Human Minds and Animal Stories: How Narratives Make Us Care About Other Species is an elegantly written narrative about narratives. Based on a series of literary social experiments, it examines how stories can change human attitudes towards other species. The hope is that a change in attitudes can lead to a change in our current practices involving animals. But can an academic publication reach a wide enough audience in order to have its message heard?
Morality or Entertainment?
If human stories are important for humans, are animal stories important for animals? Do stories have to be important at all? Can they not just be pure entertainment, designed to help us forget the woes of the mundane?
Or do narratives, being one of the relatively few characteristics which differentiate the human existence from that of other animals, hold a more profound role within human societies? Do they possess the power to shape the way we perceive the world? Can they influence our attitude towards other beings, human or not? And if so, do stories, then, exert some sort of moral influence upon their readers?
Or is it the big L word, the word which we sometimes use to refer to a lump of narratives, Literature, that marks the boundary between moral power and sheer entertainment?
Questions breed more questions. But all of the above (and more) is precisely what I have been asking myself for the last while. Or at least ever since an educational institution somewhere on the edge of the Western Uplands of Europe handed me what looked like a coffee-stained piece of paper. They slapped the word ‘Literature’ onto it and offered it to me with a blessing (in Latin) to go forth and spread the word.
They never said what the word was though. So much for my anecdotal introduction.
Anthropomorphised animals in stories are often the key to why we like the lion who talks better than the fish who doesn’t.
Then, the book Human Minds and Animal Stories: How Narratives Make Us Care About Other Species was published in 2019. It seemed to have come to the rescue of my confused self, stranded in the midst of this literature vs the world fiasco. It presented itself as a brief rest stop for all those tired of searching for answers while roaming the fields of environmental humanities, animal studies, literary theory, ecocriticism and psychology. A pit stop, conveniently allowed at the intersection of all of the above.
Human Minds Read Animal Stories
The book was written by a team of scholars consisting of one literary theorist, one psychologist, one biologist and one literary historian. Respectively, Wojciech Malecki, Piotr Sorokowski, Boguslaw Pawlowski and Marcin Cienski. The group was brought together at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. Human Minds and Animal Stories was published in English despite the fact that it was born in the Polish context. The authors focus most of their field research within Poland's socio-cultural context: their investigative studies and interviews are all based within this specific background which, presumably, was most readily available to them.
Academics and researchers devote years of work to find out what it is that makes us care about characters in stories. There’s a whole science to it. As readers, viewers and consumers of other media we intuitively know that anthropomorphising animals (making them human-like) in stories is often the key to why we like the lion who talks better than the fish who doesn’t. It is from this very premise of a popular belief that the authors of Human Minds and Animal Stories departed to create a narrative about narratives.
The authors treat the widely-accepted belief that narratives make us care about others, as a scientific researcher might treat the popular factoid that vitamin C helps to fight the common cold. That is to say, even though many people might vouch for the legitimacy of this statement, from a scientific point of view, it is untrue until proven otherwise. Spoiler alert: the value of taking vitamin C to fight the common cold has, in fact, been discredited (Malecki et al., 2019, 13).
The tacit consent of the wider public is what makes animal exploitation on an industrial scale possible and feasible.
But behind what might seem like another academic monograph, these particular researchers had a – not so hidden – agenda. Right from the beginning, they set out the aim and implication of their work to be a marriage of literary theory and social praxis. They hoped to find out whether animal stories can make readers not only care about other species, but more importantly, change their attitude towards those species. And, by extension, towards animals in general. They claim that this information can help animal advocates determine the value of using animal stories in their campaigns. Such results could then help in judging the extent to which changed attitudes translate to changed social action. As the authors explain, the relationship between one's behaviour and one's attitudes towards animals is very significant within today's society. This is largely due to the fact that “the tacit consent of the wider public” (Malecki et al., 2) is what makes animal exploitation on an industrial scale possible and feasible. In the public’s mind, the dead product is often disconnected from the live animal. So, can animal stories change that?
Given that this is not a review of a popular culture text but of an academic work there is absolutely no room for ambiguity here. So, do the authors achieve their goals?
Yes, they do. And no, they don’t.
