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THE SCHRÖDINGER'S POSSUM

Susana Monsó

270 pages

Cristina Palomba, editor of Ponte alle Grazie (publisher of the Italian translation), said:

"A stimulating, interlocutory and profound path but with an agile reading. A reflection on the human condition and the limits that should be cut out in respect of the otherness of living beings. Ours is not the only look at the complexity of existence and the time has certainly come to take note. A necessary book, which marks an important stage in the new vision of the world that we hope we will be able to build, where the center returns to being the planet - with all its creatures."

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When the Virginia opossum feels threatened, she becomes paralyzed, her body temperature drops, her breathing and heart rate are reduced to a minimum, her tongue turns blue, and her anal glands start simulating the smell of rot. Despite being so convincingly disguised as a putrefying corpse, the opossum is paying close attention to her surroundings, ready to swing back into action as soon as the coast is clear. Like the cat in Schrödinger’s famous paradox, the opossum is dead and alive at the same time.

In this book we will explore what the opossum has to teach us about other species’ concept of death. We will likewise learn about animals’ perception of mortality from ants who attend their own ‘funeral’, chimpanzees who clean the teeth of corpses, dogs who snack on their owners, crows who avoid the places where they saw a dead conspecific, elephants obsessed with collecting ivory, and whales who carry their dead for weeks.

Throughout history, human beings have thought of themselves as the only animals with a notion of mortality. In this book, which combines philosophical theory with the latest evidence from ethology and comparative psychology, we will see that this view is a result of our own anthropocentric biases and that, also in our relationship with death, we are but another animal.

INTERNATIONAL PRESS

AEON (Hungary)

SPIEGEL (Germany)

SCIENCES ET AVENIR (France)

VICE (USA)

DISCOVER MAGAZINE (USA)

ABC.NET.AU (Australia)

ZENDA (Spain)

EL ESPAÑOL (Spain)

MUY INTERESANTE (Spain)

AÑO CERO (Spain)

CANAL UNED (Spain scholar)

DILEMATA (Spain scholar)

RED FILOSOFÍA (Spain scholar)

CULTURA VEGANA (Spain)

LONG SYNOPSIS:

Chapter 1: Introduction

Starts off with a description of the photograph “The grieving chimps,” which is thought to have sparked the birth of comparative thanatology.

What is comparative thanatology (a discipline at the intersection of ethology and comparative psychology that studies animals’ reactions to the dead and the dying).

Why is a philosopher writing about this (briefly explains what philosophy of animal minds is and why philosophical analysis can help comparative thanatology gain conceptual clarity and rid itself of hidden biases).

Short overview of the contents of the book.

Chapter 2: The ant who attended her own funeral

Starts off with a description of necrophoresis: ants will carry dead ants out of the nest, a very rigid behaviour triggered by oleic acid (put a drop on a live ant and the others will carry her out of the nest).

Necrophoresis illustrates that ants don’t have a concept of death.

What is a concept? Short philosophical introduction to animal minds and concept possession.

Necrophoresis is a stereotypical reaction (contrast between this and cognitive reactions to death; the former are innate and rigid, the latter are learned and flexible).

Stereotypical and cognitive reactions to death are not a pure dichotomy (most animals show necrophobia -an innate aversion to corpses- and may still show cognitive reactions to death).

Cognitive reactions to death will be our focus; we want to determine whether animals can have a concept of death (I will argue yes).

Chapter 3: The whale who carried her dead baby across half the world

Starts off with the case of Tahlequah, an orca who carried her dead baby for 17 days and over 1,000 miles.

Tahlequah’s case became a worldwide obsession because we could identify with her; however, it could have been the case that we were anthropomorphising her behaviour.

Comparative thanatology comes with the threat of anthropomorphism, especially due to its methodology.

Introduction to the methods of study of animal cognition and behaviour: the experimental method, the observational method, and the anecdotal method.

Comparative thanatology tends to follow the anecdotal method, which is the least reliable one, and so the anthropomorphism threat looms large.

However, we should also be wary of anthropectomy (the error of mistakenly denying human-typical characteristics to animals) and anthropocentrism (the bias that makes us take humans as the measure of all things).

An example of how anthropocentrism can affect the study of animal cognition: the mirror self-recognition test.

In comparative thanatology, we see two main forms of anthropocentrism: intellectual anthropocentrism (the only way to understand death is the human way) and emotional anthropocentrism (the only proper way of emotionally reacting to death is the human way). The next two chapters deal with each of these biases in turn.

