Animal Minds and Our Favourite Fables with Dr. Jo Wimpenny

Zazie and Kristi are joined by zoologist Dr. Jo Wimpenny to talk about her book, Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables.

Jo Wimpenny, Zazie Todd, and Kristi Benson chat on Zoom about Jo's book Aesop's Animals

By Zazie Todd PhD

Watch episode 15 of The Pawsitive Post in Conversation below or on Youtube, listen below or via your favourite podcast app (including Apple, Spotify), or scroll down to read the highlights.

About this episode

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In this episode of The Pawsitive Post in Conversation, Zazie and Kristi are joined by zoologist and writer Dr. Jo Wimpenny to talk about her book Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables. We talk about the history of Aesop’s fables and the role they still play in society today, before moving on to wonder whether there is a grain of truth in them when it comes to animal behaviour.

We consider some of the most popular fables. Are crows really as clever as Aesop suggested? Why are wolves always the villain? Do dogs recognize their shadow? And what is the yellow snow test all about?

We also talk about the difference between what the fable says on the surface, and what happens when you really dig deep into the question—the ant and the grasshopper is the fable that comes to mind here.

In Wimpenny’s book, the animals are the characters in their own stories. We talk about writing about animals and the importance of discussing myths.

And, of course, we talk about the books we’re reading. This episode, we recommend:

Bitch: On the Female of the Species by Lucy Cooke.

Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.

Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum.

The books recommended by Jo, Kristi, and Zazie in episode 15 of The Pawsitive Post in Conversation

About Dr. Jo Wimpenny:

Dr. Jo Wimpenny is a zoologist and writer, with a research background in animal behaviour and the history of science. She studied Zoology at the University of Bristol, and went on to research problem-solving in crows for her DPhil at Oxford University. After postdoctoral research on the history of ornithology at Sheffield, she co-authored the book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin with Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie, which won the 2015 PROSE award for History of Science, Medicine and Technology. And she’s the author of the wonderful book, Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables, which is out now in paperback.

Follow Dr. Jo Wimpenny:

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Aesop’s Animals is available from all good bookstores and my Amazon store.  

Highlights of the episode with Dr. Jo Wimpenny

Z: How did you come up with the idea to compare Aesops fables with what we know about animals? 

J: Yeah so as you said, I did my PhD on crow cognition, that was at Oxford. And it was soon after I finished that that this pivotal study was published on rooks, which was the first replication of an Aesop Fable. It was the Fable of the Crow and the Pitcher, which I can just expand slightly. I'm sure your listeners are familiar, but there's a very thirsty crow that comes across a pitcher with water in it, but it can't reach the water because it can't get its head inside the neck of the pitcher. So what it does is it drops stones into the pitcher, and little by little it brings up the water level and so it can drink. So it saves itself from dying of thirst by this amazing problem solving feat. 

And so this experiment was replicated in I think 2009 at the University of Cambridge and they did it with rooks, which are another kind of corvid, so a member of the crow family. And they found that the rooks did it. I'd just come out of my PhD and I was quite struck by this experiment, and it wasn't immediate but it sowed the seeds for this idea of, I wonder which other fables might actually be supported by science? And so the idea was kind of born out of that. 

"What can we even mean by the word villain when we apply it to animals because that's a very human word."

It was a bit of a slow burner but you know I spent years worrying that somebody else was was gonna write all about it before I sort of got my arse in gear and actually did it. 

Z: Well thankfully they didn't and you got to do it. And these are very old fables aren't they? They're from such a long time ago, so to think about them now in terms of modern science is a really interesting idea. But because they're part of our cultural history, did you grow up with a copy of Aesop's fables? 

J: You know I don't even remember. I'd love for it to be the case that I fondly remember listening to my parents reading Aesop's fables. I was definitely familiar with them. I'm sure we probably had a copy. And yet what you say about them being really old stories, you know they date back, well we don't know that much about Aesop but the current idea is that he lived some five to six hundred years BC. So if he produced these fables, and we know that several of them will have been added to and they've sort of evolved over the years, but we're still looking at over 2,000 year old stories. 

And the thing that struck me was just how amazing, how bizarre actually, it is that we still tell these stories that are so old. And that our beliefs about certain animals are still influenced by these stories; you know we've moved on in so many ways in our society but these things still influence us from such an early age. And so that was one of my main motivations and things that I wanted to explore in the book. 

K: I think it's such a great hook too, because everybody is exposed to these stories you really know them. I think your point was really good in the book that these aren't stories about animals per se, they're stories about teaching about human morality, and human society and human behavior and how humans should act you know. But because it's animals it becomes like it is a part of our story. The fabric of how we think about animals was sort of set up in these stories, so it's really neat. I thought it was a great hook to be like okay well, I didn't realize that I thought that way about animals because of this story that I heard. 

