Aesop’s Animals: Truth, Science, and Fable with Jo Wimpenny

What scientific truths lie behind the millennia-old collection of moral tales we know as Aesop’s Fables? Do the stories tell us something about real-life animal behaviour? How do our myths and metaphors match up to the realities of the natural world?

Zoologist Dr. Jo Wimpenny‘s new book Aesop’s Animals explores all of these questions, linking ancient stories to the latest research into animal behaviour, and challenging our assumptions about the animal kingdom.

Jo and I spoke on the eve of the book’s launch.

We might think we know what Aesop’s Fables are, but was there even really a historical Aesop? What do we mean when we talk about “Aesop’s Fables”?

An exact answer isn’t possible: Aesop’s Fables stretch back to something like two thousand five hundred years ago, which we know because certain ancient scholars of the time mentioned the fables in their writing. Those scholars certainly thought there was an Aesop, though it’s a disputed point; a lot of modern historians point to inaccuracies in descriptions of him, which suggest there may not have been a single author who bore that name. Today there are hundreds of fables attributed to Aesop, but some of these may have been created later, building on the existing tales.

The standard view is that Aesop was a slave, who might have been Greek, Turkish or Ethiopian, who created little moral fables, moral messages. They weren’t about animal behaviour, and they weren’t based on science, because science as we know it didn’t exist at that point. They used animal and mythological characters to communicate moral teachings.

The story goes that Aesop won his freedom by being a master storyteller – that he used his wit and intelligence to entertain and educate people, impressing those in power into granting him his freedom.

The basis for my book is less about whether Aesop was a real person, and more about this very real collection of stories which verifiably does date back to the ancient world.

You say the fables aren’t really about animal behaviour. I guess if there wasn’t a single historical Aesop, there wasn’t necessarily a single person sitting somewhere looking at animals and thinking, “How can I get a moral message out of what I’ve seen?”

The use of animals in Aesop is really interesting. There are commonalities in the ways that different animals are used, so even though the fables aren’t commentaries on animal nature, particular animals illustrate particular traits. So, for example, the fox is consistently depicted as a trickster, a liar, a character that can talk its way out of trouble – and others into trouble!

That leads onto the question of where these preconceptions start from? They existed before these fables were created. How far back do these things go? When we look at the incredible art in the Chauvet caves, for example, we see lions behaving just as modern lions would do. People have always evidently had ideas of what animals can do, have been skilled observers of those animals, and have depicted them in different ways. Aesop’s Fables immortalised some of these details in fascinating ways.

The art in those caves is tens of thousands of years old. As you say, humans have been skilled observers of animals for a very long time. You have a place in that tradition too, as a zoologist by training, with a PhD in the skills of corvids.

Yes, I’m one of the few people who can call themselves a doctor of crows! I have a PhD in crow cognition and my particular focus was on the New Caledonian crow, a species which is famous for being incredibly skilled at making and using tools. We set problems for a captive colony of these crows, exploring whether their use of tools was indicative of higher cognitive processing: in short, were these crows not only tool users, but actually intelligent?

The link to Aesop’s Fables is via a 2009 study by Nathan Emery and Chris Bird, who replicated the fable of The Crow and the Pitcher, in which a thirsty crow drops stones into a pitcher to raise the water level enough for it to drink. Emery and Bird decided to test whether rooks would actually do this, and found that they did. As far as I’m aware, that was the first direct test of an Aesop’s Fable and has led to a whole new research arm where people are testing the Aesop’s Fable paradigm in their study species!

The Crow and the Pitcher by Jan Willemsen – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

That was the original inspiration — what drew you deep enough into this topic that you produced a whole book on Aesop’s animals?

I love telling people about animal behaviour and enthusing them about this topic. I’m lucky, because it’s relatively easy to get people excited and curious about what animals do! 

What I really liked about the Aesop’s Fable experiment is that it provided an extra hook: if rooks, jays, and other crows behave like the bird in the fable, what other fables might be based in fact?

My motivations changed as I went along. I started off by seeing the fables as an interesting hook, something that people had heard of even if they weren’t that interested in animal behaviour. Yet the more I looked into our representations of animals, the more I realised that it’s quite an odd situation: we have these stories that are still being told, this incredible and familiar resource, especially for children – yet they’re over two thousand years old, and they’re still influencing our beliefs about animals. Some of these fables have completely infiltrated into our collective consciousness, which is bizarre and fascinating. The ideas in those tales were generated in a time so different from today that it is almost beyond recognition, yet they still influence our thoughts and perceptions about animals.

And, somehow, no one else has ever written before about the science of Aesop’s animals – so I’ve spent the last five years writing this book, hoping no-one else was working on the same thing!

