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Crows and other animals grieve for their dead, new book claims

Australian anthropologist argues against the idea of 'human exceptionalism'

Ian Johnston
Thursday 21 August 2014 09:02

Crows and other animals experience grief at the loss of a loved one, according to a new book about people’s attitudes towards the biggest mass extinction for 65 million years.

In Flight Ways, Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Australian anthropologist and philosopher Thom Van Dooren argues that the idea of “human exceptionalism” – that people feel a range of emotions while animals do not – has damaged our attitude towards the environment.

Scientists have increasingly discovered that animals are capable of actions and thoughts once thought to be the preserve of humans, such as the use of tools, showing empathy to another creature and being able to convey complex ideas using sound.

And Dr van Dooren, in an interview with National Geographic magazine, said there was now “very good evidence to suggest that crows and a number of other mammals grieve for their dead”.

“We don't quite know how to make sense of that. In part this is bound up in those issues of human exceptionalism — the notion that grieving is something that only humans do,” he said.

“But it's clear from observations of different species around the world that crows do mourn for other crows.

“They notice their deaths, and those deaths impact on them.”

He wrote a chapter in his book about crows as a “provocation to us to pay attention to all of the extinctions that are going on around us, to take up the challenge of learning from them in a way that, I hope, leads us to live differently in the world”.

Human exceptionalism is the idea that humans are “set apart from the rest of the natural world”, he said.

“Rather than thinking of ourselves as an animal, we have a long history, in the West at least, of thinking of ourselves as either the sole bearers of an immortal soul or a creature that is set apart by its rationality and its ability to manipulate and control the world,” he said.

“There are a whole lot of consequences that flow on from that kind of an orientation to the world. And some of them are very damaging for our species and for the wider environment.”

In May, a study found that humans have increased the natural rate of extinction for animal and plant species by up to 10,000 times, putting the world on the brink of a sixth mass extinction.

This is one a number of reasons why scientists are currently considering formally declaring a new geological era called the Anthropocene to recognise that humans have fundamentally changed the Earth.

“I think that it's pretty widely accepted now that we're living through the sixth massive extinction,” Dr van Dooren said. “The fifth one was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs vanished. Today we're losing biodiversity at a similar rate. And this is, of course, an anthropogenic mass extinction. The primary cause is human communities.”

He said the lack of a public outcry about this was partly because it was too overwhelming to contemplate for some, while others had “mourning fatigue” or were simply unaware of the problem.

“We haven't found ways to really understand why it is that extinction matters. We can talk about numbers and the loss of a white rhino or a kakapo,” Dr van Dooren said. “But we haven't developed the kind of story that we need to explain why it is that it matters -what is precious and unique about each of those species.”

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