Don’t believe the crocodile tears: Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & the truth about animal empathy

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, bestselling author of nine books on the emotional lives of animals.

It is pretty common to hear the expression “crocodile tears” in reference to somebody who does not feel remorse — rather, using them as a false or insincere display of emotion. They feel, as the phrase suggests, nothing for their victim.

The phrase began in Shakespearean times, with one prominent example given in Act IV of Othello:

“O devil, devil!
If that the Earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Out of my sight!”

I bring this up because of an intriguing problem. Suppose you were asked to describe the “nature” of the crocodile. Do they feel empathy? Do they feel emotional stress or pain? How do they relate with others in their species? Most would describe them as solitary predators. But what is this image based upon: documentaries where we only see their vicious feeding frenzies?

Have you ever given thought to what these creatures might be like when they aren’t on the hunt and are among their own kind?

The image of “crocodile tears” comes from the belief that the crocodile is so remorseless an animal that for him to weep over a victim is pure hypocrisy. It is a nice conceit. Of course, while all 23 members of the crocodile family (including alligators, caimans, muggers, and gharials) have tear glands, they are only used for physiological reasons. For example, they’re used to moistening their eyes when they are on dry land — not for emotional reasons.

Crocodiles do not, in fact weep over their victims. They don’t weep at all for emotional reasons. However, as far as we know, no animals aside from Homo sapiens weep from sadness, remorse or grief.

But that’s not to say other animals cannot feel sadness, remorse or grief — only that they don’t express these feelings by weeping tears any more than we express happiness by purring or wagging a tail.

Crocodiles are very vocal animals. Their social lives begins before hatching with communications occurring from egg to egg. Moreover, hatchlings have a distinct distress call, which not only brings the mother to help, but also other crocodiles in the vicinity. The adults, therefore, want to protect the babies — any babies.

Sounds to me like empathy. Empathy in a crocodile? Try saying that to the cast of Swamp People.

What we know, for sure, is that we only know tiny fraction of what there is to know. This is true, of course, of many animals, but takes on particular importance in an animal which looms so large in our imaginations.

If you’d like to hear more about challenging our perceptions on the emotional state of animals be sure to stop by on Sat., Mar. 13 for our distinguished lecture series featuring author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson!

Beasts - Book CoverHMNS Distinguished Lecture
Beasts: The Origins of Good and Evil
Jeffrey Moussaiff Masson, Ph.D.
Thursday, March 13, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12
Houston Museum of Natural Science, Wortham Giant Screen Theatre
Delve deep into the unexplored territory of animal emotions in an illuminating account of the relationship between humans, animals and our perception of violence. Explore human emotions through animal behavior—the way dogs love, cats practice independence, and elephants grieve for their dead—and examine the difference between the unchecked aggression and the predatory behavior that separates humans from animals. Following the lecture Dr. Jeffry Moussaiff Masson will be signing copies of his new book Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil.

Jeffery MasonAbout the Speaker:
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the bestselling author of nine books on the emotional life of animals. His book Dogs Never Lie About Love, has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. Jeff lives with his family in Auckland, New Zealand. His newest book is Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil, where Masson looks at why humans have killed 200 million of their own kind in the 20th century alone, while orcas have killed not a single orca in the wild! He will be at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Mar. 13 for a lecture and book signing.

For advance tickets, call 713-639-4629 or click here.

Understand the legacy of Magna Carta at an HMNS Distinguished Lecture

Nearly 800 years ago, on a summer day on the banks of the river Thames, 25 barons gathered waiting for King John. The document they sealed, under fluttering pendants, would come to underpin our modern conceptions of liberty, freedom and justice. But why — let alone how?

We would come to call this document Magna Carta – the “Great Charter.” But how did it come about?

There were many, many medieval charters. Yet, this is the one that became embedded in the consciousness of England and then the world. What relevance could this document possibly still hold for us as Americans, an ocean away and 800 years later?