The truth is, though, that there is more than enough room for multiple authors to explore this territory. There are so many stories, and because they are stories, each one can be told differently. What I’m writing here isn’t an academic text, but my own stories – grounded in science – about what the ancient fables say, and how they relate to what we know of animal behaviour today.

Have you found yourself debunking Aesop? Do foxes, for example, deserve their bad press as liars and tricksters?

The problem is that those depictions are so wrapped up in human language and values that it’s hard to know how we would tell if a fox was “villainous”. These are constructs we came up with to describe human behaviour, human intention, and human emotions. When we start to use them to describe animal behaviour, we stray out of biology and science, because they were never designed for that purpose.

That’s where the danger comes, when we start to make villains of animals based on stories that were designed to convey a moral message about people.

So, I can’t say whether a fox is a villain, that’s not an attribute you can give to an animal. But I did look for scientific evidence that demonstrates foxes are intelligent. It’s hard to find  specific studies on fox intelligence, but we can look to the fox’s biology and the fact that it is a hugely successful animal.

It has adapted to live alongside us, to thrive in urban environments, and it learns really quickly: foxes, for example, quickly learn what is the best time of day to cross a road, often doing so after midnight to avoid traffic. They’ve learned what times to show up at the garden of a person who regularly feeds them; they are opportunistic, adaptable, and intelligent, though we don’t have much evidence yet of the cognitive processes behind that behaviour.

With wolves, I was really happy to dispel the idea of wolves being deceptive, lone psychopaths as they are often depicted in popular culture. In biological fact, wolves are loyal creatures that live in packs, in tightly bonded family groups, and show similar traits of playfulness, cooperation, and intelligence that we value in human societies. They are intelligent animals, working with their families in order to try and stay alive. And yet they have this terrible reputation!

You say we impute human characteristics to animals but that it doesn’t really make sense to do so. How do scientists observing animals make sure that they’re really observing what’s going on and avoid deceiving themselves by ascribing stories to what they see?

I think it’s near-impossible to observe something in such a detached way that you don’t ascribe motivations and stories to what you’re seeing, so a lot of it depends on knowing the potential pitfalls, building professional experience, and trying only to record objective, pre-defined behaviours.

Some researchers will set up experiments but choose not to watch what goes on during the experiment. They don’t want to be influenced by their preconceptions, so they get someone else to watch and code the data, who doesn’t necessarily know what the experiment is designed to test. 

I guess this work builds on the existing science of animal behaviour, that each new experiment is testing or extending a knowledge base which has been built up over time.

Your previous book, Ten Thousand Birds, was a history of ornithology. What does it mean to take your place as part of a scientific tradition?

I haven’t done empirical research for a while, but I think there’s something really special about knowing you’re part of this community who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Working in crow cognition, it was such a young field – it only came to light in a detailed study that the New Caledonian crow routinely made and used tools in 1996! 

There had been anecdotes about tool use among the crows on New Caledonia, but Gavin Hunt, a researcher then based in Auckland, went out and spent time on the island, watching the birds and kicking off a long-term research study on New Caledonian crows. It has revealed that tool use and manufacture is a routine part of these crows’ lives. My supervisor at Oxford, Alex Kacelnik, along with his team, got a captive colony of the crows together in order for us to look more deeply into cognition and how the birds were using tools.

I was working on the field in its infancy, which is a really cool feeling. Especially in cognition, the field has been so primate-centred, and specifically so ape-centred; it’s taken a lot of time for other animals to get a look in. I’d say that corvids were among the first animals to overturn that.

It’s been interesting to see perceptions changing. Initially people are very dismissive of the fact that a non-ape, a non-primate, a non-mammal is capable of doing things which were held up for such a long time as examples of uniquely human traits, or uniquely ape traits. 

Now the field has broadened and researchers can seriously explore the cognition of octopuses, of other birds, of bees, ants, raccoons, elephants, dolphins. It was cool playing my little part in that, at the time.

It seems humans like to centre themselves. Wolves and foxes were seen as villainous perhaps because of their impact on human communities – they stole livestock; primates were seen as our closest kin, and so it was comforting perhaps to look for signs of intelligence there and not elsewhere.

How has your training as a zoologist and a writer on animal behaviour affected your view of human beings?

In quite opposite ways, I think. We’re amassing so much evidence of animals being capable of really remarkable things, closing the gaps we thought existed between ourselves and other creatures. We are animals, much as we don’t like to admit it sometimes, and we share so much with them. Yet we are so exceptional in terms of what we’ve done, and our footprint on the planet – not, sadly, in good ways, most of the time. Few animals, if any, could get close to that.

