Featured in
Issue 79

If we could talk to the animals...

Mammalian adventures

BY Alexander Fiske Harrison in Opinion | 11 NOV 03

The history of our representation of animals is a catalogue of mendacity. Take Lassie, for example. It's a bitch's name, a fact made explicit in Eric Knight's original 1938 short story Lassie Come Home, but from the first film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor in 1943 the 15 or so collies taking the lead have all been male. The reason is simple: collies moult in summer, which is the filming season, so the larger male, with its thicker coat, looks better on camera. This is not because, as some fan websites suggest, the males are more intelligent. As the more observant point out, some of Lassie's stunt doubles have been female. However, these deceits are minor compared with the attribution to a mutt of an inquisitive and penetrating intellect second only to a Holmes or a Poirot.

What always used to mystify me was exactly what we were supposed to assume was going on inside the canine cranium. Did Lassie discover little Timmy in the well, realize that lacking opposable thumbs she was of little use unassisted, run to find Gramps, open her mouth and release a series of frustratingly identical barks unable to reveal the structured thought processes beneath? Or were the barks delicately modulated at frequencies inaudible to Gramps' shaky ears, so that Lassie's frustration was with human hearing rather than the formation of her own larynx that prohibited speech? Or did Lassie not care either way, regarding the projection of thought in sound as beneath her, and knowing that eventually, someone in the damn family would follow her wherever she went? (In which case, how did this solipsistic thinker ever get any time alone, followed, as she would have been, by a variety of rangers and Mounties every time she wandered into the wilderness to contemplate the infinite?)

Of course, Hollywood has never been hindered by such doubts - especially producer Ivan Tors. He gave us Flipper (movie, series and sequel), in which another young boy, Sandy, spent an inordinate amount of time subjected to a dolphin's more extensive range of vocalizations. He also gave us Gentle Ben (1967) the story of young Mark and his half-ton pet grizzly bear. Even Mr Tors blanched at pushing the limits of ursine intelligence, and so merely expected us to swallow the idea that Ben was a very gentle bear.

This was something that Tors had explored before with the classic series Daktari, a spin-off from the movie Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965). The story goes that Tors 'discovered' a cross-eyed lion of exceptionally gentle nature at Africa, USA, an 'affection training compound' near Los Angeles. Clarence's nature was so mild that during one episode he vicariously hatched a dozen ostrich eggs. However, how gentle he really could have been was brought into question when he died of a massive heart attack and press reports at the time suggested the inordinate quantities of tranquillizers in his bloodstream may have played some part in this.

Lions doing a Timothy Leary aside, the projection of human qualities on to our fellow creatures is one of our oldest traits, something every first-year student of animal behaviour is warned against under the name of anthropomorphism, although the term is misleading. The only example that springs to mind of someone projecting the morphology of anthropos on to an animal are Sir Edwin Landseer's lions in Trafalgar Square (1868), whose faces are said to bear an uncanny resemblance to the then Duke of Marlborough. A better word is anthropopsychism, a term used to describe the totemistic habits of primitive peoples who project a certain human quality on to an animal, and then often re-project it back on to themselves. For example, the fox acts like a man who is cunning, therefore the fox is cunning; we wish to be cunning too, therefore we are the clan of the fox. This has a falsely aspirational quality analogous to that of late middle-aged men trawling the streets in Italian sports cars.

However, despite the inherent inaccuracy of such an unscientific stance, it has its benefits for those who lack the time to study the psychological works of Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner or the ethological ones of Konrad Lonrenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen. The fox is indeed wily, and the farmer who asks himself how he would get into the chicken coop were he feeling both peckish and devious is the farmer who has roast chicken for supper. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this 'taking the intentional stance', by assuming that the creature with which one deals has not only desire but consciousness of the desire and the rationality to achieve that desire. (Of course, Dennett goes one step further and says that humans don't have consciousness; we just think we do, but that's philosophy for you.)

What we must be careful of is excess, something that is in no way restricted to totemic metaphysics or Hollywood fiction, for excess is the mother of lunacy. In 1954 CBS in the US broadcast a Russian-made film about bees. Convinced that the depiction of such an orderly society was subliminal pro-communist propaganda, the intensity of the channel's Cold War sentiment was such that they had the narrator, Charles Collingwood, remark as a new queen took over the hive, 'No Russian could think of this without thinking of the death of Stalin, the succession of Malenkov, and the execution of Beria.'

It gets better: in 1958 Disney produced the classic documentary White Wilderness,which contained scenes of lemmings in Alberta, Canada, selflessly throwing themselves into the ocean in order to limit their own population. The mystery that confused even those insane enough to believe that ritual self-slaughter was an 'evolutionarily stable strategy' (in Richard Dawkins speak) was how they filmed it, given that Alberta has no native lemming population and no outlet to the sea. Disney cameramen later revealed that tame lemmings were placed on a gramophone turntable set at 78 rpm and fired at the camera.

That said, I spent some time at the Language Research Centre of Georgia State University working with Professor Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi, a pygmy chimpanzee. You feel very silly indeed asking out loud for the large ape to make a stone tool, but you feel even sillier when he responds to your scepticism by banging two stones together until he has produced a serviceable edge and hands it through the bars. Flipper was not as stupid as he looked either.

Sometimes lemmings, like any other animals that migrate away from an area they have overpopulated, will fall off cliffs into the sea. Equally, a recent paper in the peer-review general science journal Nature has pointed out that bee society is an illusory Utopia much like the Soviet Union. Under the title 'Social Insects: The Police State' we are given a list of the brutal methods the regime uses to mantenere lo stato, in Machiavelli's phrase; they include 'murder, torture, imprisonment'. So perhaps Ivan Tors has it right after all.