We didn't have a copy in my house when I was a kid but I think we read them in grade five or something. I remember checking them out of the library and reading them and finding them really satisfying, there's something so satisfying about those stories. I think your writing also is great. I think you do a really good job of taking the science and making it interesting but not dumbed down. I don't think the book would have had it the legs it has without your writing as well as the hook of just being like Oh God these stories are so familiar to us. 

J: Oh thank you. I mean that's exactly what I wanted to achieve really. It's stories about science, and science had to be at the heart of them. I didn't want to trivialize what we know because some of science is so complicated. So there's a lot in that book. There are a lot of findings and that's a remarkable testimony really to the way that the field of animal cognition and everything that we know about animal behavior has really grown. But it's great to hear that you like my writing style that's good, thanks. 

K: So in one of the chapters, The Dog and Its Shadow, it takes the starting point of the question of whether dogs can recognize themselves in a mirror. And as well as answering this question you look at what a dog centered approach to addressing this question might be. Can you talk us through that? 

J: Sure. So in the fable there's a dog. It's got this lovely juicy bone, and it's hurrying home, and it goes across a bridge over a river or a lake or something, and it sees its reflection. And in the fable it doesn't recognize that the reflection is itself. It sees another dog. And so it does what dogs do and it barks at the other dog, and therefore drops his bone into the water and loses it. 

And so I saw this as a really nice way of getting into the topic of self-awareness and mirror self-recognition, and that's a topic that has some controversy to it. Classically the way that people would ask whether animals are self-aware, or whether they can realize that they're looking at themselves rather than the animal, would be to use the mirror test. The mirror self-recognition test was pioneered by Gordon Gallup with chimpanzees back in the early 1970s. And that test has sort of become very much the gold standard test for asking whether animals are self-aware. 

"I wonder which other fables might actually be supported by science?"

But for things like dogs and lots of other animals they don't pass it. So in that respect Aesop was quite right in the fable in that, and you can see this from YouTube I'm sure, and I'm sure lots of your listeners will have seen this in their dogs as well, that if they stand in front of a mirror they're more likely to bark at the reflection, or they're more likely to try and initiate play with it, or maybe they'll just ignore it. There's no evidence that they look in the mirror and say, oh that's me and I need to get this thing off my face or whatever it is. 

And so the classic interpretation of animals that fail that test is that they aren't self-aware, but quite a lot of people have called that interpretation into question. So I said it's perhaps not as black and white as that, and rather than saying we can only get information about self- awareness from animals that pass it, we need to really be asking what does it mean if animals don't pass it? Can we really say that that means they've got no self awareness? 

It was people like Mark Bekoff and Alexandra Horowitz who pioneered these studies with dogs taking a very different approach. And they thought it made a lot more sense to ask what the dog knows through its sense of smell, because sense of smell is so very important to dogs. And so much of their kind of recognition is done through their nose rather than through their eyes that ecologically it makes sense that they might actually recognize other animals and recognize themselves through what they're smelling. So they pioneered these tests. 

Mark Bekoff initially did a test called the yellow snow test. And he just sort of tried this out with his own dog. He noticed that when he was out walking in the snow with his dog, if he moved his dog's urine further down the path while his dog was off in the bushes sniffing around, the dog would come back and actually pay attention to that patch of urine. And if he moved the urine of other dogs as well he could see these differences in the way that it was sniffing at its urine versus others. And then Alexandra Horowitz took this into the lab and did more experiments on asking whether dogs have this olfactory sense of self. The evidence seems to be that yes, they might well recognize themselves based on what they're smelling rather than what they're seeing in a mirror. 

Z: I think that's very cool. So is there a fable that got things completely wrong when it comes to animals? 

J: I would say the wolf, but I would say every story pretty much that we ever hear about wolves is pretty much wrong. I mean people are now starting to write stories which portray wolves quite nicely I think, but you know the classic Big Bad Wolf, The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. So that is the Aesop's fable, The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. But there were lots of Aesop's fables about wolves and in every single one pretty much the wolf is portrayed as this ruthless, deceptive vicious killer, often alone, an animal which plots to do nasty things. And that's the portrayal I think that has been continued over the generations and been laid down into our children's stories and things like Little Red Riding Hood or Peter and the Wolf or Three Little Pigs. You know there are so many children's stories that portray wolves as these big bad villains and it's just not true. 

One of my main objections to that is what we can even mean by the word villain when we apply it to animals because that's a very human word. And of course these fables were about conveying human morality and so lots of those portrayals are tied up in very human language. But a wolf isn't a villain, because that's a label that brings with it lots and lots of human baggage I think. And it's the same for something like the fox, if we call it a trickster or cunning or any of these things which kind of implies that they're doing things in this nasty way and they're plotting to deceive us. So I was very happy to try and shoot down that myth, expose and portray some of the true characteristics of wolves in that particular chapter.

About the co-hosts

Kristi Benson CTC

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