Innocents fornicating and apes grieving

In his novel Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (La faute de l’abbé Mouret, 1875), Emile Zola has a young priest, Serge Mouret, and a teenage girl, Albine, fall in love with each other without any understanding of what is happening to them. Neither of them knows anything about sex – they don’t even seem to know that there is such a thing. So, Zola has a long and lyrical account of how paintings in the house they inhabit, and the luxuriance of nature around them slowly, help them discover what to do:

“It was the garden that had planned and willed it all: For weeks and weeks it had been favouring and encouraging their passion, and at last, on that supreme day, it had lured them to that spot, and now it became the Tempter whose every voice spoke of love. From the flower-beds, amid the fragrance of the languid blossoms, was wafted a soft sighing, which told of the weddings of the roses, the love-joys of the violets; and never before had the heliotropes sent forth so voluptuous a perfume. … From the meadows came fuller notes, the million sighs of the sun-kissed grass, the multitudinous love-plaints of legions of living things, here and there softened by the refreshing caresses of the rivulets, on whose banks the very willows palpitated with desire. … The grasshoppers grew faint with the passion of their chants; the butterflies scattered kisses with their beating wings. The amorous sparrows flew to their mates; the rivers rippled over the loves of the fishes; whilst in the depths of the forest the nightingales sent forth pearly, voluptuous notes, and the stags bellowed their love aloud. Reptiles and insects, every species of invisible life, every atom of matter, the earth itself joined in the great chorus. It was the chorus of love and of nature-the chorus of the whole wide world; and in the very sky the clouds were radiant with rapture, as to those two children Love revealed the Eternity of Life.”

Actually, the last sentence of the English version is not a translation of the French original – which is ‘hotter’ throughout – and replaces a couple of paragraphs that the English translator must have cut for the sake of public morality. Here they are:

“… Ce fut l’arbre qui confia à l’oreille d’Albine ce que les mères murmurent aux épousées, le soir des noces.
Albine se livra. Serge la posséda.
Et le jardin entier s’abîma avec le couple, dans un dernier cri de passion. Les troncs se ployèrent comme sous un grand vent ; les herbes laissèrent échapper un sanglot d’ivresse ; les fleurs, évanouies, les lèvres ouvertes, exhalèrent leur âme ; le ciel lui-même, tout embrasé d’un coucher d’astre, eut des nuages immobiles, des nuages pâmés, d’où tombait un ravissement surhumain. Et c’était une victoire pour les bêtes, les plantes, les choses, qui avaient voulu l’entrée de ces deux enfants dans l’éternité de la vie. Le parc applaudissait formidablement.”

But I am digressing.

What is puzzling is that Zola thought he had to invent a complex progression of suggestive events in the house and in the park – it goes on pages after pages – in order to explain how a male and a female attracted to one another would end up fornicating without any prior instruction. After all animals do it without instruction, human ancestors did it without instructions. I guess, Zola’s idea – and everybody else’s – must have been that when language and culture appear on the scene, instinct is just wiped out. Still, even without instinct, Serge and Albertine were living in the country and should have witnessed plenty of animal fornication. Emile Zola, by the way, was the pope a literary ‘Naturalism’, showing how polysemous this word can be.

Just as to Zola and to his intended readers it may have seemed obviously true that uninstructed humans could not conceive of copulation, it seem clear to many that uninstructed young children if they are at all aware of death, are not equipped to think of it as the cessation of life and as a permanent thing. From Jean Piaget to Susan Carey, psychologists have argued that some important conceptual change has to take place for children to understand death properly. Before that, they might confuse dead and inanimate, or think of death just as a form of deep sleep, or, in the case of people who they are told have died, they may think of death as a kind of departure, and so on.

A fortiori, non-human animals should not be expected to understand death. Philosophers have said so. For instance, Martin Heidegger writes – but he would, wouldn’t he? -, “Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought.” (On the Way to Language 107-8).

