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Susana Monsó (Messerli Research Institute, Vienna): “Schrödinger’s possum: How animals experience and understand death”
25 May 2021, 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm
This event will take place online via Zoom.
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Abstract: When the Virginia opossum feels threatened, she becomes paralised, her body temperature drops, her breathing and heart rate are reduced to a minimum, her tongue turns blue, and her anal glands simulate the smell of rot. Despite being so convincingly disguised as a putrefying corpse, the opossum is paying close attention to her surroundings, ready to swing back into action as soon as the coast is clear. Like the cat in Schrödinger’s famous paradox, the opossum is dead and alive at the same time.
In this talk, I will argue that the opossum has a lot to teach us about other species’ concept of death. I will also explore what we can learn about animals’ perception of mortality from ants who attend their own ‘funeral’, chimpanzees who clean the teeth of corpses, dogs who snack on their owners, crows who avoid the places where they saw a dead conspecific, elephants obsessed with collecting ivory, and whales who carry their dead for weeks.
Throughout history, human beings have thought of themselves as the only animals with a notion of mortality. In this talk, I will argue that this view is a result of our anthropocentric biases and that philosophical reflection on the latest evidence from comparative thanatology can shed light on the notion that, far from being uniquely human, the concept of death is likely widespread in nature.
Susana Monsó is a philosopher working on animal minds and animal ethics, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna.