All the Stories Animals Don’t Tell

Session Date: 
May 19, 2023

Here’s a bit of human folklore: Humans have been telling stories about animals as long as humans have been telling stories. In other words, for a really long time. One particular story humans tell about animals is the one about how, with enough care and patience (and perhaps enough scientific ingenuity) humans might one day listen to the stories animals themselves have to tell. Some folks see this story as nonfiction, a truth about animals manifest in the dance of bees, the grunts of monkeys, the antics of their dogs and cats, or the signs produced by trained gorillas. To be sure, most mainstream scientists politely demur, certain that any claim that animals can tell stories is surely the stuff of fiction, little more than human projection. But yet, almost daily, scientists who study animal cognition paint an ever-richer portrait of their minds. Here’s a sampling: chimpanzees are grieving over their dead, hunting with spears, imagining what each other are thinking, filming autobiographical documentaries, negotiating over food, and making dolls; orangutans are playing charades and suffering from self-doubt; crows are validating Aesop's fables, reasoning about each other's beliefs and planning their breakfast; parrots are predicting their own demise; elephants are painting self-portraits; gorillas are recounting tales of their childhood traumas; even rats are giving their all to liberate their peers from distress. And so, caveats aside, the emerging scientific picture of the animal mind looks indistinguishable from our own. In this talk, I attempt examine these conflicting views. Despite the fact that animals do not sit around fires telling stories, are their minds organized in story-like formats? Do their mental representations of the events of the past, present and future constitute general narratives? Do they construct and reflect on their own personal narratives? And finally, and perhaps more paradoxically, are our scientific answers to these questions a better reflection of the internal world of animals or the humans who study them?

File 2023_05_19_07_Povinelli.mp4231.9 MB