Take a look at cultural traditions, for example. Big collaborative studies of chimpanzee populations in Africa have revealed that they have cultural traditions. No other animal comes close to them, yet if you compare chimpanzees to us, we’re not just transmitting a particular skill: we transmit entire domains of knowledge, collaborating and learning from one another in ways which are incomparable to the rest of the animal kingdom.

We’re still animals, and there’s ever more evidence of our overlap with other creatures – and yet we are also definitively set apart from the animal kingdom.

It’s almost like mapping a coastline: if you do it from on high, you get a vague sense of the demarcation between human and animal, but if you get down on the ground and track the exact point where the land gives way to the sea, you capture all the ins and outs, every inlet and cove. It sounds like a more subtle picture of the similarities and differences between humans and animals.

It’s definitely the case that we are zooming in further on the detail of these distinctions, but there are still some massive differences. There are things we’ll struggle to ever know about what is going on in the minds of other animals. And some of those differences we might still not be fully aware of.

A recent study, which came out maybe a month ago, looked at rat empathy. We know that rats do respond to the emotional state of others, and they can catch this behaviour: empathy in its most basic form. This study mapped out the parts of the brain involved when rats experienced another in distress. They had one rat trapped in a tube and another who was outside and able to let the first rat out.

In all rats, a particular area of the brain fired when they saw the stressed-out rat in the trap. And that area overlaps pretty well with the one that fires in our brains when we experience empathy. But when it came to helping, the study showed that another part of the brain needed to be triggered, and only rats that were with members of their own group experienced this triggering of the reward centre in the brain and were actually driven to help.

When we think about human societies and how we foster things like kindness and caring, at least if we think about this research, empathy alone isn’t enough. It might be that we need to think more about promoting common group membership and inclusivity, rather than empathy, to lead to action.

I think about the Dutch anthropologist Abram de Swaan’s work on emotional concerns and identification, that the really significant thing is which humans we consider to be like us and which ones are unlike us. How interesting that these studies could converge and resonate.

You say, “There are things we’ll struggle to ever know about what is going on in the minds of other animals.” Which areas won’t yield, even to further study?

When I think about my subjective experience of the world right now, I’ll never know what a dog’s is, or what the subjective experience of a snake is. I’ll never even really truly know how you, a fellow human being, experience the world! I think there are those things that we can never work out, no matter how much research we do. 

For example, we know that some animals have very sophisticated memories, but we can’t know whether what they recall is a picture in their mind of something they’ve experienced before, or whether they mentally project such images when they plan for future needs. We’ll keep learning, and get closer to knowing, through neurobiology and brain imaging techniques giving us richer representations of what’s actually going on in the brain when animals are doing certain things. Still, there will always be things we can’t ever truly know.

Language plays such a part in sharing subjectivity; from Aesop’s two thousand year old fables, to the conversation you and I are having right now, to the apparent impossibility of having that kind of dialogue with a non-human animal. 

I know linguists have found that birdsong has some characteristics which were once thought unique to human language, and that there’s historically been a lot of debate about chimps’ mastery of sign language. There’s a slipperiness to defining language as a faculty which belongs only to humans.

Does that come up in Aesop’s fables? What’s your perspective on animals’ ability to use language, or something that is like language?

I probably don’t know enough to offer more than my own musings! I think language is key, and that it’s probably the biggest remaining marker of human uniqueness. However, it really boils down to terminology, as with so many things in animal behaviour: the way that something is defined is hugely important as to whether we recognise it in other creatures. That’s what drives a lot of controversy around intelligence in our own species and others. Not being able to clearly answer “What are these animals doing? Why are they doing it?” presents an enormous challenge.

Talking about terminology, definitions, and preconceptions makes me think: one of the benefits of your book is that we all have a cultural grab-bag of assumptions and stories about what animals are like and why they do what they do. Aesop’s Animals demystifies some of that by returning us to what we can really know about animal behaviour.

I can imagine someone reading your book and being moved to go to the kitchen window, look out on the back garden, and think: “What can I see the animals doing out there? What is really going on, if I take off my cultural lenses and just pay real, careful attention?”

What you do comes from this place of love: you have put so much energy and attention into observing and understanding animal behaviour. Do you remember when that began?

It’s been a lifelong thing, though it has really intensified over the last few years. One of my big aims is that someone might be inspired by my book to actually go out, to look at things, not to jump to conclusions but next time they see an animal to ask “What is it doing? Why is it doing it?” rather than taking the cognitively easy route of leaning on preconceptions.

