Last week, I hijacked my own blog to write about “Space Monkey,” the WWF viral video featuring a wrinkled old chimp heading to Earth to the tune of Ben Lee’s “Sweet Mother, I’m Coming Home,” and about how much I missed my Mom on my first motherless Mother’s Day, which perhaps isn’t a suitable topic for a blog about language and translation. As soon as I posted, Ed Tenner posted in the Atlantic on chimps and grief, which got me thinking about the human condition and grief, or, more specifically―and more typically―about me. And this has plenty to do with language.
According to two new studies, some chimpanzees seem to grieve similarly to humans in the face of a fellow chimp’s death, appear to comfort the dying, experience trauma after death and have trouble letting go. Chimpanzee grief is described in sad detail in this Scientific American post by Katherine Harmon.
Grief passes the mirror test as a marker for self-awareness and those most precious of species values, empathy and love. The mirror test was developed by researcher Gordon Gallup in 1970 to gauge self-awareness by determining whether an animal can recognize its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself. Before the test, an observer sneaks a dye spot on the subject. Then, by watching the subject’s reaction to the spot in the mirror (turning to get a better look at the spot, touching the spot on its body, etc.), the observer can determine if the animal recognized itself.
But not all chimpanzees notice the spots. They start failing the test once they reach their “senior” years. According to Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy, the reason is that self-awareness comes at a cost:
“Consciousness allows the brain to take part in mental time travel. You can think of yourself in the past and even project yourself into the future. And that is why Gallup believes that in later life chimpanzees prefer to lose their ability to conceive of themselves. The price you pay for being aware of your own existence is having to confront the inevitability of your own individual demise.”
“Death awareness is the price we pay for self awareness.”
Not all humans can pass the mirror test either. Babies don’t come online until about age two. If you are looking for something a little more upbeat than grieving apes, check out some cute pass/fails on this BBC video.
That it happens in tandem with language acquisition is no coincidence. The pre-language, pre-self-aware consciousness we had as babes in arms is unknowable to us now and, unlike chimpanzees, ignorance as bliss can never be reclaimed. We know ourselves through words and face the grim reaper in the same way. I see him first thing every morning, not in the mirror, but in the thatch of white hair fallen into the sink, my daily memento mori. Not a word to say about that, just a sigh and a promise to get to the gym (which really hasn’t helped my bald spot one bit). Or a quiet tear at odd moments for all those others lost to me now. But grief beyond words? Never. More on ritual, language and grief soon.