'Species other than ours are far more like ours than most of us believe'

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: "A form of jelly fish literally lives forever - unless eaten by a fish."

The Ecologist
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas published The Hidden Life of Dogs in 2000 and enjoyed more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Now she is publishing the Hidden Life of Life: a Walk through the Reaches of Time. Here she takes on the scientific assumption that animals do not have consciousness and memory. CURTIS ABRAHAM interviewed her for The Ecologist

I was on the road to that understanding before I went there - but wow - what the San knew about their world was mind-bending.  They had acquired an overwhelming amount of botanical, zoological, astronomical and climate knowledge, which few have equalled to this day.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas was born to pioneering American anthropologist Lorna Marshall and husband Laurence K. Marshall. Between 1949 and 1956, she took part in three expeditions to live with and study the Ju/'hoansi !Kung San, the “Bushmen” of the Kalahari Desert in what is now Namibia, Botswana and the western part of South Africa.During these trips, Thomas kept a journal which she later drew on when writing her first book, The Harmless People

Her book, The Hidden Life of Dogs - which was published in 2000 - spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Her latest book, the Hidden Life of Life: a Walk through the Reaches of Time, shows the unity of all life on earth over the eons of biological evolution - that all of nature’s wonderful diversity descend from something like a virus, a little string of molecules somewhere in the water.

She ends the book with the pre-contact San (“Bushmen”) with whom I lived for some years, because they are our ancestors, and showed the way of life of our species for thousands of years. 

Curtis Abraham (CA): What is your new book Hidden Life of Life: A Walk through the Reaches of Time all about?

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (EMT): The basic theme of Hidden Life of Life is that species other than ours are far more like ours than most of us believe. For instance, in the past even scientists took the position that animals did not have consciousness. To assume that animals do have such things as memory, emotions and consciousness was known as 'Anthropomorphism' and was thought to be sentimental unscientific folly. 

The book begins with the earliest type of life-forms - archaea and bacteria - each of which has its own domain, then deals with the third domain, which includes everything else - from amoebas to humans. In this book I try to avoid anthropodenial in every way possible, and it’s drawn some criticism already.

CA: What is anthropodenial?  

EMT: The Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal has coined a new word - 'anthropodenial' which means presenting another life-form as if it did not have human characteristics.

The anthropodenial position was held by the general public to some degree. For example, you couldn’t call an animal 'he' or 'she', for instance. An animal was 'it'.  A friend who wrote about a bird who laid an egg was told by her editor that she had to call the bird 'it' instead of 'she' despite the fact that male birds aren’t known to lay eggs! My friend called the bird 'she' despite the editor.

CA: Why do you think the scientific community was/is reluctant to acknowledge anthropomorphism? Didn’t Charles Darwin write a whole book on The Expressions and Emotions in Man and Animals?

I was on the road to that understanding before I went there - but wow - what the San knew about their world was mind-bending.  They had acquired an overwhelming amount of botanical, zoological, astronomical and climate knowledge, which few have equalled to this day.

EMT: It’s true that Darwin had no doubt that other species had consciousness, thoughts, and emotions, and I don’t know why his position wasn’t upheld in more recent times.

Nor is there a formal explanation of why scientists later didn’t seem to agree. A scientist friend involved with such matters told me that because these mental qualities were more or less impossible to measure, and that scientists required proof, they were obliged to take a guess, and took the more conservative position that other species did not have mental abilities that could compare to ours. I would agree that this looks like human narcissism, and I feel quite sure that not all scientists agreed.

CA: What scientific evidence do you present in the new book that supports anthropomorphism?

EMT: Anthropomorphism is kind of like racism, in that it's been ubiquitous ever since I can remember. Scientists more or less agreed that anthropomorphism was wrong, that other life-forms didn't have consciousness.

In other words, scientists were in a state of anthropodenial. Things like thoughts are hard to prove, and scientists need proof. Maybe they didn't really believe that, but only recently has the wrongness been challenged.

Perhaps the best evidence that anthropomorphism exists is the big backlash that's erupting against this - it's about time this happened.

It was a while before scientists began to investigate the mental abilities of other life-forms. By 'mental' I don't mean that everything has brains - mimosa trees and the paramecium have a certain amount of awareness and memory.

Many books have been published in recent years showing that animals - and other life-forms - have plenty of consciousness, a fact that's slowly leaking down to the general public. 

CA: It is largely the Western intellectual world that has been distancing humanity from the rest of nature over the past centuries. Surely, indigenous peoples like the Amis or San or Arawak didn't initially view the world this way?

EMT: People who have actual, daily experience with the natural world - and deal with it on an hourly basis - are infinitely better informed than those of us who don’t have such experience.

But I’m not just speaking of the white western intellectuals - some of whom are the scientists, after all - but others like farmers deal with nature but they tend to see it as an enemy and go about erasing as much of it as possible.

For example, wild animals are shot, and non-agricultural plants are viewed as weeds. While indigenous people such as the San blend into the natural world as part of their daily lives and thus have a better, more realistic grasp of what goes on there.

CA: Would you say we owe a great debt to Jane Goodall in that she immediately recognized the individuality of her study animals, which went counter to the prevailing scientific procedure of the day, and named her chimps instead of giving them numbers?

EMT: We certainly owe a great debt to Jane Goodall, but as for recognising the individuality of her animals study, I'd say that almost anyone who has done similar work did the same thing, if only it's because the individuality [of the animals] is so obvious.