More seriously, Marc Hauser, to whom we owe much in our understanding of animal psychology, writes:

“I suggest that although animals have the mental tools to distinguish between living and nonliving things, to use object motion to generate expectations about behaviour, and to have emotional experiences about their interactions with the physical and psychological world, they lack the moral emotions or moral senses. They lack the capacity for empathy, sympathy, shame, guilt, and loyalty. The reason for this emotional hole in their lives is that they lack a fundamental mental tool: self awareness…. If my claim about self-awareness is correct, then animals must also lack a deep understanding of death. To understand death as a system of beliefs, as opposed to simply responding to dead things, individuals must have a sense of self-awareness”(Marc Hauser. 2000: Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think).

It is in the light of such considerations that apparently grieving behaviour among chimpanzees is so puzzling. In a post last November I presented striking anecdotal evidence published in the National Geographic Magazine that chimpanzees may grieve for their dead, an idea that to the old anthropologist in me is almost blasphemous (disclosure: I make it a rule to have at least one blasphemous thought every day before breakfast). Now in the April 27, 2010 issue of Current Biology (Vol. 20-8) two articles provide further and better evidence of chimps’ attitude towards their dead. In “Pan thanatology,” James R. Anderson, Alasdair Gillies, and Louise C. Lock describe

“the peaceful demise of an elderly female in the midst of her group. Group responses include pre-death care of the female, close inspection and testing for signs of life at the moment of death, male aggression towards the corpse, all-night attendance by the deceased’s adult daughter, cleaning the corpse, and later avoidance of the place where death occurred. Without death-related symbols or rituals, chimpanzees show several behaviours that recall human responses to the death of a close relative.”

In “Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants” Dora Biro, Tatyana Humle, Kathelijne Koops, Claudia Sousa, Misato Hayashi and Tetsuro Matsuzawa write:

“In 1992, Matsuzawa reported the death of a 2.5-year-old chimpanzee (Jokro) at Bossou from a respiratory illness. The infant’s mother (Jire) carried the corpse, mummified in the weeks following death, for at least 27 days. She exhibited extensive care of the body, grooming it regularly, sharing her day- and night-nests with it, and showing distress whenever they became separated. The carrying of infants’ corpses has been reported from a number of primate species, both in captivity and the wild – albeit usually lasting a few days only – suggesting a phylogenetic continuity for a behaviour that is poignant testament to the close mother-infant bond which extends across different primate taxa. In this report we recount two further infant deaths at Bossou, observed over a decade after the original episode but with striking similarities.”

One way to go, suggested in particular by Hauser, is to question not the evidence of grieving-like behaviour in chimpanzees and other animals, but its interpretation as grieving proper. And since it is not even clear what grieving proper is, I am quite tempted to go this way and to say, “Fascinating behaviour, but we just don’t know how to interpret it.” In fact, I am not just tempted to do so, I do do so.

Still, there is a challenge here that may be worth attending to some more.

What is it that animals don’t understand about death? For that matter, what is it that children don’t understand? In a landmark paper, “Children’s understanding of death as the cessation of agency: a test using sleep versus death” (Cognition, 2005, 96: 93-108 – available here), H. Clark Barrett and Tanya Behne argue:

“An important problem faced by children is discriminating between entities capable of goal directed action, i.e. intentional agents, and non-agents. In the case of discriminating between living and dead animals, including humans, this problem is particularly difficult, because of the large number of perceptual cues that living and dead animals share. However, there are potential costs of failing to discriminate between living and dead animals, including unnecessary vigilance and lost opportunities from failing to realize that an animal, such as an animal killed for food, is dead. This might have led to the evolution of mechanisms specifically for distinguishing between living and dead animals in terms of their ability to act. Here we test this hypothesis by examining patterns of inferences about sleeping and dead organisms by Shuar and German children between 3 and 5-years old. The results show that by age 4, causal cues to death block agency attributions to animals and people, whereas cues to sleep do not. The developmental trajectory of this pattern of inferences is identical across cultures, consistent with the hypothesis of a living/dead discrimination mechanism as a reliably developing part of core cognitive architecture”

But of course! What is important, in fact vitally important, to understand regarding the death of a potential prey or potential predator, or for that matter, of any agent one is interacting with, is that death is permanent cessation of agency. Not only children should understand this, but also other animals. In the case of social animals, cessation of agency in a conspecific they normally interact with should be well worth registering.

