Elephants Never Lie

Department of Amplification, as The New Yorker used to say. Allen Esterson takes issue with Jeffrey Masson in his new article on this site, so I thought I would recount a little dispute I once had with Masson at a book signing. The occasion was about three years ago, Masson was on tour with his new book that said dogs don’t lie about love, and a somewhat, shall we say, New Ageily-inclined friend of mine dragooned me into accompanying her. During the lecture phase of the signing, Masson was quite insistently dismissive of science and scientists. They were unimpressed with his ideas about animal emotions, they hung up the phone when he called, they were narrow-minded and prejudiced. So when he opened the reading up for questions, I asked one along these lines: ‘I have some doubts about all these sweeping attacks on science. Could it be that the scientists who don’t take your claims seriously actually have good reasons, having to do with evidence and so on, as opposed to just being narrow and prejudiced as you seem to be implying?’ He answered, ‘No. They were just being stupid and prejudiced.’ Later I asked another question: exactly how did he know that his dogs had the elaborate (human-like) emotions he was describing. He answered, ‘I look into their eyes.’ I have to admit I laughed a bit scornfully at that.

The depth of his insight into animal nature is perhaps revealed by an anecdote he told, admittedly by way of confessing his own naivete. He was once taken to an area where there was a herd of wild elephants (in Thailand or India I believe). He was so thrilled by their majesty that he walked up to one, talking to her in a respectful and admiring way. I used to be an elephant keeper in a zoo, and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. ‘So she turned and charged and tried to kill you,’ was my thought, ‘and you’re bloody lucky to be here telling us about it.’ Sure enough–she charged and tried to kill him, he ran like hell and found some tall grass to hide in, and the elephant got bored and wandered off. He did say it was foolish of him. But that insight did not appear to have taught him to take his other insights with becoming modesty. An interesting evening at the bookstore, one way and another.

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