Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Death of Animals?

Con Slobodchikoff, the scientist cited in my previous post about the word for "human" in prairie dog language, replied to my email query today. No, he has not found a prairie dog word (or semantic reference) for "death" or for dead animals. But he thinks that this question is very interesting, and he's now starting to imagine how he might design an experiment to find out whether or not prairie dog communication ever denotes "dead". He's not sure how, since such an experiment would not be easy.

All we know so far is that they, like many species, certainly have signals for degrees of danger and for identifiable types of predators. They tell each other something like, "fox at northeast, but kind of far away" or "man behind you really too close!". I'm elaborating here to a human transliteration from their range of semantic references strung together in strings of chirps and chattering.

There is however other evidence that some species think about death and recognize what a dead animal means. Contemporary philosophy is rethinking the modernist take on this. Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher who is this year gaining international recognition, starts with Derrida and goes further. Agamben's Language & Death began with exactly the same passage from Heidegger that Derrida also began with, where around the same year both philosophers rethought Heiddegger's odd claims that animals don't have a consciousness of death like we do, because they don't have a language. (I'm not sure which philosopher was literally first there, nor how much they read of each other. But if you find Derrida hard to read, then don't even think about reading Agamben's book. It is not for nonspecialists outside of continental philosophy.)

Since Heidegger's days, the ethologists and zoologists have come out with numberless studies of animal communication, some of which overlap considerably with our criteria of language (see previous post). What do you think of this example:

  • Most people are familiar with the myriad of studies involving apes, gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys. One that gained national attention is that of Koko, the gorilla. It was through this sign language that Koko told her trainer, Dr. Francine Patterson, she wanted a cat for her birthday. Koko named her new friend All Ball. Being a kitten, All Ball would occasionally bite Koko. When this happened, Koko used her usual expressions for disapproval: “dirty” and “toilet.”

    When All Ball escaped one evening and was killed by a car, Koko was asked about her thoughts on death. “Where do gorillas go when they die?’’ she was asked. Koko replied, ‘’Comfortable/hole/bye” (the sign for kissing a person goodbye). “When do gorillas die?” Koko: “Trouble/old.” “How do gorillas feel when they die: happy, sad, afraid?” Koko: “Sleep.” {see more here}

This might be a childlike discourse of death, but doesn't it tend to make you doubt Heidegger on both claims of ontological difference from humanity -- language and death?

Meanwhile, if you really cannot get through a page of Derrida's avant garde prose, and I don't blame you, then I recommend a book for the general yet serious reader. Mary Midgley is a celebrated British philosopher. Back in the late '70s she published Beast & Man, a book in plain accessible prose, with what I call Oxford clarity, a combination of apt analogies but no frills, common sense, and skeptical but open minded inquiry, all laid out in graceful linear fashion. It was recently republished in a 2nd edition. Learned in the canonical philosophical tradition and also up to date on the science of ethology (animal behavior), Midgley writes not as an outsider revolutionary like Derrida, but rather as a comfortable thinker working with and through the obvious little errors of other Anglo-American colleagues, and always with the nonspecialist reader in mind. Her main theme in this book is the similarities between animals and humans, addressing especially the topics of culture, rationality, and language. One valuable aspect of Midgley's book is how it argues so well against Wilson's infamous sociobiology. That is, this is not another reductive biology. Midgley's view is more thoughtful, and in many respects quite compatible with what Derrida said also on this issue of a supposed essentialist gulf between animals and humans.

Nevertheless, Midgley's line of thinking comes at times uncomfortably close to setting up natural foundations for human society, something that the more postmod Derrida scrupulously avoids. I don't read her as actually slipping over that line into a full-blown foundationalism, but it is easy for those who haven't learned why that line is fraught with political dangers to (mis)read her in that direction.

This vexing problem --of how to conceive of a properly poststructuralist nonfoundationalist nonessentialist approach to our own natural roots is something that is only today, circa April 2005, still being grappled with in seminars and conferences and journals. Already though, we have signs of some progress being made in this direction. Send more money, and we'll keep blogging on this.


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