The Meat of It
The bulk of this academic work is an empirical study, or rather a series of empirical studies. These were carried out on human subjects, the irony of which does not escape the authors. The experiments involved various studies which were to determine the change (or lack thereof) in a person’s empathy levels towards animals after reading animal stories. The pool of these narratives comprised of diverse genres, fiction and non-fiction. A best-selling and internationally recognised Polish crime fiction writer, Marek Krajewski, even agreed to participate in one of the studies. He wrote a part of his novel based on the suggestions of the scholars. This, then, allowed them to study the impact of the passage on readers.
It seems very apt that one of their field studies included the participation of a noir fiction writer. Malecki and his team, too, frame their book like a detective story. They frequently refer to themselves as detectives or investigators, drawing comparisons between the work of detectives and that of academic researchers. Apart from the fact that this is, indeed, quite a fitting analogy, these metatextual passages where the authors reflect on their own work process, draw the reader in. They mainly do so by allowing the reader to peek behind the curtain of what in many academic publications seems like dry and distanced discourse. In Human Minds and Animal Stories, these metatextual reflections also allow for what in fiction we would call “comic relief”. In fact, this book is written with a lot of great humour.
This humour, however, does not undermine the seriousness with which the authors approach their research. Nor does it invalidate the gravity of their goal, that is, to relate how reading animal stories can lead to social and cultural changes. Juggling current research from a variety of fields, Malecki and his co-authors use the methodologies of experimental social sciences and apply them to environmental humanities. This makes the publication an interesting contribution of intersectionality: it proposes how experimental methodologies can be applied to theoretical humanities.
Who is This Book Even For?
The authors wish that apart from academics from various fields, this book will also spark the interest of people who are not typically affiliated with academia. Given the nature of their subject matter, they mostly hope to appeal to animal advocates, but also to readers from the general public interested in the psychological impact of stories. This aim is to be made easier by the authors’ attempt to, wherever possible and practical, avoid jargon and specialist terminology. They wished to get their message across using clear language, so as not to exclude certain groups of readers.
These are certainly noble goals. On the level of language, the authors have delivered on their promise: the text is, indeed, written with a certain flair, and it does avoid unnecessary jargon, making it linguistically accessible to many readers. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that, however many jargon-free, comic relief passages might be included, the book remains an academic publication. This entails a number of challenges to the scholars’ goal to appeal to a wider public.
People in the West are socialised to believe that dogs are to be loved, pigs are to be eaten, cows are to be worn and elephants are to entertain.
Firstly, the book was published by Routledge which specialises in academic works. This greatly limits the circle of readers who will be exposed to the work, as it is doubtful that non-specialists will happen to come across it in a bookshop. Secondly, like most academic publications, this one, too, leans towards high end pricing. Currently, the paperback or eBook editions may be purchased for a little under £30 (November 2020) which is already quite steep. The hardback edition would equal an expense of just under £100. Not exactly a cheap read. In fairness, the book can be accessed through online databases, but these, too, are naturally only available to readers who are at least in some capacity associated with the academic community.
Cutting to the Chase: Do They Answer My Questions?
The importance of a work such as Human Minds and Animal Stories in a society where “everybody declares kindness to animals, yet allows for monstrous unkindness to take place” (30) is undeniable. We are all educated into a certain system of social norms, a system which is very much based on speciesist views. A system that favours some animals over others, and that favours the human animal above all other species. This system is culturally dependent, but let us take Western countries to serve as an example. People in the West are socialised to believe that dogs are to be loved, pigs are to be eaten, cows are to be worn and elephants are to entertain. A simple hierarchy system. The fact that this hierarchy goes largely unquestioned is of little concern to people who just want to be left to eat their pulled pork burger in peace. (Also, let us all just take a moment here to acknowledge that the reason why we have special names for dead animal flesh is to disassociate it from the actual animal.)
Malecki and his colleagues build on this premise: the fact that, fundamentally, we all wish to be good, or at the very least, to be perceived as good. They were inspired by the stunning success of novels such as Black Beauty (2012 ) and films such as Babe (1995) which after its release was reported to have actually influenced the consumption of pork and meat in general in the US (see Nobis 2009). The authors, therefore, had some ground to go on in forwarding their hypothesis that animal stories can influence people’s attitudes towards this previously unquestioned hierarchical system of species.
