W. Eugene Smith/Black Star

A tamed chimpanzee at Albert Schweitzer’s mission hospital, Lambarene, Gabon, 1954

He who understands baboons would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.

—Charles Darwin

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin tacitly diminishes the difference between “man” and “animals” by matter-of-factly conflating, in passages fascinating and rich in detail, close examinations of human beings and “lower animals” (by which Darwin meant not relatively primitive animals but all “non-human” animals). Writing thirteen years after On the Origin of Species and one year after The Descent of Man, he takes as the object of his inquiry “the principle of the direct action of the excited nervous system on the body, independently of the will and in part of habit.” Not what might be self-described by people possessing language but rather what is displayed—“behavior.”

While most of Darwin’s text deals with emotions in man, in a number of chapters in The Expression of the Emotions the author takes pains to commingle species under such headings as “Serviceable Associated Habits,” “The Principle of Antithesis,” and “Action of the Nervous System.” Darwin’s implicit assumption is the likeness of man and “lower animals,” not their unlikeness. As man has a “voice,” so do animals have “voices”: “Cats use their voices much as a means of expression, and they utter, under various emotions and desires, at least six or seven different sounds.” The cat’s “purr of satisfaction…is one of the most curious.” A dog will make sounds resembling laughter, and “a bark of joy often follows a grin.” A consideration of man in agony or pain is naturally extended to other species in kindred situations:

There is said to be “gnashing of teeth” in hell; and I have plainly heard the grinding of the molar teeth of a cow which was suffering acutely from inflammation of the bowels. The female hippopotamus in the Zoological Gardens, when she produced her young, suffered greatly; she incessantly walked about, or rolled on her sides, opening and closing her jaws, and clattering her teeth together.

And so back to man again, whose eyes “stare wildly as in horrified astonishment” and whose body is covered in perspiration: “Hence the nostrils are generally dilated and often quiver; or the breath may be held until the blood stagnates in the purple face.”

Cattle, horses, dogs, cats, monkeys, birds—and man: all are subject to emotions, thus the “expression” of emotions of an involuntary, visceral nature. “With all or almost all animals, even with birds, Terror causes the body to tremble.” Wrinkling the face, furrowing the forehead, mating and fighting cries, cries of fury, erection of the hair, dilation of nostrils and of pupils of the eye, muscular contortions of the body—all cross the boundaries of species. Darwin presents a good deal of firsthand observation on the infants in his household of whom there were, over the years, ten of his own.

“Joy and affection” are attributed to monkeys no less than to human beings. Monkeys are seen to blush and redden as a man might do, and a young female chimpanzee is seen to throw a temper tantrum very like that of “a child in the same state.” Darwin notes having felt “through the saddle” the beating heart of a terrified horse, and with astonishing acuity he observes the symptoms of a terrified canary as it turns “white about the base of the bill.” Dogs can be “downcast,” cats “express affection,” monkeys can be “insulted.” Primates display almost as many emotions as human beings, and some of these are nuanced; one of numerous illustrations in the book is a line drawing of a “disappointed and sulky” chimpanzee. (Woodcuts, photographs, and drawings of the faces of animals and humans add to the particularly Victorian flavor of this book, in which the banal and the extraordinary, the average and the grotesque, are brought together as “illustrations” of the text. Physiognomy, a subject largely faded in our time, was explored with great seriousness in the nineteenth century.)

A secondary work in Darwin’s oeuvre, the 390-page Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals would have been a major work by any other nineteenth-century scientist, and in its continuous juxtaposing of “man” and “lower animals” it would surely have aroused controversy. All that Darwin cogently argued in The Descent of Man is taken for granted here. The author’s natural empathy for his heterogeneous subjects crosses the boundaries between species with the conversational ease of someone making points to an audience of peers so self-evident that they need scarcely be defended: Who could doubt that the grief, terror, and suffering of human beings are different not in kind but merely in degree from the response to “horrid tortures inflicted in foreign lands on exhausted dray-bullocks”? Ever the Victorian gentleman, Darwin is careful always to designate “lower animals” even as, by this usage, he is suggesting that there exists a “higher“ being that is in fact an “animal”: man.