I was really fortunate growing up in the Wye Valley with a big garden. There was wildlife everywhere. When I was very young, I found my first bird’s nest. It was a blackbird’s nest, deep inside a rhododendron bush in our garden. I remember crawling in with my brother – totally the wrong thing to do, scaring the birds away – and seeing these beautiful blue eggs inside. It’s one of my first memories.

I didn’t understand much about nature then, and I didn’t understand death; my other memory from a similar age is of finding a dead mouse in the garden, perfect and unmarked. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I took it into my house, found a pretty little box to put it in, and tied a ribbon around it. I left it quite merrily on a shelf in my cupboard and forgot all about it until my mother found it a couple of weeks later, trying to find the source of the horrible smell in my bedroom!

I’ve always been captivated by what animals do. I knew I was interested in their behaviour, rather than just spotting different species. I wanted to know why they were doing what they were doing.

You crawled into a rhododendron bush and through the trials of a PhD, and that’s all a part of the same journey as an observer of nature – but have you also always been a writer?

Absolutely. I still have my first unfinished manuscript, from when I was about eight years old. It was inspired by my hamster, and was all about the adventures of Humphrey the Hamster. I wrote a few chapters of it on my dad’s old computer, and although it got abandoned, I’ve always written about animals. Going to school in Wales, I used to love the yearly Eisteddfods, and the chance it gave me to write stories above all. 

I think I was also keenly aware from a young age about threats to nature, and the possibility of destruction. I vividly remember The Animals of Farthing Wood TV show, and a story that I wrote about elephants, around the age of ten, which was really harrowing as it depicted the journey of a herd of elephants in a drought and under threat from poachers. Writing was the best way I had of processing these things.

I’m reminded of Barbara Gowdy’s very unusual novel The White Bone, which has elephants as characters…

One of the things that has been interesting for me, as someone who works in strategic foresight, is that there are so many points of contact with your work.

Aesop is referenced in discussion of scenarios by the OECD’s Josh Polchar, who points out that such future visions are more like cautionary fables than forecasts: they don’t have to come true in order to inform us.

When we look at systems thinking, we might take the example of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park and the impact that had on the landscape, drawing on animal behaviour to help people think about their own context and strategies.

And your idea of avoiding the cognitively easy route of received wisdom in order to more clearly see what is really going on around us, and what might be coming next, is also a part of good strategy.

All of this makes me want to ask you: what do you foresee for the relationship between animals and humans?

It’s hard not to feel very pessimistic, to be honest. There’s so little good news coming out, and we will continue to increase our footprint on this planet, which is the biggest source of conflict. We will keep consuming resources and taking animals’ habitat, converting it to what we need. I would love to be hopeful, but it would take a really united effort, and so many other global challenges to be overcome first.

The ethos of conservation has rightly changed in recent years, so it is no longer about rich Western countries jetting into a place, attempting to tell local people what to do. Communities which are struggling to survive will not have the same priorities, and greater understanding is needed.

There’s a fantastic example with mountain gorillas in Uganda, where very poor communities around the national park where those gorillas live have been in conflict with those animals for decades. Local scientists are now partnering the communities with the animals, giving incentives to look after the gorillas in the form of healthcare and education. I’d love to see more effort going into such initiatives, though the truth is that if people are struggling with poverty, with survival, with disease, then conserving nature is not their priority.

The simple truth is: I don’t know how we get things better.

Aesop’s stories are like a well-worn pebble, they’ve been made smooth and comfortable as they’re handed down familiar retellings. Yet the whole world that those fables were drawn from is under threat.

Aesop’s world is not the same world that we’re now in. People of Aesop’s time couldn’t imagine the threats that, not just animals, but nature, all of us, now face because the world has changed beyond recognition in two thousand years. It’s all the more reason for us to stop thinking about animals in terms which don’t apply any more. Wolves were historic threats to livestock, but that’s not because they’re evil, it’s because they need to eat, and they come into conflict with us because of our expanding footprint.

Perhaps the story of the mountain gorillas in Uganda suggests a practical, hopeful example of how we replace the fable of the evil wolf with a new story about cooperation and custodianship.

Just as you went from childhood discovery of that blackbird’s nest to your doctorate and now Aesop’s Animals, hopefully someone will read your book, look out of their window, think about all of the other beings that inhabit their environment alongside them, and set off on their own journey of learning.

Dr. Jo Wimpenny is a zoologist and science writer. After researching crow intelligence at Oxford University, she co-authored Ten Thousand Birds, an award-winning book on the history of ornithology, and has since written for magazines such as BBC Wildlife.

Her latest book, Aesop’s Animals, turns a zoologist’s critical eye to a selection of Aesop’s fables, asking whether there is any scientific truth to some of humanity’s most famous animal characters.

Jo lives in Oxford, UK, with her partner.

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