Chapter 4: The chimpanzee who played house with corpses

Starts off with the case of Lucy, a female chimpanzee who is sterile and was observed play-parenting a dead bushbaby and later stealing the corpse of the infant of a chimpanzee from her group in order to play-parent it.

Lucy’s case sparks the question: did she understand that her ‘babies’ were dead? Answering this requires responding to the question of what understanding death means.

This chapter deals with intellectual anthropocentrism.

Philosophers and scientists assume only humans can have a concept of death, but this is due to an over-intellectualisation of this notion due to intellectual anthropocentrism.

The concept of death, contrary to common assumptions, is not binary but should be understood as a spectrum. We should be asking ourselves not whether animals can have our concept of death, but whether they can have anything that counts as a concept of death at all.

Analysis of the seven sub-components of the concept of death (non-functionality, irreversibility, universality, causality, personal mortality, inevitability, unpredictability).

The minimal concept of death only requires that animals grasp non-functionality and irreversibility.

Definition of the minimal concept of death and explanation of why it qualifies as a concept.

Chapter 5: The dog who mistook his human for a snack

Starts off with the case of dogs who feed on their owners’ remains even if they have access to other sources of food.

These cases are not considered of interest to comparative thanatology, despite being cases of animals reacting to death.

This lack of interest is due to emotional anthropocentrism. Comparative thanatology has focused on looking for human-like reactions to death.

Emotional anthropocentrism has led to an excessive focus on primates.

It has also led to an emphasis on intraspecific and affiliative reactions to death, which are thought to be an expression of grief.

Examples of apparent grieving in animals.

The question of whether animals can grieve is an interesting one, but ought to be treated separately from the question of whether animals have a concept of death.

One can grieve without a concept of death and grief can also muddy the waters because it can lead animals to want to treat their dead as though they were still alive.

Illustration of this through the example of deceased infant carrying in primate mothers. We have indications that the mothers know their baby is dead, but the mother-infant bond seems to move them to treat it as though it were still alive.

Grief does not necessarily signal a concept of death, what it signals is a strong emotional bond with the deceased.

The concept of death is compatible with a myriad of emotional reactions, only one of which is grief. It can also lead to a myriad of behaviours that are very different from mourning, such as cannibalism, infanticide, or necrophilia.

Leaving aside emotional anthropocentrism means de-emphasising the importance of finding grief in animals.

If we cast aside emotional and intellectual anthropocentrism, we can see that the concept of death is likely widespread in nature (will be argued in the next two chapters).

Chapter 6: The elephant who collected ivory

Starts off with the death-related behaviours of elephants, who show a lot of interests in the corpses and bones of conspecifics and especially in their ivory.

Elephants are a good candidate for the concept of death because they possess high levels of cognition, emotion, and experience.

Cognition: The concept of death requires the ability to process non-functionality and irreversibility. Elephants are very cognitively complex.

Emotion: Learning about death requires having an emotional incentive to pay attention to death. For elephants, this comes by way of their strong social bonds.

Experience: The concept of death is not innate but requires experiences with death that can allow for learning to occur. Elephants are long-lived animals with plenty of opportunities to learn about death.

Cognition, emotion, and experience are all necessary for the concept of death to emerge, but the high presence of one can compensate for the relative absence of the others.

Sociality is often proposed as a necessary trait for the concept of death to emerge, but it’s only relevant insofar as it correlates with high levels of cognition, emotion, and experience. Some social animals have very low cognition, some non-social animals have high cognition, emotion, and experience.

Reflecting on these three components can show us how widespread the concept of death is likely to be in nature.

Animals don’t need any particular emotion to learn about death, many will ensure the adequate attention to the corpse.

Death in nature is everywhere, so experience will be high for wild animals who make it to maturity.

There are also many reasons for thinking that the cognition required to process non-functionality and irreversibility is both very basic, very important for survival, and widespread (importance of distinguishing inanimate from animate objects and of detecting patterns and updating one’s expectations, multi-modality of a corpse’s non-functionality and functionality, etc).

The minimal concept of death will thus likely be prevalent among wild animals.

The natural concept of death will likely also incorporate the sub-components universality and causality, due to the common presence in nature of two learning mechanisms: association and inductive generalisation.

Many animals will thus be able to not only process what has happened to others who have died, but also what could happen to others who encounter the same causes.