It isn’t surprising that Darwin exerted a considerable influence on the provisions of the Cruelty to Animals Act passed into law by the British Parliament in 1876, which governed the (licensed) animal experimentation of scientists. Before this, grotesque and sadistic “experiments” were sometimes committed on helpless animals, often for demonstrative and educational purposes rather than for scientific research; after this, animals used in experiments had to be anesthetized whenever possible, and only experiments required for scientific research were qualified to be licensed. (Though Darwin believed that vivisection was essential for scientific research, he felt strongly that it should not be performed for “mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word about it, else I shall not sleep tonight.”)

In the late twentieth century, highly influential major works of philosophy and ethics began to be published in the field loosely described as “animal rights,” notably Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) and Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights (1983), both of which have become classics. The argument for animal rights is fundamentally a moral and epistemological argument for a restructuring of the conception of “consciousness”—is it uniquely human?—and of the very concept of “animal.” Singer has been particularly eloquent on the issue of “speciesism”—the belief that the human species is not only superior to all other species, but can use (or misuse) these species as it wishes, an injunction that seems to have a biblical—i.e., godly—imprimatur.

Traditionally, moral philosophers calibrate degrees of moral behavior with extreme fastidiousness, yet they have seemed, on the whole, unequipped philosophically to extend a principle of morality to those beings Darwin called “lower animals,” now called, in some enlightened quarters, “non-human animals.” (A philosopher friend estimates that less than 2 percent of books on moral philosophy include the word “animal” in their indexes.) Both Singer and Regan have challenged this highly limited conception of morality; Regan argues that animals have “certain basic moral rights” and that “recognition of their rights requires fundamental changes in our treatment of them.”

Both philosophers reason from hedonistic-utilitarian principles of the greatest good for the greatest number—which is to say, the least pain for the greatest number of “sentient beings.” Singer argues that animals need not be acknowledged as having “rights” for us to wish to alleviate their suffering. That they are capable of feeling pain, and that pain is a negative experience, should be enough for us to have a moral obligation to refrain from inflicting needless pain upon them. Though “animal rights” and “animal liberation” ethics tend to be overwhelmingly vegetarian, and opposed to the eating of animals, the argument can be made, as Singer has done, that there is nothing inherently evil in eating animals if they are not raised and slaughtered inhumanely—which is the case, unfortunately, for the vast majority of animals at the present time. For further discussions of “animal rights” see J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999), Jeff McMahan’s The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (2002), and Cass Sunstein’s The Rights of Animals: A Very Short Primer (2002). For a richly polemical discussion of the relationships among patriarchal culture, the exploitation of women and of animals, and the politics of meat-eating, see Carol Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990).

In children’s literature as in fables, fairy tales, and Disney fantasies, talking animals abound; these usually affable “animals” are human beings in disguise, sheerly anthropomorphic concoctions rarely betraying any genuine or alarming animal nature. Yet the fantasies tend to be benign, and sympathy for animals is the rule, with no acknowledgment of the adult caste system of “species” that would automatically render them inferior beings, if not food.

In literature for adults, imaginative evocations of animal consciousness are rarities. A relatively little-known novel by the Canadian writer Barbara Gowdy, The White Bone (1998), a kind of tragic epic of African elephants narrated from the perspective of the elephants, undertakes to cross the boundary between species in an extraordinarily visceral, sensuous, and poetic rendering of language unparalleled in contemporary literature. You need not believe that elephants can think in language—in this case, a highly lyric English—to be enthralled by the author’s imaginative immersion in her subject, a brilliantly inspired melding of research into the lives of African elephants and the creation of a distinctly original, indeed sui generis alternative world. Inevitably, in a time in which African elephants are being ravaged by poachers and their species endangered by incursions into their natural habitat, The White Bone is not a casual reading experience. It will linger long in the memory, like an intensely unnerving yet wonderfully strange dream.


