Thursday, July 23, 2009

Writing Across the Species Divide

After Gretchen's terrific post on writing across cultural divides, I can't resist a few thoughts on another divide: human vs. nonhuman. Because that's where I like to dance as a writer of both expository and narrative nonfiction.

When I studied biology at Duke University, I was well trained in scientific thought and making sure not to ascribe human emotions to non-human animals. I avoid anthropomorphism. Yes, a bee can be hungry. A bee can search. But can it want to be a butterfly? Can it be disappointed? I can't say that, so I didn't put that in THE BUMBLEBEE QUEEN.

Yet in the years since I graduated, knowledge of nonhuman animal consciousness has increased dramatically. If anything, I feel pushed to study the current literature so I can include more plausible animal reactions and emotions in what I write. It's evident from recent studies that many animals make plans and remember individuals. Birds can count. Snails may experience pain. Dogs have a sense of fairness. The new studies in animal consciousness blur line after line we have tried to draw between ourselves and other animals.

Crabs Feel Pain and Remember Being Hurt

Chimpanzees plan to attack visitors shows evidence of premeditated thought.

Dogs have a sense of fairness

Chimpanzees having premeditated thought? I could have told them that. I would swear the woodchuck is having premeditated thoughts right now about the tomatoes in our garden. But I can't prove that. It's just a feeling, so strong a feeling that I just ran out to make sure it had not enacted said plan.

Personal, daily animal observation lets me know that we know so much less than we think we do. Catbirds, squirrels, crows, grouper, angelfish, and barracuda all vary tremendously in their behavior as individuals, not just as a species. It is hard to resist calling those differences "personalities."

Yet in books, I do resist that temptation. I stick with the facts. That's nonfiction. All my observations of sloths, squirrels, toucans, and sharks are not controlled studies. They are anecdotal evidence, boosted by my own imagination.

It's easy to be conservative in portraying animals as emotionless. That isn't controversial. But soon, we may all need to stretch a bit farther to be realistic in our portrayal of animal consciousness. I can hardly wait to see what the next round of studies reveals.


Deborah Heiligman said...

April, I have a good friend, a scientist, who studies all of this. It's so much fun to get together with her and have her tell us about it. She works with dolphins and elephants. I keep thinking I should write about what she does, but then I think she should... so we talk about it a lot. Anyway, it's just the coolest stuff around, isn't it?

April Pulley Sayre said...

Yes! I heard a lot of stories about animal consciousness, particularly among elephants and dolphins, when I researched my book SECRETS OF SOUND: STUDYING THE CALLS OF WHALES, ELEPHANTS, AND BIRDS. And that was years ago. So much more is known now. But much of it is in the heads of researchers who have not published it in scholarly journals. Fascinating stuff!