Some animals could follow this route to acquire an understanding of personal mortality, but one without the notion of inevitability. It would be the understanding that they could die, not that they will die.

There is some preliminary evidence that animals can commit suicide.

Chapter 7: Schrödinger’s possum

Starts off with a description of the elaborate death display of the Virginia opossum. This death display is the final piece of the puzzle that shows us how common the concept of death is in nature.

Importance of looking beyond intraspecific and affiliative interactions to consider the role that violence might play in the development of a concept of death.

Violent episodes attract the attention of group members and provide important cues to learn about death.

But animals may sometimes also kill each other intentionally.

Distinction between different levels of intentionality in killing behaviour; full blown intentional killings require a concept of death.

Coalitional attacks among conspecifics (overview of the evidence and why it suggests high intentionality).

Infanticide (overview of the evidence and why it sometimes suggests high intentionality).

The strongest evidence of intentional killing comes from predation.

Predation is a hot spot for the emergence of death due to predators having high levels of cognition (predators have an incentive to pay attention to death and exhibit a tendency to focus on the functionality of prey), emotion (high emotional incentive to pay attention to death, insofar as live prey represents a danger and dead prey represents food), and experience (predators who make it to maturity can accumulate thousands of experiences with death).

Prey animals who live under the constant threat of predation are likewise good candidates for having a concept of death, due to high levels of emotion and experience.

Back to the death display of the Virginia opossum: this is a behaviour known as thanatosis that provides very good evidence of a concept of death in animals.

Thanatosis is distinguished from tonic immobility. Whereas the latter is basically a paralysis, the former involves actively feigning death.

Tonic immobility and thanatosis work differently: the first functions as an anti-detection and anti-consumption defence mechanism; the second, as an anti-recognition and anti-subjugation mechanism.

Regardless of why it evolved, thanatosis provides us evidence of a concept of death because it involves a cluster of heterogeneous behaviours whose only commonality is that they are characteristics of corpses. The concept of death of the deceived predators is the only selective pressure that could explain its appearance in evolutionary history.

The phylogenetic distribution of thanatosis also suggests that the concept of death is widespread among predators.

Chapter 8: The animal who brought flowers to the dead

Starts off with a description of human practices surrounding death.

We are unique in many ways.

However, our concept of death is not that different, there is a continuity.

Even if we have a notion of the inevitability and unpredictability of death, we typically go through our lives ignoring these. We’ve turned death into a taboo.

For most animals, death is something much more tangible and present. They can experience the inevitability and unpredictability of death much more even if they don’t grasp it explicitly.

There may also be sensory and semantic dimensions to animals’ concept of death that we cannot grasp.

What matters is that there is a continuity. Also with respect to our notion of mortality we cannot consider ourselves totally separate from nature.

Reconciling ourselves with our own animal natures could also reconcile us with our own mortality.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Schrödinger’s possum is the first in-depth treatment of the question of whether and to what extent animals understand death. The only other related book is Barbara King’s How Animals Grieve. They are both books written for a popular audience that deal with animals’ relation with death. However, King’s book is significantly different. Firstly, it has a much narrower focus, centring exclusively on the question of whether animals experience grief after the death of a loved one. Schrödinger’s possum naturally deals with animal grief, but only devotes one chapter to it (chapter 5) and covers a much wider spectrum of animals’ behaviours surrounding death, including for instance infanticide and predation. Second, King’s book is a collection of anecdotes, whereas Schrödinger’s possum includes a much more rigorous and detailed consideration of the scientific evidence surrounding animals’ relation with death. Lastly, How Animals Grieve is not written by a philosopher, and lacks a thorough philosophical analysis of what it means to understand death. In fact, King assumes that animals probably lack a concept of death and that it is not needed to argue that they grieve. Schrödinger’s possum defends a novel theory of what it would take for animals to understand death and presents an exhaustive case for considering that the concept of death is widespread in the non-human world.

The book is written in a clear and accessible manner, with plenty of humorous touches and anecdotes, while at the same time being up-to-date in the latest scientific literature. It is a philosophical contribution to comparative thanatology, a burgeoning yet very young field of inquiry that deals with animals’ reactions to the dead and the dying. Schrödinger’s possum should appeal to both the general public and scholars in the comparative thanatology, ethology, comparative psychology and philosophy of animal minds, all fields where animals’ relation to death is of interest but where in-depth analyses of the issue were missing until now.

PUBLISHED EDITIONS
Spanish
PLAZA Y VALDÉS, 2021/09