Tonight we’ll answer these questions at “A Universal Charter? The Legacy of the Magna Carta” as part of our Distinguished Lecture series. Featuring Sir Robert Rogers, Clerk of the British House of Commons – an office that dates back to 1363 – we will delve into the history and influence of Magna Carta.

Join HMNS in giving our distinguished speaker a big Texas welcome at his lecture tonight in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre!

 

Robert - full regaliaA Universal Charter? The Legacy of the Magna Carta
Sir Robert Rogers, Clerk of the British House of Commons
Wednesday, February 19, 6:30 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

About the Speaker:
Sir Robert is well accustomed to the ways in which the old lives with the new. One of his tasks is to endorse Parliamentary bills in Norman French — but they are prepared using some of the most advanced text-handling software in the world.

Also an Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple Inn of Court (the Temple Church plays a part in the story of Magna Carta), Sir Robert Rogers is author of two miscellanies about the British Parliament: “Order! Order!” and “Who Goes Home?” He’s the joint author of “How Parliament Works,” now going into its seventh edition.

UPCOMING MAGNA CARTA LECTURES:
Tickets $18, HMNS members $12
www.hmns.org/lectures

13th Century Sword & Buckler: Origins of the Knightly Fighting Arts
John Clements, Association for Renaissance Martial Arts
Wednesday, February 26, 6:30 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

The liberal arts in medieval times were those subjects studied by a free man — who was free precisely because he was armed and trained in the fighting arts. Much of what is known of 13th century sword and buckler training is documented in the only surviving fencing manual of the period. John Clements, martial arts historian, will describe the science of defense developed in this period, as well as the arms, armor and chivalric work of knights. This lecture will be followed by a live demonstration of medieval martial arts.

Conquest, Wars and Liberties of the Realm: the Long Run-Up to Magna Carta
Bruce O’Brien, Ph.D., International Early English Laws Project.
Wednesday, March 12, 6:30 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

To understand Magna Carta, one has to understand England’s past. Much has to do with the obligations of kings and their subjects, which was a point of negotiation. This process is writ large in pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon laws, in the monuments of the Norman kings such as Domesday Book and the coronation charter of Henry I, and in the legal reforms instituted by Henry II, which formed the basis for what came to be known as the Common Law.

Medieval Genealogy
Lynna Kay Shuffield, Genealogist
Wednesday, April 16, 6 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

Do you have royal lineage? Are you a descendant of a rebellious baron? Genealogy researcher Lynna Kay Shuffield will review tips to help you trace your family to medieval Europe. For those with English roots there is a fair chance you may find a Magna Carta link. Over 3,000 Texans are currently registered as descendants of the Magna Carta Dames and Barons from Runnymede. You do not need to be an avid genealogy researcher to enjoy this program.

ADDITIONAL MAGNA CARTA PROGRAMS

ADULT CLASS: Introduction to the Sword
Thursday, February 27, 6 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

The sword is an important symbol of power — from the gladius of gladiators to the light saber of the Jedi. It has been used to change history. Whether leading a conquest of the Normans or to helping to secure the seed of democracy, the sword is an important symbol of martial skill. Thought of as a “lost art,” swordsmanship is still taught using the writing and illustrations passed down from Renaissance sword masters. Learn the basics of this martial art in this class lead by John Clements, director Association of Renaissance Martial Arts. This program is for participants age 15 and up.

ADULT CLASS: Calligraphy, From Quill to Pen
Thursday, May 15, 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m
Click here for tickets

Saturday, June 21, 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Click here for tickets

Calligraphy — from ancient Greek kallos for “beauty” and graphe for “writing” — is a visual art dating back to at least 5,000 BC, although our western letter forms were standardized during in the 8th century. In this beginner-level class, Cindy Haller, Houston Calligraphy Guild instructor, will teach you to use a dip pen (our modern answer to the quill) and ink to create the Italic script, and introduce you to the history of English script writing. All supplies are provided and are yours to keep. Participants must be 15 years of age or older.

