Do Animals Tell Stories?: The Narrative Abilities of Animals

(An excerpt from my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at or on Amazon.)

All narratives are patterns, but all patterns aren’t narratives, unless they suggest character, setting and action. Animals look for and find patterns. So, we should ask, do animals produce narrative?

Well, yes. The language of the bees still astounds scientists. Bees communicate symbolically in the form of a dance, passing on information about distance, difficulty and value of potential food sources. They dance in the present about past experiences in order to exploit future resources. Other bees do their little dance, explaining alternative sources of pollen, and then somehow the bees come to a decision about the best source. An insect, a creature from the lower orders – far down the hierarchy of animals (at the top of which we have placed ourselves) – can clearly tell stories and make value judgements about them. (Read all about it in biologist and sociologist Eileen Crist’s article “Can an Insect Speak? The Case of the Honeybee Dance Language” [2004].) The idea is so astounding that I don’t even know what to do with it. I will just move on to dogs, with whom I can converse more easily.

Dogs express themselves clearly to humans, but they do so mostly with direct bodily communication rather than symbols. They communicate through context, placement, body language, facial expression, tone and action. When a dog wants to go outside, it stands by the door and scratches: context, body placement and action. When hungry, it sniffs its food bowl, looks up with a pitiful look, and whines as deeply as any poet: context, body placement, action, facial expression, and tone. Tail wagging, snarling, rolling over, pinning another dog and marking territory are all narrative modes of communication in the sense that they refer to characters (the dog and owner), actions (eat, play, fight) and settings (park, park, park!).

By saying that dogs mostly use bodily forms of communication I am not suggesting that dogs cannot understand symbols. Whenever someone speaks about a dog in its presence, its ears twitch and turn. They recognize words that interest them, just as humans do: “walk,” “treat” and “park,” even sentences like “Chips is here!” In the short story “Chips is Here” (1990) by writer David Leavitt, the narrator tells a visitor that his dog once had a very close friend named “Chips,” with whom he would romp and wrestle. Whenever the dog owner would say “Chips is here!”, the dog would go wild with excitement. Hearing the exclamation again after so many years, as the narrator told the story to his visitor, the old dog got up and began to yap with delight, but, alas, the words were there, but not the dog. I offer this story as an example, albeit fictional, of how dogs understand and even remember symbolic speech.

Nor do I mean to imply that dogs do not communicate symbolically. When staying with some friends for a few months, I let their Pomeranian (named Antichrist, or Auntie C., for short) sleep on my futon. One evening, I had a guest. Against her protests, I put Auntie C. out and shut the door. Eventually, she stopped scratching and whining. When I opened the door the next morning to let my guest out, Auntie C. darted into the middle of my bed and peed – not a dainty squirt as she would produce on our walks to mark her passage, but a strong and steady stream. This was clearly a symbolic act that couldn’t be taken literally. A literal reading might have been “Boy, do I have to urinate!” The message, interpreted symbolically, was unmistakable: “This is my bed! This is my man!” The symbol, however, was not separable from the body.

When we humans ask whether animals are capable of symbolic behavior, no matter the answer, we are implying that symbolic behavior is more evolved than direct physical communication with the body (although we also communicate with our bodies), and we are suggesting that we do it better. We believe that our language and stories distinguish us from the animals. And this is true, partly.

All of the elements of communication listed above – context, body placement, gesture, facial expression, tone and action – are equally important in human communication. Let’s experiment, as actors sometimes do, with the sentence “I love you.” Consider context: the statement means something different in a strip club than in a divorce court. Body placement also has meaning: imagine someone saying “I love you” at the edge of a crib or on the ledge of a high building. As for body language, picture a person watching TV mumbling “I love you,” versus someone sitting rigid at the kitchen table, grinding her teeth. Think about the sentence pronounced with a worried expression or a puzzled look. What if the words were given with tickets to Venice or a baseball bat to the head? People are more likely to pay attention to context, placement, body language, tone and action than to symbolic meaning.

According to psychology professor Albert Mehrabian in Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes (1971), 93% of communication is nonverbal, 55% is body language and 38% tone. The words themselves account for just 7%. Nevertheless, humans still privilege symbolic communication as a higher mode of communication than nonverbal, body-related communication. Our language, we feel, distinguishes us from the animals.

However, what distinguishes us from the animals are statements like “What distinguishes us from the animals . . . .” In other words, the only thing that separates us from animals is an ongoing narrative that says we are not animals. The human is the animal that pretends that it is not. Most of our social rules are designed to hide our animal natures from ourselves: shaving our beards, using deodorant, wearing clothes, buying prepackaged meat, using silverware, not fighting over food, not farting or fucking in public.

But humans are animals, and animals tell stories. “Humans are not discontinuous from the rest of nature,” Kerstin Dautenhahn states. She attests that “human narrative capacities are not unique and that an evolutionary continuity exists that links human narratives to transactional narrative formats in social interactions among non-human animals” (Dautenhahn 98). Most narrative studies focus only on language in humans, Dautenhahn says, so observers fail to identify narrative modes of animal interaction.

 Works Cited

Crist, Eileen. “Can an Insect Speak? The Case of the Honeybee Dance Language.” Social Studies of Science 34.1 (2004): 7 – 43. JSTOR. PDF.

Dautenhahn, Kerstin. “The Origins of Narrative: In Search of the Transactional Format of Narratives in Humans and Other Social Animals.” International Journal of Cognition and Technology 1.1 (2002): 97 – 123. Print.

Leavitt, David. “Chips is Here.” Collected Stories. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2003. 295 – 309. Print. (See also  Collected Stories on Google Books.)

Mehrabian, Albert. Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971. Print.

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