Book Review: The Science Behind Aesop’s Zoo

book review“Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fable,” by Jo Wimpenny (Bloomsbury Sigma, p. 368).

This fun book by Wimpenny is a kind of guided tour of the animal world, but the topic isn’t chosen at random. Instead, she focuses on a subset of the animals mentioned in “Aesop’s Fables,” a much-loved collection of stories attributed to a slave named Aesop who is thought to have lived in Aesop some 2,500 years ago Greece. So, in addition to dogs, we also meet wolves, crows, donkeys, lions, monkeys, ants, grasshoppers, hares, and tortoises. Each chapter takes its name from a specific fable—”The Raven and the Pitcher,” “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes,” etc.

Wimpenny cites the work of scholars who have studied the behavior of these animals for decades, as well as her own research. And, as the childhood dog story suggests, so too have many of her own experiences.While we’ve learned a lot about what various animals can do, deeper insights come from trying to discern Why They do them. In short, we’re eager to know what’s on their minds.

For example, do animals have self-awareness? Of course, the answer varies by species, but some of the results seem to be fairly robust.Chimpanzees, for example, appear to pass the mirror test: when exposed to their own reflections, they eventually understand that animals that appear to be behind glass are actually them.

Darwin asked a similar question more than 180 years ago, even though he observed the behavior of young orangutans rather than chimpanzees at the London Zoo. Starting in the early 1970s, psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. conducted a series of mirror tests on chimpanzees. As Wimpenny explained, he observed that, over time, they would “examine parts of the body that can only be seen through a mirror, including the inside of their mouths and genitals; they pick food from their teeth, from their eyes Picking up mucus; they make faces and blow bubbles.”

Gallup moved on to more complex experiments, and in time to convince his colleagues that chimpanzees could indeed recognize themselves in the mirror. What’s most interesting, however, is how rare this is in the animal kingdom. Orangutans can do this, he concluded, but many of our primate cousins, such as macaques, fail to recognize their reflexes even after years of exposure to mirrors. They just don’t “get it”, as Wimpenny puts it.

More controversially, a particular Asian elephant is said to have passed the mirror test, as well as cleaning the wrasse – a fish that eats parasites on larger fish. But as Wimpney explains, if an animal fails the mirror test, that doesn’t necessarily prove they lack self-awareness. For example, wolves, coyotes and dogs are not interested in their reflexes. However, as scent-oriented animals, why do they do this?

Speaking of dogs, Wimpenny devotes several pages to the fascinating story of how humans domesticated these animals over thousands of years. The story is told often, but she proposes a twist that is new to many readers: It turns out that genetic variation may have played a major role in turning dogs from predators to allies. As molecular biologists have only recently discovered, genetic abnormalities in dogs (but not wolves) correspond to those in humans with Williams-Burren syndrome — a rare disorder that makes people good at Communication, not afraid of strangers. “The finding that wolves and dogs differ in this equivalent portion of the genome,” Wimpenny writes, “suggests a potential mechanism supporting the transition from wolves to friendly, human-loving dogs.”

Given the amount of groundbreaking research on crows and other corvids over the past decade, it’s no surprise that they also feature prominently. Crows, like humans and chimpanzees, are tool users. They can bend wires and even make their own hooks to retrieve hard-to-reach food. As Wimpenny emphasizes, we are not shocked to find that chimpanzees exhibit this behavior. After all, our lineages parted ways with theirs only 6 million years ago—and maybe even later. By contrast, our last common ancestor with birds lived 320 million years ago. There is also some evidence that corvids can recognize faces and even language.

What’s even more remarkable is that we’ve learned how these birds are think — and their ability to think. Of particular interest is Nicky Clayton’s research, first at UC Davis and now at Cambridge, on a relative of the crow, known as the western bush jay. Clayton showed that jays can remember the past: They can hide food in places they know they can retrieve later — and, after burying different kinds of food, they prefer to dig out faster — first Rotten food, preserves longer lasting food for later use. In a more elaborate experiment, Clayton and her colleagues showed that the birds not only remember the past, but also plan for the future. They kept the jays in three different compartments on different days – one where they always received “breakfast” and one where they didn’t. On weekends, unexpectedly give the birds extra food at night, in a place where they have access to all three compartments. The jays quickly hid the excess, prioritizing it in the “no breakfast” compartment. Because the birds were not hungry when they were hiding, Clayton concluded that they did anticipate the hunger they would experience the next morning.

Do bush jays reminisce about the past and think about events in the distant future, as humans often do? Probably not – as Wimpenny concedes, many of these results are still being debated. Still, it seems implausible to claim that only humans control the past and the future, while the rest of the animal kingdom is stuck in the present.

Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of repetition – many themes, including Clayton’s work with those bush jays, come up multiple times. This seems to be largely the result of associating each chapter with Aesop’s fables. If there are no constraints on structure, perhaps the author can find a more condensed narrative.

Nonetheless, each chapter is filled with compelling facts and arguments. (My favorite takeaway is the fact that both Charles Darwin and Steve Irwin spent time caring for the same turtle. Her name was Harriet, and she died in 2006 at the age of at least 176.)

The book’s greatest strength is its detailed exploration of the animal mind. Wimpenny carefully shows us how they differ from our own – yet, in many ways, they’re not very different.

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