When Elephants Weep

Title: When Elephants Weep
Author: Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy
Publication Date: 1995
Length: 291 Pages

Review by dewdrop

This brain-picking assortment of diverse examples illustrating complex
and humanlike animal behaviors is a most worthwhile and fun collection that is surely
conducive to sparking conversations. It would be logically sound to think that since
humans are animals, what is the big deal in acknowledging that other animals experience
many of the same conditions as we? You would think that the only way people could
deny this fact of life would be out of a religious conviction inspired by a literally
historical reading of Genesis or some equivalent ascribing an immortal soul to humans to
elevate them above unfeeling animals. Well, nonfiction is stranger than fiction in this
existence of ours. It so happens that the people who, quite paradoxically, most
vehemently deny humanlike emotion or consciousness are the same people who most
vehemently insist that we are nothing but mere animals and not essentially different in
any way—scientists. Why in the absence of any theological persuasion does this happen,
perhaps even more harshly than in the presence of one? This book offers some clues. It
is certainly a long withheld, clung to, and cherished notion of the scientific community
that the emotional lives of animals are the delusional beliefs of humans. On the one hand
it is not surprising when put into historical perspective, since it was not that many
generations ago that well respected thinkers could likewise pronounce that tribal
communities of the world also did not possess the same capacity for true emotional
sophistication as the civilized white man, but on the other hand this book reveals that
many scientists and trainers working with animals will absolutely affirm the existence of
emotions in animals in casual conversation but will avoid at all costs making statements
on the record, in fear of crushing their credibility—it is a strict taboo.

This work lays out a chain of countless short examples from diverse
species of behavior that one could easily assume was uniquely human. Scientists are
examined in their many ways of explaining away what they see as merely the illusion of
feelings in animals, and even at times creating explanations of animal behavior that are
just as complex or human like as simply acknowledging the emotion that is present. The
funny thing is, one can look at love or romance and say it is beyond the comprehension
and mental spectrum of animals who are merely acting out the elaborate dance of mating
to perpetuate their species, yet if an expert were likewise asked to explain human love
and romance in scientific terms it would sound the same but they would acknowledge
that to the people themselves it felt like something else we call love. They would give an
evolutionary explanation to what we experience firsthand as love, and yet they would not
usually discredit love as non-existent for that reason. Thus, the book is not anti-science.
Scientific explanations underlie conscious experiences without falsifying them, but all
too often with animal studies, scientific explanations are offered at the expense of dealing
with the conscious experiences. It is such thinking which is actually anti-science,
because it is both starting with an unproven assumption—that animals know not
emotions, and dogmatically refusing to even to investigate the question in the spirit of
scientific inquiry. And if we realize that the feelings that consume and motivate us have
rational explanations of biology, and yet we experience them as mysterious forces unto
themselves still relevant and no less real, why would it not be the same for animals acting
out their genetic scripts?

Another strong point of this writing is that it is not a sugar-coated account of
how other animals are all tender loving creatures full of compassion while we alone
commit horrific acts. While it very much covers love, compassion, joy, and hope, it
equally explores cruelty, rage, war, and rape. While the latter two are more common
and complex in human societies, examples have been documented in other species. On
the other hand, genuine compassion has been noted in the sense that animals have put
themselves in danger to assist other species including humans, disproving the theory
that what appears to be compassion in animals is just the protection of one creature’s
immediate family in order to ensure gene survival.

Furthermore, the writers state clearly that they are not suggesting that
animals exactly experience human emotions anymore than one human being is able to
experience exactly what another human being feels. Yet when we see a person crying,
smiling, playing, cuddling, or screaming, we can know an approximation of the category
of emotion which is possessing them. And so it is with animals! Perhaps there are
emotions that are unique to human beings, there must be. But there also must be
emotions unique to elephants or gorillas! We are not exactly the same, how could we be?
But we are enough of the same to acknowledge overlap. Consider the commonalities of
our physical anatomy—bones, muscles, flesh, hearts, lungs, brains and on and on and on.
Why would our minds be so mutually exclusive as to think an animal emotion to be an
oxymoron? In this line of thinking, the writers pull up a strong rebuke in history made
by Voltaire against the cold and sterilized behavior of scientists under the influence of
Rene Descartes who literally believed animals to be machines whose cries of pain were
akin to the sound of little spring being touched inside of a clock. Yes, it is a belief
traceable to the “father of modern philosophy!” Voltaire on the other hand, used simple
logic to decry, “Answer me, you who believe that animals are only machines… Has
nature arranged for this animal to have all the machinery of feelings only in order for it
not to have any at all?” Of Descartes he had to say “he dared to say that animals are pure
machines who looked for food when they had no appetite, who had the organs for feeling
only to never have the slightest feeling, who screamed without pain, who showed their
pleasure without joy, who possessed a brain only to have in it, not the slightest idea…”

These writers are very patient in their investigation of many phenomena of the
natural world and ask more questions than they do try to hastily give answers. Their
work shows philosophical rigor and is not filled with political agendas. Of course, in
the end, it must criticize our casual exploitation and torture of the animal kingdom, but
the majority of the book does not constantly swerve into attacks that are going to make
a meat eater throw the book in the trash. The topic and its research are much more
involved than that. The reader has plenty of time and mental space to contemplate all
of the issues spontaneously. A very clever connection spotted early on in this book
is the unfeeling scientist’s similarity to an acknowledged psychiatric condition called
alexithymia in which certain people cannot describe or recognize emotions and are able
to define them “only in terms of somatic sensations or of behavioral reaction rather than
relating them to accompanying thoughts.”

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