I participated in Katy Payne's study of infrasound in elephants. Elephants make infrasonic calls to one another that might be detectable at distances as far as ten kilometres - these calls aided in travel and mating.

Katy discovered it and we spent a long time in Namibia's Etosha Park, and knew we were supposed to give numbers to the elephants. In fact, the park authorities demanded that we do, and forbade our giving them names.

But this seemed not only ridiculous but also needlessly difficult.  It's much easier to remember a name than a number, so of course we named all the elephants. Anyway, Katy's publication didn't require either names or numbers - she wrote about the sounds they make, not their behaviour as individuals.

CA: You also have a fondness and respect for microscopic life?

EMT: Yes, the new book also deals with early type of animals that are almost microscopic, one of which - Turritopsisdohrni, a form of jelly fish - literally lives forever unless eaten by a fish.

This isn’t unique to T. dhorni - several other life-forms have similar abilities. It deals with my favourite kind of small animal - the waterbear, evidently much the same as it was for millions of years, surviving all the extinctions, and will be here long after we’re gone. They are now found almost everywhere in any little ecosystem that’s wet - I found mine in a swamp.

CA: In the book you also bring home the fact that we humans do not appreciate the wonders and miracles of creatures we feel are lesser to us, either in terms of physical size and/or ecological importance and/or those that are aesthetically pleasing to our eyes? Why this attitude?

EMT: Like most other species, we see ourselves as the most important species - the only worthwhile species. We imagine that God made us in his image that we’re supposed to dominate the Earth.

We imagine that we are at the topmost rung of the evolutionary ladder, a ladder that we invented, with our characteristics as the important ones, which renders other species as lower.  If dogs made an evolutionary ladder, dogs would be at the top, with acute sense of smell being the defining reason.   

CA: How can this change?

EMT: The only thing I can think of that might help is to give more publicity to tiny creatures. I tried to do that in Tamed and Untamed, the book I wrote with Sy Montgomery, a collection of the columns we wrote for the Boston Globe that explores the minds, lives, and mysteries of animals such as octopuses, lions and snails.

CA: What have you observed from the world of plants and trees? 

EMT: Plants don’t have brains but they know things - they sense sunlight, they sense gravity, they sense the other plants near them, they inform each other about parasite attacks, and communicate with pheromones or through their roots. They also cooperate with fungi, giving sugars to the fungus and receiving minerals in return.

CA: In pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous peoples had a sort of understanding with the wildlife they encountered. But in modern times we see - for example - herding communities in east Africa poisoning wildlife such as lions that prey on their cattle. What has been your experience with the San ("Bushman") in southern Africa?

EMT: From the San’s long history as hunter-gatherers we can learn what it’s like to live in the natural world. For instance, the people we knew - having lived among pre-contact San - had a truce with lions.

Both hunted the same game in the same way, both needed to live near a source of water, the people used the day and the lions used the night, and they didn’t hunt or attack each other.

Why? A possible reason is that their enormous area had no surface water, they both had to depend on waterholes, and if one group bothered the other, one group would have to move, but every water source was already home to other groups of people and other groups of lions-best to avoid the need to move.  Here, the subject reflects the purpose of the book—the lions had as much sense as the people did, and the no-hunt arrangement was quite possibly made by the lions. 

CA: How did your early experiences with the San during the 1950s affect your appreciation for the natural world?

EMT: I’d say that the experience with the San set my life in a great direction. [One] advantage I gained from the experience was a sense of the natural world.  

I was on the road to that understanding before I went there - but wow - what the San knew about their world was mind-bending.  They had acquired an overwhelming amount of botanical, zoological, astronomical and climate knowledge, which few have equalled to this day.

This came from flawless observation - as it still does - to all who live in the natural world. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their observation was their arrow poison, perhaps the deadliest in the world.

On drop can kill you and there’s no antidote. It’s found in the larvae of Diamphidia beetles and their Lebistina parasite. Many of us - not me - see the natural world as something to view, nice scenery. It’s much more than that.

CA: In The Hidden Life of Life, you allude to the shortcomings of science and scientists vis-à-vis anthropomorphism, for example. Has modern science and its practitioners been a disappointment for you?

EMT: I have been somewhat critical of science in the way science has been involved with such things as anthropomorphism. And I'm critical of science-speak, in that most of what many scientists write is incomprehensible to most people.

However, I have utmost respect for science and scientists. I do make a point of the importance of science, and the Coda at the end of The Hidden Life of Life gives an example.

I think the idea that other species didn’t have thoughts, emotions, memory etc wasn’t meant to be a provable, scientific finding—it was just a kind of assumption on the conservative side, because such things as thoughts can’t really be proved and scientists have this habit of proving things.

CA: The Hidden Life of Life is part of the Animalibus series of Penn State. Tell me more about this series.

EMT: I'm so glad to be part of Penn State’s Animalibus series. Its important contribution is publishing books that counter anthropodenial. One fabulous book they published is Among the Bone Eaters by Marcus Baynes-Rock.  I wrote a foreword for it, a great honour, and it's riveting. 

This Author

Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades with his work appearing in numerous publications including New Scientist, BBC Wildlife Magazine, New African and Africa Geographic.

The Hidden Life of Life: a Walk through the Reaches of Time is published by The Pennsylvania State University Press University Park, Pennsylvania, March 2018.

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