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How Animals GrieveReview - How Animals Grieve
by Barbara J. King
University Of Chicago Press, 2013
Review by Majid Amini
Jan 7th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 2)

Anthropomorphic attributions to animals are as ancient as human civilization. However, with the advent of the theory of evolution in the middle of nineteenth century and its attendant initial idea about gradualism in nature, the metaphor of animal mind metamorphosed into the reality of mental life in animals. Indeed, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin continuously juxtaposes man and animals in terms of their emotional states of mind and counsels the reader that the grief, terror, and suffering of human beings are different not in kind but only in degree from the response to horrid events that animals face in their daily lives at the hands of humans, other animals, or just through the common course of nature.

Similarly, Barbara J. King's How Animals Grieve is predicated on the premise that animals experience emotions, and in particular the emotion of grief, as humans do and attempts to marshal evidence in support of such attributions. She states the intent of her book thus: to 'visit a variety of ecosystems to discover what is known about how wild birds, dolphins, whales, monkeys, buffalos, and bears -- even turtles -- mourn their losses' as well as peeking 'into homes, and venture onto farms, in order to discover how our companion animals -- cats, dogs, rabbits, goats, and horses -- experience grief.' (p. 2) This articulation of the author's purview is for the express purpose of disabusing the reader that the book is not solely about the ubiquitous quotations about the emotional lives of elephants and chimpanzees or cats and dogs but about a significant range of animals in both wild and domestic environments. Yet, at the very outset, King is compelled to admit that in writing about animal bereavement, she had to walk a taut line between two poles: 'The first is this wish to recognize the emotional lives of other animals. The other is my need to honor human uniqueness.' (p. 7) However, walking this tight line does not turn out to be as easy as one might wish since King is frequently forced to recast the presence of grief in animals in terms of 'a capacity for grief' (p. 6; my emphasis) which should alert the reader that the issues involved here, both conceptually and methodologically, are far too complex and undifferentiated that a seemingly innocuous attribution of an emotion like grief to an animal would be, to say the least, a tall task.      

Nonetheless, the evidence that King presents can be broadly classified into three categories with a somewhat disproportionate difference in their amount: ample anecdotal accounts, a few long-range ethological observations of both captive and non-captive animals, and a couple of physiochemical studies. As to the reliability of the evidence adduced, King herself is cognizant of the fact that even at a superficial level not all the evidence inspire the same degree of confidence as they range between 'the strong and the moderate or weak'. (p. 163) Obviously, before assembling evidence for whether animals grieve or not, one needs to be conceptually equipped with an account of what grief is and how to recognize it. Following the work of the eminent animal behaviorist and animal-welfare activist Marc Bekoff, King ties grief to the emotion of love and remarks that 'animals grieve when they have loved' (p. 8) and offers the following definition: 'Should the animals no longer be able to spend time together -- the death of one partner being one possible reason -- the animal who loves will suffer in some visible way.' (p. 9) And, then, she proceeds to give examples of these "visible ways" of showing grief: the animal 'may refuse to eat, lose weight, become ill, act out, grow listless, or exhibit body language that conveys sadness or depression.' (p. 9)

King's 'ideal definition' (p. 10) of animal grief is, however, the crux of the debate over mourning in animals and thereby merits a number of observations. First, though a minor and somewhat an ad hominem one, it concerns her use of Bekoff's approach. In the passage quoted from him in the book, it seems that Bekoff takes the phenomenon of animal grief for granted and attempts to use it as a means of establishing the existence of love as an emotion in animals: 'Since animals grieve, surely they must feel love too' (p. 8); whereas, for King, the order of investigation and explanation is the other way around. Secondly, it goes without saying that almost on all current psychological and philosophical accounts of grief, the emotion of grief is considered a highly complex state of mind that has numerous connections to other mental states, whether cognitive, experiential or otherwise, where the emotion of love does inevitably impress its presence in the process of the formation and feeling of grief somewhere. But, basically the problem here is one of trading one complex emotion with another and thus creating the possibility of circular conceptualization of the issue in hand. The difficulty is further accentuated when King brings in emotional states such as 'sadness and depression' into the operational recognition of grief in animals through the heavily theory-laden notion of 'body language'.

