Time magazine has a short article on the history of ideas about whether animals can commit suicide. It starts somewhat awkwardly by discussing the recent Oscar winning documentary on dolphins but is in fact based on an academic paper on ‘animal suicide’.
Changes in how humans have interpreted animal suicide reflect shifting values about animals and our own self-destruction, the paper argues. The Romans saw animal suicide as both natural and noble; an animal they commonly reported as suicidal was one they respected, the horse. Then for centuries, discussion of animal suicide seems to have stopped. Christian thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas deemed suicide sinful for humans and impossible for animals. “Everything naturally loves itself,” wrote Aquinas in the 13th century. “The result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being.”
In 19th century Britain, however, after Darwin demonstrated how humans evolved from animals, humane societies formed, vegetarianism and pets became popular, and reports of animal suicide resurfaced. The usual suspect this time was the dog. In 1845 the Illustrated London News reported on a Newfoundland who had repeatedly tried to drown himself: “The animal appeared to get exhausted, and by dint of keeping his head determinedly under water for a few minutes, succeeded at last in obtaining his object, for when taken out this time he was indeed dead.”
Of course, the article doesn’t answer the question of whether animals can end it all, but is a fascinating look at how the idea that they can has gone in and out of fashion.
UPDATE: Thanks to Mind Hacks reader Avicenna for pointing out that the full text of the academic article ‘The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal’ is available online.
Link to ‘Do Animals Commit Suicide? A Scientific Debate’.