Less stylistically inventive than The White Bone, and less ambitious in scope and vision, Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is nonetheless a boldly exploratory evocation of a cross-species relationship that begins as a somewhat naive but well-intentioned scientific experiment and ends as something like domestic tragedy, with consequences that destroy a family and permanently traumatize a sister and brother—as well as a “non-human animal” named Fern.

Like the documentary film by James Marsh, Project Nim (2011), which depicts a similar experiment involving an infant chimpanzee brought to live in close contact with human beings, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is less about the scientific background and rationale for such experimentation than it is about an intensely emotional, nonverbal, and visceral relationship between “sisters” of whom one happens to be a “human” and the other “non-human.” In both the film and the novel, immediate sympathy is evoked for the innocent young primate, brought into a domestic household rife with its own secret undercurrents of emotion and power struggles; in both, the innocent young primate is smotheringly loved, refashioned into a quasi child, eventually erupts in violence and is feared, and is expelled from the human household.

In both the documentary and the novel, an initially reasonable yet finally tyrannical and unfeeling professorial father figure exerts his terrible, irrevocable power. In Project Nim, this figure is Columbia University professor of psychology Herbert Terrace, chief investigator in a controversial experiment of the 1970s. It was undertaken to determine if a chimpanzee (“Nim Chimpsky,” punning on Noam Chomsky, who argued against the possibility of human-like language in chimpanzees) raised in close contact with human beings could develop communication skills akin to “language.” In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the villain is University of Indiana professor of psychology Cooke, father of Rosemary Cooke and “step-father” of chimpanzee Fern, who undertakes a near-identical experiment into the possibilities of cross-species communication, with near-identical results—expulsion for the chimp-subject, remorse and regret for the human participants, an abruptly dismantled experiment.


Terrace’s punishment, so to speak, has been his portrayal in Project Nim as the very embodiment of the cold-hearted, manipulative, and irresponsible scientist, exploiting not only the lovable chimp Nim but an indeterminate number of young female assistants; beyond reviewers’ ridicule of his seemingly unprofessional behavior was disdain for the professor’s very appearance (hairstyle, Burt Reynolds mustache) and the type of car (BMW) he drove. It was charged against him that he published a paper in Science (1979) contesting the theory that chimps can be taught to use “language” as human beings use it, as if the scientist’s findings were in some way distorted. The film also implied that Terrace had behaved spitefully in ending the experiment when he did and shipping Nim away to a research facility in Oklahoma.*

Unlike Herbert Terrace, noted for work on animal learning, Fowler’s Professor Cooke appears to be a relatively undistinguished academic psychologist. He has a (semisecret) drinking problem, a penchant for making “crude” jokes at the dinner table, and extremely poor judgment in failing to consider that bringing a young chimpanzee into his household as a month-old infant to grow up alongside an infant daughter might have disastrous consequences.

Cooke seems unaware that a wild, undomesticable animal, however it might mimic “human” behavior, will eventually become impossible to control and will be dangerous in any household; nor does Cooke do anything to mitigate the emotional harm to both his daughter and son precipitated by the abrupt expulsion of their “sister” Fern, of whom the daughter Rosemary says bitterly: “She deserved to be missed and we missed her terribly.”

We know early on that Cooke will not be an ideal caregiver for a young animal when he deliberately and stupidly runs over a cat with his car, with a very young Rosemary as a witness. (She later ironically wonders: “Was my father kind to animals?”)

Belatedly, after the father’s death from alcoholism and diabetes, Rosemary learns from her mother of her parents’ initial, misguided idealism regarding the experiment with Fern:

We’d thought…your father and I…that Fern would be with us forever. Your part of the study would end when you went off to school, but we’d keep working with Fern. Eventually you’d go to college…and she’d stay home with us.

The reader is likely to wonder if anyone in his or her right mind could imagine living with an adolescent, let alone an adult, chimpanzee in a domestic household; does no one, not even Professor Cooke, wonder how Fern will begin to behave once her reproductive organs mature? Once she has the ability to maim or to kill? This is a weakness in a novel so otherwise carefully constructed to represent a plausible sequence of events. Yet it is not difficult to believe that the nefarious Cooke has deceived his trusting if uninformed wife as he has manipulated and exploited everyone with whom he has come into contact. Unlike life, which can be meandering and open-ended, a scientific experiment must come to an end.

