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At Mind Matters News: A philosopher simply invents animals’ concept of death


Susana Monsóis demands that we accept her invention so we can “rethink” human exceptionalism, and the “disrespect for the natural world that comes with it”:

Her subtitle is “Having a concept of death, far from being a uniquely human feat, is a fairly common trait in the animal kingdom” yet she falls very far short of demonstrating that, Her essay is a classic on what happens when we seek simply to amass support for a deeply felt thesis that seems to exist separate from reality. As her point of view becomes more influential, it is worth examining a few points in the longish essay briefly.

Denyse O’Leary, “A philosopher simply invents animals’ concept of death” at Mind Matters News

Note: Her thesis hinges on the opossum’s self-defence tactic of appearing dead and emitting a foul smell. She argues that such a tactic means hat predators must have a concept of death:

Just a minute. The concept of death is a human one. It means what humans understand it to mean: Irreversibility, inevitability, unpredictability and so forth. Monsóis wishes to show that intelligent animals understand death by the familiar political tactic of moving the goalposts. Non-functionality is not a concept specific to death (it could mean unconsciousness). “Irreversibility” requires the ability to process abstract concepts easily.

In reality, the opossum’s predator is not thinking about non-functionality or irreversibility, just about whether the opossum is worth eating in its current state.

Incidentally, thanatosis (an involuntary state caused by fright rather than a tactic) is hardly a foolproof defence for opossums. We are told that “Scientists have found many possums in the wild wandering around with healed wounds and fractures, likely from being attacked.” Scientists have not, of course, found the ones that, despite thanatosis, were consumed by desperate predators. Monsóis’s claim that “the opossum’s thanatosis reveals how common the concept of death is likely to be among the animals that feed on her” seems to be a product of human worldview needs, not of observing wildlife…

Monsóis goes on to argue that simply smelling bad would be enough to deter predators, so the more dramatic phenomenon of thanatosis must have some deeper meaning to do with the minds of the predators: “The concept of death in the predator is needed to account for the complexity of the behaviour in the prey.”

No, wait. While Monsóis tries to deal with evolution wholly from a Darwinian (natural selection) perspective, she ends us treating it as if it is the work of a designer. She writes as if evolution is designing the opossum from a blueprint.

In reality, a defence or any other adaptation need not be the least extreme or the most efficient one. Think of the peacock’s tail and the giraffe’s neck. Yes, less extreme developments might have sufficed in those cases too. But no matter. The iconic tail and neck are what actually happened.

Like many people who use evolution to conjure a worldview, Monsóis has evolved the world she needs… More.

Takehome: Susana Monsóis’s beliefs about how predators think are a work of the imagination. Like it or not, we are stuck with human exceptionalism. It’s who we are.

You may also wish to read: Does a chimp mom who carries a dead baby around understand death? In a recent study of primate mothers, researchers imply that their behavior shows a growing awareness of the nature of death. Reality check: The primates’ behavior definitely demonstrates grief over their dead infants, and caregivers should be mindful of their emotional welfare. But the behavior also makes clear that the primates don’t understand what death means. (Denyse O’Leary)


Do animals truly


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