As is evident from the above paragraph, the authors certainly address the kind of questions I struggled with at the beginning of this review. They position literature, and thus, stories, as an essentially aesthetic and intellectual experience. Not only that, they also acknowledge that literature (with a capital L as in Proust) sounds like too scary a word for many people. They understand that even just the activity of reading for pleasure is not everybody’s first choice of leisure given that it requires acute concentration for prolonged periods of time. This is why they shift their focus also to non-fiction pieces, such as newspaper columns. Still, written narratives are of course not the only way of telling animal stories. One could, therefore, argue that since the authors had to narrow their focus down to the written word, their results only show one tiny side of the whole picture. But the scholars are not ignorant of such limitations which many researchers have to put in place for practical reasons. Similarly, the authors do not ignore the possible bias of their field studies stemming from fact that their “test subjects” came from particular social and cultural circles, with certain educational backgrounds.
Apart from offering a gripping real-life detective narrative, the publication presents an introduction to novel research regarding the experimental study of literature.
I would like to address another significant point. Having read many a monograph from the animal studies-literary studies intersection, I can ascertain that Human Minds and Animal Stories stands out. This is particularly because, as already mentioned, it does not limit its scope to theoretical analyses but engages in experimental reader response studies. It is this very point that I wish to stress. It is important to approach the book with the prior knowledge that most chapters recount experiments carried out by the authors. That includes the preparation, the goals, the method, the results and their implications within the context of the whole study. However, it is also this very experimental take on the topic that makes this book unique. Apart from offering a gripping real-life detective narrative, the publication presents an introduction to novel research regarding the experimental study of literature.
Spoiler Alert: Animals Still Die at the End...
There is a part of me that wishes to withhold information about the final results of the authors’ studies. In good detective stories, the tension and the uncertainty are part of the pleasure of reading. To put it simply, I don’t want to spoil the ending. But alas, the format of a review and, even more so, a review of an academic book demands that I disclose the ending.
Are animal stories important for animals? The experiments conducted during this study were carried out on humans, but the results “were meant to benefit mainly animals” (17). It is naturally our human minds that read those animal stories. But we read and digest them from a privileged position. We need to recognise this if, like many of us claim, universal animal welfare is what we wish to strive for.
This is all the more important in light of the authors’ conclusion. Approaching something resembling an ending of their investigation, the authors find that “the suspect is guilty: animal narratives do improve attitudes toward animals” (Malecki et al., 154). They conclusively give the ‘go ahead’ for using animal stories to all activists, educators and writers wishing to raise awareness about animal exploitation and suffering. And they guarantee positive results (154).
...but Humans Live Happily Ever After
Having said that, they also find that the change in attitude after reading a story is not always guaranteed to last. Furthermore, the influence exerted by a story might depend on the species portrayed within it (do we sympathise with turkeys as readily as we sympathise with horses?). Another point that cannot be omitted is that even if animal stories hold ecological and moral validity to influence attitudes, does that directly translate to influencing behaviour? The book only opens up this avenue for further research.
All we can do is try to change the world one story at a time.
And then, if we so sorely wish for narratives to change and influence people, does that not reek of manipulation, and ultimately, of propaganda? The authors ask this question but finally they perform an act of self-absolution in claiming: “The main beneficiaries of the narrative impact we observed was intended to be animals. To sum up, then, our intentions were clean and so are our hands” (156). As is evident then, like in most psychological thrillers, the ending is difficult and complex.
Bearing this in mind, I recommend Human Minds and Animal Stories. It was a true pleasure to read. And so here I am, spreading the word. The word about a beautiful story written about other stories. The word about kindness and compassion which can be found and awakened through narratives. The word I found written between the lines on that yellow-brown piece of paper in Latin.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in how literature can be linked with environmental studies and especially, with animal studies. To anyone looking for inspiration and hard scientific evidence to create narratives that can make a difference in the world. Ultimately, that’s all we can do and Malecki and his team acknowledge this: all we can do is try to change the world one story at a time. If animal welfare is the goal, animal stories can light the way.
Malecki, W., Sorokowski, P., Pawlowski, B., & Cienski, M. (2019). Human Minds and Animal Stories: How Narratives Make Us Care About Other Species. Routledge.
Nobis, N. (2009). “The ‘Babe’ Vegetarians: Bioethics, Animal Minds and Moral Methodology.” In Bioethics at the Movies, edited by Sandra Shapsay, 56–73. Johns Hopkins University Press.