The art of (correctly) questioning animals

What do rats take an interest in during experiments? Do goats agree with the statistics? Do birds produce art? Will penguins come out of the closet? Who has ever asked themselves this type of question? The philosopher Vinciane Despret has for her part made it the subject of her new work, Que diraient les animaux si…on leur posait les bonnes questions? (What would the animals say if…we asked them the right questions?). An A to Z tinged with both a humorous and a denunciatory tone, which examines the relationships which human beings (and above all scientists) maintain with animals. Because another way of ‘doing science’ is possible...

Andrew, Dora, Charles, Bertha, Eric and Caroline led a happy and peaceful life at Edinburgh Zoo. This group of captive penguins, observed from 1915 to 1930 by a group of zoologists, ended up having a series of nicknames attributed to them by scientists according to the place occupied by each one in the pairing. For the researchers nothing could be more straightforward: if two penguins were a perfect loving couple, that obviously meant that one was a male and the other was a female. After several years of observation they nonetheless had to face up to the facts: the majority of the couples were not mixed. Everybody thus had to be renamed: Andrew became Ann, Eric metamorphosed into Erica, Bertha was transformed into Bertrand and his companion, Caroline, changed into Charles.

Homosexuality, in nature? At the time the matter was closed and filed away in the ‘rare phenomenon’ category. A pathology no doubt connected to the conditions of captivity. The scientific literature made no further comment on this behaviour, described at the time as being deviant. Yet, over the course of the 1980s, nature seemed to overwhelmingly shift ‘against nature’ and the numbers of homosexual behaviour observed were very large.

Doubtless we should consider the disastrous effects, in the same years, of the queer revolution and the American homosexual movements which had contaminated the innocent creatures,’ says Vinciane Despret, a Professor at the University of Liège, with some irony. In herCOVER-Que-diraient-les-animaux new book, Que diraient les animaux si…on leur posait les bonnes questions? (1), the author prefers to look at the subject from another angle: ‘Why had homosexuality not been seen in nature until that point?’

First of all, homosexuality was not seen because nobody expected to see it, she suggests, leaning on the work of the American biologist Bruce Bagemihl. Next because, generally speaking, animals prefer to copulate out of the sight of prying eyes. Maybe also because certain scientists of the era, allowing to having observed gay relationships in animals, have subsequently confessed that they kept their mouths shut for fear of being accused of being homophobes...Is homosexuality thus natural? Can we say that animals are homosexuals in the sense we mean it? Moreover, it what sense can we maintain that we are homosexual?

So many questions raised by the researcher, who is nevertheless very wary of answering them. In Que diraient les animaux si…, Vinciane Despret has ‘granted herself the luxury of not providing answers to the questions raised.’ And the work indeed poses a plethora of questions. ‘At least 26,’ she jokes. As in the number of chapters which this A-Z consists of.

Should horses provide their consent?

In addition to asking, with the letter ‘Q’ for queer, if the penguins will come out of the closet, to return to the example cited above, the philosopher also wonders: do birds produce art? Do the goats agree with the statistics? Is it indeed common practice to urinate in front of the animals? What do rats take an interest in during experiments? Can we live with a pig’s heart? So many questions which can appear both light hearted (letter ‘B’ for beasts: can monkeys really ape behaviour?) and provocative (‘Z’ as in zoophilia: should the horses provide their consent?).

(1) Vinciane DESPRET, Que diraient les animaux si... on leur posait les bonnes questions?, Paris, La Découverte, coll. "Les empecheurs de penser en rond", 2012, 325p.

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