I don’t know what emotional reaction, if any, we might expect, say, of a chimp when her child or a partner ceases being an agent, but if they understand death this way, simply this way, the question makes sense, and we should look to these ethological observations not to ask: Are they grieving like we do? – but: How are they coping with what they may well understand as a major change in their close social relationship?

Nothing there suggests that chimps understand death like we human adults do – and we don’t all understand it in the same way anyhow. But wait, this understanding evidenced by Clark and Behne in 4-year-olds and that we have some reason to attribute to other animals, is it mistaken? Is it badly wanting? If so, how so? Maybe so much has been pegged on death in human culture that culturally informed adult notions of death are badly confused. For instance, if you believe in afterlife, then death is not exactly cessation of agency. If you posit like Heidegger that there is an “essential relation between death and language” you must conclude – and he did! – that animals don’t die, they merely ‘perish’. If you think, as Marc Hauser does, that a deep understanding of death has to be moral, then the death of, say, a pig and that of a human are events that differ not only in relevance to us, but in kind (unless, that is, you grant pigs a proper moral status – and I am not denying that what human do with the death of another human is different in kind from what they do with the death of an animal).

Yes, the more I think of it, the more adult understandings of death seem to me typically confused, ‘semi-propositional’ if you like the term (façon de parler, nobody does), culturally rich, yes, but not something we should be proud inculcating our children. I know, prior to full inculcation, children show signs of confusion: They may believe that dead people have departed – but isn’t this just partial understanding of the way adults speak of death? -, they may talk of death as something you recover from – but that is how you speak of death in children’s games and now in video games: more confusing cultural input -, and they will say that an inanimate object is dead, and that is just confused. But still, it might be that most or all of the confusion comes from cultural input and that young children and non-human animals have an intuitive sense of death that is not particularly confused and that is indeed quite reasonable.

I am not sure about young children’s intuitive understanding of sexual relationships. They may not have any yet, but I bet it would come to them quite intuitively with adolescence and opportunities and without instructions, as it did surely for our ancestors only 10,000 generations ago (or else we would not be here) and as it would have done for Serge Mouret and Albine if Zola had let them be. What happens however is that children are provided with rich cultural inputs in matters of sex as well as in matter of death, and thus develop expected forms of cultural confusion.


  • comment-avatar
    Bill Benzon 7 May 2010 (17:10)

    On death, I think the crucial issue is knowledge of one’s own death. On sex, have you read Jean Itard’s The Wild Child of Averyron, which was published in 1801, and was the basis for Truffaut’s The Wild Child. It was republished almost forty years ago along with some interesting commentary: Lucien Malson, Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature, Monthly Review Press, 1972. The account of Victor’s adolescence is painful (pp. 175-76 in Malson): I have seen the arrival–or rather, the explosion–of the long-desired puberty, seen our Savage consumed by desires of an extreme violence and a fearful continuity without once realizing their purpose or feeling any form of preference for any woman. Instead of that burst of enthusiasm which urges one sex towards theother, he has shown only a sort of blind instinct, a rather indistinct preference which makes the society of women more agreeable to him than the company of men, but without actually experiencing any true emotion in this connection. This, of course, is a most unusual situation, but worth thinking about nonetheless.

