A Review of “Animal Odd Couples”

My girlfriend and I tried watching a PBS Nature vid, “Animal Odd Couples,” as a video lullaby. It backfired completely. I get too excited about stories of unlikely cross-species friendships and the richness of animal experience. Now I know. Consider following question: what is the smartest thought an animal has ever had? My guess is that, whatever it is, it’s pretty smart— frighteningly smart— even among terriers and crows rather than just famously cerebral animals like dolphins or bonobos. Only, I imagine that the “smartness” of this thought would be greatly undervalued because it would likely not be a symbolic thought, and as we know, symbolic thinking completely hogs our conception of intelligence. Language, especially. “Thought” or “meaning” are not essentially linguistic, or even symbolic, in nature. Language and symbolization are a large part of human thinking, but they are not all or even most of thinking. They are everywhere not everything.

Our measurement of “intelligence” usually reduces this infinitely complex capacity to a series of word puzzles and symbolic problem-solving. Isn’t it insane that, in the year 2013, there are people— some who consider themselves “smart”— who actually believe that intelligence can be expressed as a number? If you believe in IQs, you should be automatically docked 30 thirty points on your IQ test. Intelligence: the integrated and infinitely subtle and creative response to an infinitely-varied barrage of problems, sensations, and ideas— “Your Score: 120 smart units.” Critics have complained that the tests are biased towards certain social backgrounds and experiences. I agree. Now imagine how biased they are against animal experience. We congratulate gorillas on sign-language use and elephants on painting. But why would an animal ever need these capacities— or anything like them— in the natural world?

To understand animal intelligence, or “rationality,” and animal experience, we have to understand the givens of their being and environment. Take a dog’s sensation of smell, the ability to sense the past in the present. This is one of the ways doggie picks up the world and his understanding of it will be greatly inflected through “smell-thought” (which even in humans is mostly unsymbolized). If we gave humans “smell-puzzles” to solve, they would fail miserably; dogs would ace the test— and they would be real puzzles: who was here, when, what were they doing, which way did they go. They act expertly on their solutions. In the end, dogs are not as smart as people, but whatever intelligence they do possess has to be interpreted through a dog’s being, a dog’s apriorities. To understand them better as thinking beings, we have to act on the “Principle of Charity”: assume that they are making sense, thinking, feeling and work your way from there, rather than assuming that a failure to understand them is insuperable or wholly a lack on their side. This is how we come to “speak” their dialect of experience.

This is part of the genius of Temple Grandin, cow whisperer, designer of squeeze machine and stairway to heaven, who was interviewed in Animal Odd Couples. She jettisons the priority of symbolic thinking for pictorial thinking, which she claims is more dominant in some autistic individuals like herself, and wholly dominant in animals. To understand animals, we have to get into a world of languageless thought as best we can. Easier than it sounds, I would argue.

It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon and you’re mid-nap, cuddling with your sleeping dog. You guys hug a little, assuring the other one, expressing your love and comfort through the largely unsymbolized sense of touch. Then suddenly you shift, and the dog moves to accommodate the new position, then cuddling recommences. Both you and the dog both perfectly understood what happened there— the love, the comfort, the need to reposition. Or, take a game of fetch. You throw the ball, he gets it and brings it back, repeat. I think people assume that humans have some surplus understanding of the game, but they don’t really. They may be better, but in a game of fetch, I think the dog and the human understand each other perfectly, not because man and dog mirror each other’s soul or thinking, but because they are participating in the same wordless grammar of fetch, or earlier in the wordless communication of physical affection.

“Animal Odd Couples” had a lot of this stuff. Charlie the Horse made the acquaintance of Jack the Goat, and they quickly became fast friends. Charlie was already old, and going blind in one eye, and without any urging or training from mankind, Jack would lead Charlie through the woods to his favorite grazing spots. Jack would stay on Charlie’s good side; until Charlie went totally blind, and Jack began to lead in front. Jack did this for years— 14 was it?— until Charlie died, at which point he lost his spunk and reason-for-being. Scientists in the video explained that, until not so long ago, one could not speak of animal “friendship.” The animal kingdom was purely a matter of kinship (widely or thinly conceived) or frank symbiosis. But Jack was Charlie’s friend. Innumerable other unlikely relations have been spotted. Atlas the Gibbon spurned his own kind to associate, at some social distance, with a constantly changing set of other little primates that stayed the same age as he grew older and remained alone and a kook of his kind. This was not even “friendship,” but some other social bond, however loose, lacking in a name. Thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari who lambast the reduction of all relations to familial relations would take heart that even there, in the Animal Kingdom, where most all bonds are familial, friendship can still find a place— and even unrecognizable bonds that arise through the unpredictable creolization of two wildly different dialects of experience. Where two animals of different species without the power of symbolic negotiation work out a new grammar in which they make sense to the other, like Mtani the Cheetah with Tasi the Dog.

A tiger and a coyote hug and play tag and chase and remain inseparable. “I don’t think he knows he’s a coyote”— but does he think he’s a tiger either? Or does he simply allow the idiosyncrasies of his being to interact with that of the tiger— both lost and lonely. Or the Lady Deer and the Labrador, who became instant and lifelong friends, even as though the Deer remained wild and the dog domesticated— what is the name or meaning of that bond? Or where predator-species comes to love their prey-species? They understand one another, but without mirroring each other. No need for words or names: they love each other. There are as many bonds as there are possible combinations of beings.

Watch Animal Odd Couples on PBS. See more from Nature.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.