Rock star David Lee explains “dreamtime” rock art in a Distinguished Lecture Jan. 22

Editor’s note: The following post was written by David Lee, a rock expert specializing in the rock art sites of northern Australia. His Distinguished Lecture, co-sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America Society – Houston, examines how the ceremonial traditions of indigenous groups in northern Australia are linked to lessons learned during the “dreamtime,” when the world was first created. Contemporary songs, stories, laws and ceremonies are informed by this ancient past and are still used to teach aboriginal children about their connection to the lands of their ancestors.

Everywhere in the world that early humans found rocks, they left images carved and painted onto their surfaces. These images continue to inspire the curiosity and imagination of modern people, and researchers struggle to understand them. Unfortunately, any knowledge of the function and meaning of rock art has been lost across most of the world.

What: Distinguished Lecture, "Dreamtime - Aboriginal Interweaving of Past, Present and Future"

Northern Australia is one of the last places left where rock art is still a living part of indigenous culture. For the last seven years, I have studied with Yidumduma Bill Harney, the last fully-initiated Wardaman man and custodian of his people’s country, songs, and stories. Together we have documented 27 of the rock art sites in Wardaman Country along with all of Yidumduma’s knowledge about them.

This knowledge provides many insights into how rock art functioned in the daily and ceremonial lives of early peoples. Yidumduma and the other Wardaman elders wish to see this knowledge recorded for their descendants and shared with the rest of the world. Wardaman Country is known as the Land of the Lightning People, where the Lightning Brothers fought, and where the Rainbow Serpent was killed, during the Creation Time.

What: Distinguished Lecture, "Dreamtime - Aboriginal Interweaving of Past, Present and Future"

For the rest of the Wardaman creation story, you can visit my site here.

What: Distinguished Lecture, "Dreamtime - Aboriginal Interweaving of Past, Present and Future"

To learn more about the preservation and ongoing research of rock art in the United States, go to Western Rock Art Research.

What: Distinguished Lecture, “Dreamtime – Aboriginal Interweaving of Past, Present and Future”
When: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 6:30 p.m.
Where: HMNS Main, 5555 Hermann Park Dr., 77030
Who: David Lee, rock star
How Much: $18 for public; $12 for members

David Lee’s lecture is sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America Society – Houston and the Apache Corporation.

A proactive approach to apocalyptic scenarios: Join us for a distinguished lecture Jan. 16 on finding near-earth objects — before they find us

Of all the natural disasters that could befall us, only an Earth impact by a large comet or asteroid has the potential to end civilization in a single blow. Yet these near-Earth objects also offer tantalizing clues to our solar system’s origins, and someday could even serve as stepping-stones for space exploration.

Dr. Donald Yeomans is coming to HMNS to explain the science of near-Earth objects — its history, applications, and the ongoing quest to find near-Earth objects before they find us.

Distinguished Lecture Jan. 16: Near Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find UsIn its course around the sun, the Earth passes through a veritable shooting gallery of millions of nearby comets and asteroids. One such asteroid is thought to have plunged into our planet 65 million years ago, triggering a global catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs.

Yeomans provides an up-to-date and accessible guide for understanding the threats posed by near-Earth objects, and also explains how early collisions with them delivered the ingredients that made life on Earth possible. He shows how later impacts spurred evolution, allowing only the most adaptable species to thrive — in fact, we humans may owe our very existence to objects that struck our planet.

Yeomans will take us behind the scenes of today’s efforts to find, track, and study near-Earth objects. He will show how the same comets and asteroids most likely to collide with us could also be mined for precious natural resources like water and oxygen, and used as watering holes and fueling stations for expeditions to Mars and the outermost reaches of our solar system.

What: Distinguished Lecture, “Near Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us”
Who: Donald Yeomans, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology
When: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 6:30 p.m.
Where: HMNS Main, 5555 Hermann Park Dr. 77030
How Much: $18 for the public; $12 for members

Dr. Donald Yeomans is a Senior Research Fellow with the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology. Following the lecture, he will sign copies of his new book Near Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us.

Click here for advance tickets.