Fowler has thoroughly researched her fascinating subject. Some of the most engaging passages in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves involve historical information provided by Rosemary, who has researched the subject obsessively herself. (Rosemary discovers online papers written by her father, in which she is herself the behavioral psychologist’s child-subject.) Among the early experimenters with chimpanzees in domestic households were a couple named Kellogg who, in the 1930s, brought a chimpanzee home to live with them: “The stated purpose was to compare and contrast developing abilities, linguistic and otherwise. This was the stated purpose of our study as well.” (The Kellogg experiment ended ignominiously with the “clever, docile little Gua” dying soon after being shipped back to a research lab.) With the exception of the most famous of research chimps, Washoe, whose ability to communicate in American Sign Language was the stimulus for Herbert Terrace’s entry into the “ape-language wars” of the 1960s and 1970s, most of the chimpanzee stories have tragic endings.

Taken into human families, “loved” and fussed over, then abruptly sent back to research labs or farms, the chimps soon sickened and died. Ebullient and irrepressible Nim Chimpsky, dropped by his researcher, was himself shipped to medical labs until one of the professor’s former graduate students launched a public fund that released him to an animal sanctuary in Texas where he died at the young age of twenty-six.

Fowler suggests that the chimpanzee experiments might have been misdirected. Instead of studying how well Fern could communicate with her human family, Professor Cooke might have studied how well Rosemary could communicate with Fern. Rosemary considers how her relationship with Fern affected their language acquisition, reflecting that “we spent most of our time together. As I developed the habit of speaking for her, she seemed to develop the expectation that I would. By the time I turned three, I was already serving Fern’s translator in a way that surely retarded her progress…. Here is the question our father refused to admit he was asking: can Rosemary learn to speak to chimpanzees?” While very young, Fern and Rosemary engage in a preverbal “secret language of grunts and gestures” that Professor Cooke chooses not to report.

Fowler’s evocation of the radiant wildness of early childhood lies at the heart of the novel. It is the unfettered, largely physical joy of the young child who is cared for, loved, overseen by a devoted mother: “Both of us [Fern and Rosemary] are demanding in our own ways to be picked up and swung. We are so excited that, in the strangely illuminating phrase my mother favors, we’re completely beside ourselves.” From the time she is one month old to the time of Fern’s expulsion, when Rosemary is five, Rosemary never knows a day when she isn’t the “twin” of a chimpanzee:

I’d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my fun-house mirror, my whirlwind other half… I loved her as a sister, but she was the only sister I ever had, so I can’t be sure; it’s an experiment with no control.

After Fern’s departure, Rosemary imagines an invisible companion named Mary (who turns out to be, touchingly, not a human child but a chimpanzee); she becomes a “counterfeit human” cast adrift amid human children in grade school, who perceive her cruelly as “monkey girl.” She stirs ambivalent responses in others because she doesn’t seem quite human. The other children have an “uncanny-valley response”: “the human aversion to things that look almost but not quite like people.”

While Fowler’s earlier novels Sarah Canary (1991) and Sister Noon (2001) are populated with strikingly rendered, serio-comic-grotesque characters, the hapless protagonist of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is benumbed and inexpressive as one who has lost the most intense love of her life, and has been afflicted with amnesia regarding the loss; it is her “chimp nature” she has lost, as well as the actual Fern. Both Rosemary and her older brother Lowell, who runs away from home as a teenager, are “traumatized” survivors of a broken family—“Lowell appeared unstable in the most literal sense, like someone who’s been pushed off his balance.” Where Rosemary is drained of personality, Lowell is radicalized by the mistreatment of Fern and becomes a militant animal rights defender associated with the Animal Liberation Front:

He’s worked for decades as a spy in the factory farms, the cosmetic and pharmaceutical labs. He’s seen things we refuse to see, done things no one should have to do. He’s sacrificed his family, his future, and now his freedom…. [His] life has been the direct result of his very best qualities, of our very best qualities—empathy, compassion, loyalty, and love…. As my brother grew larger, he also grew dangerous, same as my sister.

