What Aesop's Fables Teach Us About Animals
A new book asks whether science supports Aesop's stories about animals.
Posted November 1, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
I recently read Dr. Jo Wimpenny's book Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables and simply couldn't put it down.1 The clever ways in which Jo wove in current scientific facts about topics including future planning, tool use, self-recognition, cooperation, and deception with Aesop's lessons was spellbinding and I'm thrilled she could take the time to answer a few questions about her landmark book. If I were still teaching my introductory and critical thinking courses on animal behavior, Aesop's Animals would be required reading. Here's what Jo had to say.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Aesop’s Animals?
JW: I’ve always been fascinated by animal behaviour, so my original motivation was simply to share some of this with a non-specialist audience. I saw Aesop’s Fables as a useful hook, bridging the arts and the sciences and inviting readers to reflect on their own preconceptions of animals, many of which have likely been shaped by this or another collection of ancient stories.
As time went on, I realised that there was a deeper issue—the fact that our knowledge of the natural world continues to be influenced by stories that were never created for modern times. We are living through the sixth mass extinction and animals need our help, something that would have been unthinkable for Aesop or indeed any member of a past civilisation, and yet we continue to grow up hearing stories about the deceptive wolf, cunning fox, or foolish donkey. I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to shed light on what we actually know about these animals from decades of scientific research.
MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
JW: My academic background is in zoology. I studied it at Bristol University and then conducted research on tool use and cognition in New Caledonian Crows for my DPhil at Oxford University. I’ve also always been a keen writer and storyteller (I still have a draft of my first attempted "book" about the adventures of a very clever hamster, written when I was 8 years old!), and my postdoctoral research on the history of modern ornithology resulted in a co-authored book, Ten Thousand Birds. Combining these interests, Aesop’s Animals takes a history of science approach to tell stories about animal cognition research. I like to think of it as a book of stories about stories, grounded in science.
MB: Who is your intended audience?
JW: Aesop’s Animals sits firmly in the popular science market, so while academic research is at its core, a major aim was to make it accessible to a more general readership. While I therefore include plenty of scientific studies and important concepts, I place them into a broader context with myths and folklore, natural history, reflections on the human-animal relationship, and anecdotes from the scientists involved. Ultimately, I hope it will appeal to anybody who is interested in learning more about the science of animal minds.
MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?
JW: In hindsight, I set myself quite a challenge in the breadth and depth of research I wanted to cover! Each chapter tackles a different fable, asking a different question of the literature. This ranges from "Are crows capable of insightful problem-solving?" to "Are wolves deceptive villains?”—and of course "Could a tortoise truly beat a hare in a race?"
While each chapter is a self-contained story, they weave together nicely to reflect some of the key advances in the development of the field. Each concludes by asking whether Aesop’s fable is based on fact or fiction, and if it is fiction, I suggest a more biologically appropriate alternative character.
One of my main recurring messages is that simply seeing an animal do (or not do) something, while interesting, only provides part of the story; to really learn about that animal’s abilities, we need to dig deeper and explore how and why it does so. In the fable of "The Crow and the Pitcher," for example, the crow dropped stones into the pitcher to raise the water level, and while this might intuitively seem like clever problem-solving, on its own it actually tells us very little about how crows solve problems. In "The Ants and the Grasshopper," the ants stored grain to last them over winter, implying future planning, and while some ant species really do this, that doesn’t mean they’re capable of forethought.
I’d like 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 a "genius" animal. It might come across as a bit of a killjoy attitude, but not doing so simply continues to propagate "humanness" onto other animals, when in fact the reality might be far more interesting!
A related message is to encourage readers to think more about the ecology and evolution of animals to try and work out why they are behaving in a certain way. It’s so easy to view what they’re doing through the lens of our own mental processes, but while we are animals, other animals are not furry/scaly/feathered people.
If we can detach our preconceptions of animal natures from the biological facts, we can appreciate animals for what they are and what they’re trying to do—largely, to survive in an increasingly hostile world. This could have implications for welfare and for things like reintroduction schemes, where negative public opinion may result from the knee-jerk emotional responses of people who have no direct experience with that animal but have a belief that it is in some way "bad."
MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
JW: Animal behaviour is a popular topic, but most books in this genre have tended to focus on the behavioural biology of a particular taxonomic group, providing the reader with a deep dive into the minds of dogs, apes, cetaceans, corvids, etc. To my knowledge, no other book about animal behaviour research has been framed around Aesop’s Fables, or any other culturally significant animal stories. This means that I've spent the last few years worrying that somebody else would publish the same book. I can now breathe a sigh of relief that this didn't happen!
In conversation with Dr. Jo Wimpenny.
1) Dr. Jo Wimpenny is a zoologist and writer, with a research background in animal behaviour and the history of science. She studied Zoology at the University of Bristol, and went on to research problem-solving in crows for her DPhil at Oxford University. After postdoctoral research on the history of ornithology at Sheffield, she co-authored the book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin with Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie, which won the 2015 PROSE award for History of Science, Medicine and Technology.
Rowan, Andrew. Review of Aesop’s Animals: The Science behind the Fables. WellBeing International, October 13, 2021.