Book review – Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables

8-minute read

This is the second of a two-part review delving deeper into the world-famous collection of animal tales known as Aesop’s Fables. Having just reviewed a collection of the fables, I here turn to Aesop’s Animals, which looks at the facts behind the fiction.

It is undisputed that stories shape our perception, especially when told to us repeatedly from a young age. We have collectively bestowed human character traits on animals through Aesop’s Fables and other fairytales. Foxes are sly, donkeys are stubborn, and wolves can never be trusted, right? In Aesop’s Animals, zoologist and science writer Jo Wimpenny takes you on a tour through the study of animal behaviour, both in the field and in the laboratory, to show you what these animals are actually like. Reality, it turns out, is not only stranger than fiction, but also far richer and more fascinating.

Aesop's Animals

Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables, written by Jo Wimpenny, published by Bloomsbury Sigma (a Bloomsbury Publishing imprint) in September 2021 (hardback, 368 pages)

Aesop’s Animals is organised around nine fables and Wimpenny carefully picked both well-known fables and those around which she can tell an interesting story on certain animal behaviours. This could have been a cutesey pop-science book about crows, wolves, dogs, donkeys, foxes, lions, monkeys, ants, and hares and tortoises. And there is plenty of that. However, Wimpenny is first and foremost a scientist who feels the obligation to present both biology and research in all its complicated, messy glory. Her approach is ambitious, with chapters discussing the animal’s basic biology, the behavioural (mis)match between fact and fable, potted intellectual histories of research fields, landmark studies, and, for several chapters, other animal species who behave more as described in the fables. One consequence is that she covers an almighty lot of theoretical ground: altruism, kin selection, theory of mind, inclusive fitness, game theory, tool use, deception, self-recognition, cooperation, imitation, planning behaviour, etc. Some parts of this book require close attention but will yield much food for thought in return. Rather than discussing all chapters, I will highlight three that I particularly enjoyed and end with some general observations.

Wimpenny opens the book with The Crow and the Pitcher. As she has worked on corvids, this fable is closest to her heart. It is also the one that to me read the most like natural history observation. The more we look, the more birds are anything but bird-brained, showing surprisingly sophisticated behaviours. Corvids have acquired somewhat of a reputation for “systematically demolishing every ‘ape-centric’ barrier that has been placed in their way” (p. 314). But Wimpenny does more here than entertain you with research on their tool use and critically reflects on this behaviour. It makes this book a delight even when you are familiar with ethology. Take the neuroanatomy; bird and mammal brains are structurally different. However, merely looking at the absence or presence of certain brain regions misses the point that brains are fantastically plastic. Genetic studies show that birds have developed different brain areas to achieve similar smarts as mammals. Primates and corvids have convergently evolved ways to solve similar problems, relying on brains that have been shaped by different evolutionary pathways. More exciting is that Wimpenny critically questions our obsession with tool use, boldly stating that “it’s time to bust the entrenched myth that the mere presence of tool use in a species equates with intelligence” (p. 49). The reality is far more nuanced: tool use exists on a sliding scale, from stereotypical behaviours under tight genetic control at one end, to habitual, creative, and flexible tool use at the other.

“[The mirror self-recognition test] has become the gold standard […] yet, it remains incredibly controversial […] does failing the test [imply] a lack of self-awareness?”

In The Dog and Its Shadow, a dog mistakes his reflection for another dog. The mirror recognition test was invented by psychologist Gordon Gallup, Jr. in the 1960s. The idea is simple. You apply a dye mark to the skin or fur of an animal where it cannot see it without the aid of a mirror. Then you observe whether it proceeds to inspect the coloured area using its reflection. It has become the gold standard for self-recognition and various vertebrate species across the tree of life have passed the test over the years. Yet, it remains incredibly controversial for at least two reasons. First is that not everyone agrees that self-recognition in a mirror equates to self-awareness; Justin Gregg supplied a long list of what passing the test might mean. Far more crippling for this idea, though, is whether failing the test implies a lack of self-awareness. Carl Safina was merciless: if an animal does not recognise its reflection all it proves is that they don’t understand reflection” (p. 276). Dogs are a point in case that Wimpenny explores further here, as they rely more on smell than on vision. Both observations on dogs sniffing yellow snow that has been moved around and some particularly ingenious neuroimaging studies are offering inroads into what might be going on inside their heads. Wimpenny concludes that “Aesop’s dog may not understand his reflection, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t have a sense of self” (p. 134).

Last one: The Grasshopper and the Ants has ants caching food for the winter while the lazy grasshopper did not. Other than the delightful detail that the ants Aesop and other Greek writers described “are not just grounded in fact; they are fact” (p. 303) – they are harvester ants according to Hölldobler & Wilson – can animals plan for the future? It seems a silly question when you consider squirrels. However, beyond simply delighting you with examples of smart animals that show an awareness of time, Wimpenny again engages your critical thinking skills. “A good way to think of it is that all planning behaviour concerns the future, but not all future-oriented behaviour involves planning” (p. 293). Hibernating bears, migratory birds, caching animals: they all act instinctively, even from a young age when they have not yet experienced what they are planning for! Genetically hard-coded behavioural repertoires are a fine solution for predictable environmental changes and are an explanation we need to exclude first.

“As much as these fables are an important part of our cultural legacy, they have in some cases instilled in us “the darkest form of anthropomorphism“”

Aesop’s Animals is characterised by its nuance, never oversimplifying this rich and complex topic. Wimpenny highlights how we still know so little about many animals that some fables can neither be confirmed nor debunked. When she discusses wolves, a footnote cautions against the simplistic story of wolf reintroduction single-handedly regenerating Yellowstone National Park. In a few sentences, she provides the gist of what Yellowstone Wolves detailed in two technical chapters. When discussing horse domestication, she is quick to acknowledge that “for every domesticated plant or animal group, there were likely multiple, independent domestication events” (p. 138). And when discussing self-awareness, she quotes Frans de Waal who cautions against the search for a ‘Big Bang’ theory. Rather than all-or-nothing, he likens self-awareness to an onion, “built in layers, with different species possessing different gradations of this ability” (p. 111). This resembles what Peter Godfrey-Smith has argued for animal minds more generally.

To me, Aesop’s Animals is a silent sleeper hit. Given that we have all grown up with these fables, it is hard to overstate just how important this book is. Yes, they are an important part of our cultural legacy, but they have in some cases instilled in us “the darkest form of anthropomorphism” (p. 83). In the absence of actual knowledge about animal behaviour, confabulations have filled the void, sometimes leading to the relentless persecution of animals for merely being animals. Wimpenny mentions the critics who question using fables to structure scientific research. They might have a point, but using fables as a narrative tool to educate people about animal behaviour is a stroke of brilliance.

Changing adult minds can be an uphill struggle at the best of times, but with children, you have the opportunity to break the chain by which stereotypes and misinformation are passed down the generations. If you plan on reading Aesop’s Fables, this is the must-have companion, especially if you plan on reading them to children. When they inevitably ask the hard questions that children ask, you will be grateful to have prepared yourself with the facts on animal behaviour.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Aesop’s Animals

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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