, which includes both narratives and science. (Despret herself is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Liège and Free University of Brussels.) Second, asking the right questions.

In terms of asking the wrong questions, consider “S for Separations: Can animals be broken down?” This chapter opens with a touching story. Scientist Barbara Smuts recollects when she came across a baby baboon “huddled in the corner of a cage at the local research station”. The baby’s mother had been killed by poachers and although the baby had been well taken care of by the scientists, “his eyes had glazed over, he as cold to the touch and seemed barely alive”. The scientists assumed that “he was beyond help.” Still Smuts was reluctant to let him die alone, so she took him to bed with her. The next morning she was “awakened by a bright-eyed infant bouncing on [her] stomach”. Some claimed it was a “miracle”; Smuts believed it was something a little simpler -- contact with another living being.

The rest of the chapter goes on to discuss animals, separation, depression, and attachment. Not all the examples are as heartwarming, however, as the one Smuts relates. Despret describes an experiment where a scientist (among other things) separates mother and baby rats, blinds the mothers, removes their ovaries and their olfactory bulbs just to see if the mothers would still run to their babies.

Asking if mothers would still run to their babies after being blinded is clearly not the right question. At this point, it’s hard simply not to wonder why. Why do something like this to animals? This is the moral statement Despret ends with: “But why did the researchers subject their animals to these types of experiments? The answer is rather simple: to see what would happen, like poorly behaved adolescents… Their theories ultimately reflect only one thing: a systematic and blind exercise of irresponsibility.”

Despret’s condemnations aren’t always this blunt or this sweeping. Sometimes she focuses on just a word or two. For example, the “V for Versions: Do chimpanzees die like we do?” spends a great deal of time discussing the differences between “prose” and “versions”. Despret provides several definitions, but “prose follows a line, word by word; versions draw a web” supplies a nice visual image of each term. She continues to illustrate the differences by stating “‘Is this mourning ‘really’ the same?’ is therefore the question of prose” (And therefore really not the question we should be asking.)

All these fables, stories, anecdotes and data are supposed to create, as stated in the prologue, “a series of moral tales not only on how to do science but also, on behalf of the general public, on how to experiment on ourselves about our own ethical reactions.”

Certainly animal testing often brings about ethical questions, but Despret presents the treatment of farm animals for ethical consideration as well. “K for Killable” opens with this statistic: “Two billion three hundred eighty-nine million pounds of farm animals died in 2009. They were eaten.” Another chapter “For Work: Why do we say that cows don’t do anything?” asks the question “Do animals work?” As with most of the questions Despret asks, there are few easy or simple answers. First, even humans have trouble defining work -- does housework count? Does work have to be paid? Adding animals to the mix only adds to the confusion. Dog shows often include a “working group”, and most people are probably familiar with assistance and therapy animals. But what about a milk cow on a farm or the chicken whose eggs are collected and then sold? Do these animals work or is a human the only worker on a farm?

Despret’s book is a timely one -- as today ethical questions related to animals seem to be almost everywhere. Videos of farm animals being abused draw outrage on YouTube. Facing mounting public pressure, SeaWorld is phasing out its orca breeding program; its press release began: “Times have changed, and we are changing with them. The killer whales currently in our care will be the last generation of killer whales at SeaWorld. The company will end all orca breeding as of today.” Other signs of changing times: Oregon recently recognized dogs as sentient beings; as of 2015, all animals are considered sentient beings in New Zealand (similar laws exist in Quebec and France). New Zealand has also banned animal testing.

While some questions, such as “Y is for YouTube: Are animals the new celebrities” may seem a little frivolous or asking if animals mourn (when any animal lover is going to say yes no matter what science says) may seem a redundant -- there are still larger issues to be addressed: How should humans treat animals -- farm animals, animals in zoos or circuses, animals in laboratories? Do animals only need to be considered or understood in relation to human behaviors? Does society still need to experiment on animals, and if so, what types of experiments?

These questions are still a ways from being answered, but Despret provides a good starting point. For much of the “general public” referenced in the prologue or the dog owners mentioned on the back cover, these scientific fables might be a little too much science and not quite enough fable. Still, for readers willing to dig in, Despret provides much to think about.


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