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Claim: Monkeys understand irreversibility of death

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From New Scientist:

It’s a tear-jerker worthy of Hollywood – and one of the first examples of compassionate care and grief in a wild monkey. The alpha male of a group of snub-nosed monkeys and his dying partner spent a final, tender hour together beneath the tree from which she had fallen minutes earlier, cracking her head on a rock.

Before she succumbed, he gently touched and groomed her. And after she was dead he remained by her side for 5 minutes, touching her and pulling gently at her hand, as if to try and revive her (for a full account of what happened, see “A monkey tends to his dying mate – as it unfolded”, below).

But why is this a big surprise? Anyone who lives with animals will have seen many instances of caring. Even a turtle may attempt, laboriously, to right-side-up a turtle that fell on its back.

“It seems likely that in long-lived species such as many primates, repeated exposure to death within the group leads to an understanding of the irreversibility of death,” says Anderson. “I believe the adult male and other members of his unit understood the dead female was no longer alive.” More.

That simply doesn’t follow from what they observed. The monkeys knew she was not responsive so they stopped responding themselves. What Anderson “believes” is beside the point.

“Irreversibility” is an abstraction, unrelated to evidence of caring.

This follows on BBC’s “Chimps filmed grieving for dead friend” We might expect that chimps grieve lost friends; so do dogs and elephants. What makes the concept of death different for humans is the abstractions: finality, permanence, certainty, life beyond death, and so forth.

As I noted in a comment,

Surely there is nothing surprising about animals grieving, as such. Indeed, animal attachment is a fixture of railway legends: The dog waiting at the station till the end of his life for the fallen soldier to come home.

But no one can explain to the dog why Johnny isn’t coming home. That’s the difference. Not a difference the Brit pop science media seem in any hurry to unpack.

One wonders what their political agenda is (seems there always is one) but, whatever it is, it will probably only vex people without helping apes or monkeys.

See also: Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds


Are apes entering the Stone Age?
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