By the novel’s end, Lowell has been arrested in Orlando, Florida, by the FBI as a “domestic terrorist” in the final stages of planning an attack on SeaWorld.

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves provides an intimate, child’s-eye look at a midwestern academic household of the 1980s. Before Fern is brought into their lives, the Cookes are presumably an ordinarily happy family; thereafter, they are revealed as dysfunctional, inhabiting a domestic limbo somewhere between satire and sorrow. Rosemary’s recollections come in fragments, a relentless dirge of loss; even Rosemary admits that she came to realize that her simian sister was “getting out of control” after Fern killed and disemboweled a kitten in front of her. The stunned child is forced to think:

That there was something inside Fern I didn’t know.

That I didn’t know her in the way I’d always thought I did.

That Fern had secrets and not the good kind.

Rosemary will learn years later that there were other, equally alarming incidents involving Fern that she had witnessed but said she could not recall: bitings, a savage and unprovoked attack against a graduate student, who brought a lawsuit against the university.

Once a loquacious little girl, like her simian twin a whirligig of energy, by the time we meet Rosemary Cooke she has become a stunted and suppressed young woman of college age, whose “monkey-girlness” results in such denial that she has a panic attack while watching The Man in the Iron Mask, a parable of twins—“Something was rising from the crypt, and what I did know was that I didn’t want to see what it was.” Given the almost entirely retrospective nature of Rosemary Cooke’s story, in which all that is significant in her life has happened before she was five, Fowler is hard put to make Rosemary’s present-day life as an undergraduate at UC Davis engaging.

There is a disadvantage in telling a story so obliquely—nothing really interesting happens to Rosemary until page 77, when she finally reveals that her lost sister Fern is a chimpanzee: “Some of you will have figured that out already. Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld Fern’s essential simian-ness for so long.” Amid comic passages involving an obnoxious “psycho bitch” undergraduate friend who reminds Rosemary of Fern, and a mixup of suitcases, which appear to interest both Rosemary and Fowler minimally, the prospect of a “premature and calamitous end” is dangled before the reader.

By limiting her narration to Rosemary’s perspective, Fowler has sacrificed the myriad possibilities of alternative points of view that might have made of the account something more than a domestic catastrophe not unlike many other explorations of a childhood trauma—death, loss, betrayal, abuse, incomprehension—that has crippled the survivor for life. But Fowler’s decision allows for the emotional intensity of narrowness, as in the contemporary memoir in which crisis, collapse, and resolution are the point. The trajectory of the plot suggests the coming-of-age characteristics of a young adult novel in which, in the end, there is uplift, and hope.

After years of estrangement, Rosemary is reunited with her mother, with whom she has written a children’s book about Fern; happily, she has become a kindergarten teacher (“as close to living with a chimp troop as I’ve been able to get so far”); she and her mother have uprooted their lives to live near Fern, now at the Center for Primate Communication in Vermillion, South Dakota. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves ends with a beautifully composed image of sister-sister affirmation, when Rosemary visits Fern after an interval of twenty-two years, bearing a poker chip talisman of their childhood:

Fern stood heavily and came to me. She placed her own large hand opposite mine, fingers curling slightly, scratching, as if she could reach through [the glass barrier] and take the poker chip. I signed my name again with my free hand, and she signed it back with hers….

Then she rested her forehead on the glass. I did the same and we stood that way for a very long time, face-to-face….

I didn’t know what she was thinking or feeling. Her body had become unfamiliar to me. And yet, at the very same time, I recognized everything about her. My sister, Fern. In the whole wide world, my only red poker chip. As if I were looking in a mirror.

It is ironic that, even here, the chimpanzee-sister is not valued as a separate, unique, and finally unknowable non-human being, but a reassuring image in a mirror.