Thirdly, even if one goes along with King's "visible ways" of expressing mourning, there are still alternative ways of explaining the behavior of the animal. King herself points out on behalf of a critic commenting on the mental life of canines that the animal's behavior could simply be attributed to a sudden change in the day-to-day life of the animal: that is, in 'the animal behavior world at large, the jury is still out on whether dogs are actually mourning the loss of a loved one, or simply exhibiting anxieties related to the change in routine.' (p. 13) In this connection, it might be interesting to note that classical Greek does not seem to have had a word for grief other than the term for pain. By the same extension, one might thereby suggest that what an animal feels in the case of the loss of a companion is nothing other than some pain in relation to the disruption of the animal's daily routine. In fact, by the end of the book, King somewhat radically dilutes her initial 'ideal definition' of animal grief by incorporating the routine disruption clause into the understanding of animal grief in the following manner: 'Grief can be said to occur when a survivor animal acts in ways that are visibly distressed or altered from the usual routine'. (p. 163) But, ironically, a few pages later King goes on to conclude her discussion of animal mourning by reminding the reader that such modifications 'run the risk of diluting the phenomenon we want to understand.' (p. 167)   

Fourthly, given how serious King is about the existence of a genuine mental life for animals, her characterization of the "visible ways" of exhibiting grief in animals is highly behavioristic in its orientation. Although prima facie there is nothing wrong in such an orientation in one's theory of mind as her preeminent predecessor, Darwin, was very much insistent upon "behavior" in his discussion of animal minds in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals -- which incidentally should have made him the proper precursor of behaviorism more than either Ivan Petrovich Pavlov or John Broadus Watson -- King has a couple of interrelated theoretical commitments that do not chime well with her behaviorism. On the one hand, as noted earlier, King is keen on talking about the "capacity for grief" as opposed to grief where 'the capacity to experience an emotion doesn't always result in the expression of that emotion' (p. 159; original emphasis), and, on the other, her belief in the 'interior lives' of animals. (p. 38) Although both beliefs stem from a more fundamental insight that King adopts towards the mental life of animals which is going to be the focus of discussion shortly, for present purposes it is important to note that both beliefs belie the idea of behaviorism. Technically, the very motivation for behaviorism is to eschew the stipulation of unverifiable inner and implicit states of mind, whereas King's concepts of capacity for and interiority of emotions demand the existence of an inner world of the mind. Thus, King's operational definition of grief in animals unsettles her theoretical understanding of animal minds.    

But, why does King subscribe to the ideas of emotional capacity and interiority of mental states in animals? Judging by the somewhat inordinate amount of space that King dedicates in the book to emphasize a particular aspect of animal mind to fend off the critics, it seems that a recurrent theme of the criticisms levelled against animal states of mind is the lack or absence of uniformity in intra-species, let alone inter-species, manifestation of emotions. Apparently, the overwhelming presumption of the critics is that if animal minds do genuinely exist, one should expect a good measure of uniformity in animal behavior within a species, if not across species. But, persistently King is at pains to remind the reader that it is 'possible to live with chickens or goats or cats and not witness any dramatic expression of grief when a member of the flock or herd or household dies', and 'differences between species may be rivaled by differences among the individuals of the same species.' (pp. 6 & 7-8) Recounting an ethological observation of "ape grief" by a group of scientists in the forests of Tanzania following the immediate aftermath of a chimpanzee's death from a fall, King writes that though there is a prolonged attention paid by the sixteen other chimpanzees of the group to the dead body and they 'are highly aroused', there is 'no uniform expression of that arousal.' (p. 126; my emphasis) Similarly, when she relates the events following the euthanasia of a female gorilla to spare her from the pain of malignant masses growing in her body at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, it is observed by the Park's curator of the research at the time that except for one male gorilla that vocalized his grief when he was allowed to reach the body, the other three resident gorillas that were permitted to approach the dead body did not vocalize. 'Perhaps', King remarking on the variation of behavior here, 'they didn't make the cognitive leap that I suspect [the first gorilla] did, or perhaps they just expressed their grief differently.' (p. 131)

In view of these and other dissimilarities of behavior among animals in the face of death and loss of a fellow-species, King is wont to assert that they 'may point us once again to variation in mourning habits according to personality.' (p. 133) Earlier in the book, while clarifying the concept of emotional capacity, she states: 'Depending on their personalities and on the context, this capacity for grief may be expressed'. (p. 6) Now, against this background of behavioral variation, one can see why she commits herself to the concepts of emotional capacity and interiority of mental life of animals, but at the same time, as indicated above, these theoretical commitments unwittingly undermine her behaviorist account of animal grief. Moreover, the upshot of these speculative commitments that the 'expression of animal emotion doesn't lend itself well to bold generalization across individuals' (p. 166; my emphasis) lands her account of the inter-species variation of emotional manifestations in trouble when she says: 'Evolutionary theory predicts species-specific behaviors in each animal.' (p. 147; my emphasis) Since, in that case, do not species-specific behaviors seem to imply generalizations across individuals of the same species?

Leaving aside the behavioral evidence for animal grief and their theoretical and methodological issues, King also discusses a couple of fascinating physiochemical studies that seem to open up new avenues and perspective for investigating and understanding the mental life of animals. Drawing on the work of primatologists Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, King uses their long-term baboon research at the Moremi Game Reserve of Botswana's Okavango Delta to shed light on the emotional life of the baboons. The Okavango baboons live in multimale, multifemale troops, and female relatives organize themselves into close-knit groups called matrilines. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces, and young sons and nephews all spend time close together in social grooming and social alliances. At puberty, the males transfer into another group. This pattern means that in any given group, the adult males tend to be strangers to each other, unlike the related adult females. However, in the Okavango group, predation is quite high, and baboons living in such a dangerous environment become stressed and the stress shows up in their bodies. Researcher Anne L. Engh and her coworkers collected fecal material from the female baboons in order to measure levels of the glucocorticoid (GC) hormone, a type of stress hormone that circulates in the body which is then excreted through bodily waste. The researchers found that in the four weeks following a predation event in the group, females' GC levels increased measurably. Then, writes King, 'Probing further, the research team discovered the chemical signature of grief in baboons. The GC levels of twenty-two "affected females," each of whom had lost a close relative to predation, were compared to those of a control group made up of females who had experienced no such loss. The affected females showed significantly higher GC levels. Engh and her colleagues emphasize that while predator attacks were witnessed by many adult females in the group, only the "bereaved" females showed significantly higher levels of GC.' (p. 72)

Philosophically this is very interesting, since the findings can be understood in the way that Engh et al. and King interpret them only apparently against a type identity theory of mind and body whereby each type of mental state is identical to a specific type of physical state. However, aside from a number of important issues raised against such a hardcore physicalist view of mind like multiple-realizability arguments whereby it is claimed that a mental state can be realized in multiple states thus undermining type identities, the import of the findings does not seem to sit comfortably with the tenor of King's other views of mental life. Here are a couple of examples: 'Because death and mourning surely count as one of life's most stressful events, there may be a common biological underpinning to the grief that animals ... feel. To make this suggestion is not to say that we are hard-wired creatures whose brains all respond in identical ways.' (p. 50) And, 'The great lesson of twentieth-century animal-behavior research was that there is no one way to be chimpanzee or goat or chicken, just as there is no one way to be human.' (p. 8) Minimally, the impression that one gets from the variety of evidence that King presents for the existence of grief in animals is that they are embedded -- whether explicitly or implicitly -- in different theories of mind and as such they often appear to be in conflict and tension with one another.   

To close the review, notwithstanding some of the issues raised above, How Animals Grieve offers a good synoptic view of the variety of the research done in relation to animal emotions, and it is replete with conceptual and methodological nuggets of thoughts on the very idea of animal mind. In the last chapter of the book, King presents an intriguing insight into the prehistory of grief.

 

© 2014 Majid Amini

 

Dr Majid Amini is Professor of Philosophy at Virginia State University, USA.


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