Photo: Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев, Unsplash

Animal Science vs. Morality: A Look at Aesop’s Fables

A conversation with Jo Wimpenny, author of 'Aesop’s Animals'

AS WE PUT TOGETHER our most recent issue of Orion, one of the texts we studied was Jo Wimpenny’s Aesop’s Animals, a meditation on many of the fables we’ve heard and recited since childhood. But to Wimpenny, a zoologist and feature writer for the BBC, the animal heroes and villains of Aesop’s fables aren’t characters, but sentient organisms whose profiles don’t always line up with the manner in which they’re depicted. Aesop’s Animals gives us new wolves, new ants, and especially new crows, often gentler than the characters based on them, and all struggling to survive in their own ingenious ways.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Wimpenny recently about the animal science and behavioral psychology of fables.

Why animals? What is it about animals that allow fables and fairy tales to carry such distilled sentiments? Is it a lack of imagination as we struggle to perceive sentience and complexity in their identities? Or is it the lack of familiarity, the fact that they simply look different from us?

Fables are characterised by their use of animals for a couple of reasons. First, the fable is a narrative form used to highlight human and societal flaws – they usually have an explicit moral, and that means they run the risk of coming across as preachy or a bit dull. Using humanised animals as the characters sidesteps this issue, allowing for the moral to be communicated in a more light-hearted and detached way. Second, animal characters help to keep things simple and short in a way that human characters can’t. The fact that a certain animal is repeatedly portrayed with a certain character trait means that the fabulist doesn’t need to spend time on character development because the audience instantly knows that, for example, a fox character is going to be crafty.

How would you characterize the manner in which certain animals are repeatedly portrayed? What does it reveal about the cultures from which these stories emerge that, for instance, tortoises are earnest, foxes are crafty, and wolves are bloodthirsty?

Even though the fables aren’t commentaries on animal nature, they portray a constancy in nature insofar as particular animals consistently show particular human traits: the snake is treacherous, the sheep is obedient, the owl is wise, and so on. In terms of where these preconceptions originated – I’m not sure we can ever truly know, but Aesop and other fabulists would surely have built on existing ideas and stories to choose their characters. But thinking about and depicting animal natures goes back much further than that. The incredible palaeolithic art in the Chauvet cave in France, for example, is thought to be around 33,000 years old, and stunningly portrays a range of animals, including lions hunting together just as we see in lions today. There might not have been a scientific study of animal behavior, but that doesn’t mean that people weren’t keenly observing them and skilfully creating representations of what they did. 

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How was the human disposition toward animals in Ancient Greece different than today?

Animals fulfilled lots of the same roles for the Ancient Greeks as they do today, such as being used for food, transport, hunting, or labor. Many of them also had important places in culture, religion and mythology, and, just like today, many people had beloved animal companions. Compared with how we live today, when many people are disconnected from animals and nature, people back then encountered animals far more frequently. We find a mix of philosophical positions regarding the moral standing of animals at this time – Pythagoras urged respect and kindness for animals, arguing that they shared the same kind of soul as humans. Aristotle, in contrast, believed that animals were irrational, morally inferior beings that were created for the sake of humankind.  

What’s changed massively is the world in which animals live, and it strikes me as really odd that our knowledge of the natural world continues to be influenced by two-thousand-year-old stories. Some of these fables have completely infiltrated into our collective consciousness, which is bizarre and fascinating, since the world in which they were created was so different from the world we live in today. 

What are some fables that are premised on misunderstandings of animal behavior?

With wolves, I was happy to dispel the idea of them as bloodthirsty, deceptive menaces, as they have often been depicted in popular culture. Fables like the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, and then subsequent fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs, influence us from the earliest age to think of wolves as the bad guys. But in biological fact, they are loyal animals that live in tightly bonded family groups and cooperate and play together. They are intelligent, working with their families to try to stay alive in a world that is so often out to get them.

It’s a similar story for foxes, which are usually typecast as crafty, sly tricksters: the ones that can talk their way out of trouble while talking others in. The problem is that those depictions are so wrapped up in human language and values that we lose sight of the fox as an animal. So, we can’t talk about foxes as villains because that’s not an attribute you can give to an animal. But we can look for studies on their cognitive abilities, and there are surprisingly few. Undoubtedly, we can say that they are adaptable, opportunistic, fast learners – this is how they’ve adapted to live alongside us so successfully. But there’s no evidence that they are capable of deception, or thinking ahead, or any of the other sophisticated cognitive abilities we ascribe so casually to other animals.

What are some fables whose depiction of animal behavior correctly predicted scientific observations that would only be confirmed much later?

The Crow and the Pitcher is the obvious one, because it was the first fable to have been investigated scientifically (albeit with rooks, not crows – although both are members of the Corvid family), and the results showed that Aesop got it right: rooks successfully dropped stones into a container to raise the water level and get a treat! That was the first direct test of an Aesop’s Fable and has led to a whole new area of research where people are testing the Aesop’s Fable paradigm in their study species. However, there are two sides to this, because while that behaviour certainly looks like the rooks were doing something very clever, on its own it doesn’t prove that they are capable of clever, creative problem-solving. The much thornier question is always what the behaviour reveals about intelligence, and that’s where careful scientific study is needed. 

Similarly, in the fable of The Ants and the Grasshopper, the ants stored grain to last them over winter, implying future planning. Some ant species really do this, so Aesop got that right too, but that doesn’t mean they’re capable of the type of ‘mental time travel’ that the ants in Aesop’s fable were showing when they castigated the grasshopper for not thinking ahead. 

One of my main motivations with the book was to try to encourage people to ask more questions before jumping to conclusions about animal minds; for example, the next time they see a viral video of some ‘genius’ animal. To do that, we need to stop viewing animals through the lens of our own mental processes – yes, we are animals, but other animals are not furry/scaly/feathered people. If we don’t do that then we will continue propagate ‘humanness’ onto other animals, when in fact the reality might be far more interesting!

Is there a favorite animal encounter that you could highlight?

It’s hard to pick a favourite as I love observing animals, particularly their social behaviour. One thing that was really special, and which I describe in Aesop’s Animals, was when a fox family adopted our garden as a nighttime hangout. I set up a camera trap and got so much pleasure from looking through the footage each morning to see fox cubs tearing around after each other, jumping on grizzled adults or greeting their returning mum. Sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to have wonderful experiences like that.


Purchase your copy of Aesop’s Animals here

Jo Wimpenny is the author of ‘Aesop’s Animals’.