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    Dan Sperber 10 May 2010 (21:26)

    Poor Victor – the wild child of the Aveyron – never had an opportunity to mate, either as a wild child in the woods, or as a strange creature kindly studied by the Dr Itard. We don’t know how he would have reacted if he had been given such an opportunity. A more ‘ecologically valid’ test would have been provided if Victor had not been on his own in the woods but had had the company of a Victorine, equally wild, and reaching puberty at the same time. We don’t know what would have happened in the absence of any witness, but there might have been children to help us guess.

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    Bill Benzon 13 May 2010 (02:02)

    Though I don’t have any citations readily at hand, I believe that primates are not particularly shy about copulating more or less in public (unless, for example, a lower ranked male is “poaching” on alpha “territory”), thus giving the young ample opportunity to observe and thus to learn. Victor never had such opportunities. And, in the human case, we should remember that what we consider to be normal sleeping arrangements, children sleeping in rooms other than the parental bedroom, are relatively recent in our own history and hardly universal.

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    Gloria Origgi 18 May 2010 (17:38)

    I don’t understand your point about our cultural confusion on death and sex: ok, cultural settings are different and the way we transmit moral proscriptions and aesthetic appreciations of the conscious experience of sex and death vary through space and time, as Foucault has very well shown in his [i]History of Sexuality[/i]. Yet, what is probably a cultural universal is that every culture needs to tell a story on death and sex, to create some rituals around these two events, and link them to some form of “sacred” value. There is no culture, at least, I think, but maybe it’s just my anthropological ignorance, that lets the instincts play on these two domains without any normative intervention. And indeed, this may depend on the central role of self-awareness in human life, as Hauser says. The crucial point for me is to understand why human cultures are so obsessed in creating stories about sex, death and religion, stories that go beyond our basic instincts. By the way, I haven’t read Zola’s book, but from the passage you quote, it seems to refer to that rare, cultural, metaphysical, incredible experience of love, more than to the fornication of two shy adolescents, but may be I am too romantic…

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    Dan Sperber 19 May 2010 (23:34)

    For Gloria, the crucial point is to understand why cultures are obsessed with sex and death. My main point however was rather more modest and preliminary. Let me try to reformulate it more clearly. There is no culture that lets the instincts play freely and without any normative intervention in [i]any[/i] domain — not just in matter of sex and death. Since, therefore, what you can observe in people’s behavior and hear in what they say always involve cultural construction, it is all too easy to assume that [i]all of it[/i] is cultural construction and that humans are instinctless animals. This is what is implied in Zola’s conceit of two innocents in love hardly able to find by themselves how to give sexual expression to their sentiments, as if making love was just a culturally acquired skill (and yes, it is also that). Similarly, when thinking that understanding of death has to be rich and deep, we may see it as being beyond the grasp of young children and a fortiori of chimpanzees. But there is a simple understanding of death as the final cessation of agency that is not that superficial, that is essentially correct and that children and some non-human animals may well possess. What now of the rich and ‘deep’ understandings of sex and death developed in cultural traditions? Well, these are clearly grand cultural phenomena well worth the attention of anthropologists and historians, but, from a cognitive or epistemic point of view, the quality of understanding should not be measured by the complexity of its expressions. If cultural representations of death and sex are so complicated — and indeed confused — it is not in order better to account for intrinsically complex phenomena; it is because death and sex are moralized, legalized, aestheticized, economicized, mysticized in an endless variety of ways, in other terms culturally constructed almost beyond recognition (and why is it so? Well, there is an epidemiological story to be told that might help answer Gloria’s question).

