Someone asks an elephant to define "nose."

"A nose?" the elephant begins. "Well, isn't it obvious? A nose is something at the end of your face that is magnificently long, perfectly round, miraculously flexible, very sensitive, and yet exceptionally powerful. It is long enough to reach your toes. It's rounder than any other organ. Its flexibility is a wonder to behold; and at its very tip, a nose has the astonishingly sensitive ability to grasp very small things. At the same time, a nose is capable of wrapping itself around an enemy and dashing him mightily to the ground."

The person protests: "But you have only described things that an elephant's nose has or can do. How about something like smell? Doesn't a nose also provide some olfactory ability?"

"Oh, yes," says the elephant. "Sorry! I forgot that part. Aside from its overall magnificence, its great length, roundness, flexibility, fine-tuned sensitivity, and powerfully destructive capacities, a nose will allow you to smell water from a dozen miles away."

The person protests again: "But don't you get it? I have a nose, too. You must somehow change your definition so that it includes my nose as well as yours."

The elephant pauses, as if thinking deeply. "What? You mean that pathetic protrusion of flesh beneath your eyes and above your mouth? You must be kidding! Well, all right. I can accept that your tiny thing might represent some kind of earlier experiment that happened during the advance of evolution long before it reached its highest expression and logical conclusion with Elephas maximus. If you insist, I suppose we can call that thing a ‘pre-nose' or an ‘almost-nose' or a ‘proto-nose.' But surely we can safely say that such a miniscule excrescence is not a true nose."


This may appear at first to be a case of simple phylogenetic chauvinism, but in fact the problem is much more fundamental to the experience of being an elephant. It is not merely the result of feeling special, full of pride for one's own species. Rather, it is the result of feeling unique and central to the universe: a case of elephantine narcissism. It would be easy to define "nose" in a way that works only for elephants, and any normal elephant will have great difficulty imagining any other definition. But such a definition, unfortunately, inhibits anyone from thinking intelligently about noses in general.

Thinking about human versus animal emotions presents quite the same dilemma. We humans may have an emotional repertoire that is equivalent to the elephant's nose: enormous, powerful, multi-faceted. And it is extremely easy to define an emotion by identifying this aspect or that tangent of a human emotion that might indeed be uniquely ours--such as the capacity for intellectual analysis, an increased social and physical awareness, the influence of cultural elements--and thereby fail to recognize emotions as they appear elsewhere, in other species.

Can any non-human species actually feel grief at the loss of a loved one? My fellow PT blogger, Lee Charles Kelley, seems to think not--that "true grief," as he puts it, is limited to our own species. "True grief" among animals is not possible because, well, it's just not possible.

Mr. Kelley's comments on the matter appeared in a recent PT post that references my own post about the video of a dog who seemed to be feeling something like grief. My somewhat cautious reference to the video was that it looked "as if" the dog were "seized by a powerful feeling of grief." I then instructed readers to examine the video and form their own opinions. Mr. Kelley has gone to the trouble of researching some background material on the circumstances of that video, which you can read about in his post. He is right to have done so, and I applaud his spirit of skepticism. Gold star for that, Mr. Kelley.

I will pass on the purple teardrop, however, in response to his blithe use of self-serving definitions to make a point. Self-serving definitions: "True grief," he declares, requires "knowing the difference between life and death and being capable of mental time travel."

Well, if you define "grief" or "true grief" that way, then, sure, only humans are capable of it. And yes, sure, dogs must not be capable of it. So what? I could define a "true foot" as an appendage with five toes that touch the ground and bear weight, and thereby "prove" (with an equal lack of validity), that giraffes and all other artiodactyls have no feet.

Like Mr. Kelley, I see "clear dividing lines" between the species--dogs and humans, for example--but I will not confuse the matter, as he does, by declaring that only humans are blessed with "complex emotions" like "true grief," while animals merely have "simple emotions" that are really more like "feeling states" than "actual emotions." I would prefer to say that we share with dogs some powerful emotions, which we, as a language-using species having some genuine capacity for cultural learning and deliberation, pass through a cognitive filter. Our emotions are indeed colored by considerable intellection, including a partial awareness of death. That doesn't mean we feel "true grief," however. We just feel human grief.

This post includes material from my recent book, The Moral Lives of Animals.


About the Author

Dale Peterson, Ph.D.

Dale Peterson, Ph.D., has written nearly a dozen books about conservation, natural history, and animal science and scientists.

You are reading

The Moral Lives of Animals

Whales on the Edge of Non-existence

What kind of world are we passing on to our grandchildren?

Those Lying Apes

Apes like to deceive, too--but do they dislike being deceived?

Murder and Morality

Are murderers "animals"?