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    jeremy mousset 28 May 2010 (06:24)

    Thanks a lot for this very interesting post. If I understand well, the main directions you took were, on the one hand, to deflate the heavily culturally loaded definition(s) of “death” down to “cessation of agency”, and, on the other hand, to point out that humans and chimps might very well have hard-wired living/dead discrimination mechanisms which do not necessarily need conceptual cultural inputs to be efficient. Certainly these two steps are a good preliminary if one is to look at the fascinating behaviours of chimps towards their dead fellows, without too much confusion. I very much agree with you, and I think it is an important point of your post too, that : [quote] we should look to these ethological observations not to ask: Are they grieving like we do? – but: How are they coping with what they may well understand as a major change in their close social relationship?[/quote] Then, with all this in mind, it might be interesting to go back to the questions you asked in the other post, about whether parts or aspects of behaviors in these contexts would nevertheless be culturally transmitted/learned, and whether there is any evidence of that (you asked about inter-group variations for example). I don’t think I could come up with good problems, but your post above made it very clear that the best questions to ask are neither “do they really get that their fellow is really dead ?” nor “aren’t they simply dumbfounded by a phenomenon they could not possibly understand as well as we oh-so-clever-humans do ?” As for innocents fornicating, I am wondering what Zola meant when he wrote: [quote] Ce fût l’arbre qui confia à l’oreille d’Albine ce que les mères murmurent aux épousées, le soir des noces. [/quote] Extrapolating a bit, I’d like to see “the tree” as a metaphor for “Nature”, meaning that “Nature” indeed gave Albine all she needed to have sex (Zola didn’t think the priest Serge would need any advice from “the tree” apparently). Finally, to borrow from Barrett and Behne, I enjoy the hypothesis of a mechanism for sexual relationships as [quote]a reliably developing part of core cognitive architecture[/quote].

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    jeremy mousset 28 May 2010 (06:32)

    …”the tree” as a [b]metonymy[/b] for “Nature”…

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    Olivier Morin 28 May 2010 (09:39)

    Sorry, I can’t resist quoting this immortal exchange from ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, about what mothers whisper to brides the night before the wedding. [i]”[b]Eddie[/b]: I did tell you the facts of life didn’t I sweetie? [b]Saffie[/b]: If you mean that time you sat on my bed and shook me awake at two in the morning, stoned out of your brain, and slurred into my ear ‘By the way sweetie, people have it off,’ then yes, you told me the facts of life. “[/i]

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    Dan Sperber 30 May 2010 (18:06)

    Jeremy Mousset suggests we go back to the question raised in an earlier post: does chimpanzees’ apparently mourning behaviour have any cultural aspect or component? I don’t know of any evidence that it does (after all, the behaviour itself is not that well evidenced), and it would be rather surprising. Still, here is why I think it is not entirely implausible. In humans, misfortunes are good triggers of ritual behaviour for several reasons. Misfortune – disease, death, economic loss, affective loss, and so on – matters, it focuses attention, it causes distress, and it is highly relevant to the victims and also to those around them. This relevance his enhanced by the fact that, while is predictable that misfortune will occur, it is not predictable when it will and typically it catches people unprepared or underprepared. Misfortune makes one eager to respond so as to limit its effects and prevent its reoccurrence, but rarely is there any manifestly efficacious course of action available. This makes one receptive to any suggestion of a possible course of action and favours deference to authority of ‘experts’ or of common usage. Pascal Boyer and Pierre Lienhard have suggested that the human mind is equipped with precaution systems in charge of monitoring potential danger and motivating the organism towards appropriate precaution, and this, if correct, would make people particularly receptive to forms of action favoured by such precaution systems. In other words, misfortune and what it triggers in the human mind renders human highly receptive to course of action that seem to address the issue, and this, through the kind of epidemiological process I have been talking about for a long time, might help explain the emergence and character of many rituals. Now can we extrapolate to the case of non-human animals that are known to be capable of cultural transmission? We can at least speculate. If, as I have suggested in this post, chimpanzees are not just dumbfounded by the death of a conspecific but recognise it as a particular type of misfortune, this may indeed make them receptive to courses of action that seem to be ways of doing something about it. Innovative behaviour of an individual might in this respect be re-produced and modified and thereby become a proper ‘cultural’ practice. Variation between groups in reactions to death would be good evidence that something like this is indeed occurring. But, I insist, this is just speculation.