Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name
Muir Among the Animals: The Wildlife Writings of John Muir
The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior
In Man’s Place in Nature (1863), the first popular attempt to clothe our own species in Darwin’s heresy, Thomas Henry Huxley singled out Edward Tyson’s study of 1699 as “the first account of a manlike ape which has any pretentions to a scientific accuracy and completeness.” In his Anatomy of a Pygmie (actually a chimpanzee), Tyson identified an African ape as intermediate between monkeys and humans, but closer to us than to them. Tyson has become a hero of cardboard history for this supposedly courageous act of permitting the facts of nature to proclaim an unpleasant truth previously suppressed by anthropocentric bias—our continuity with other animals.
In fact, the story should be told precisely the other way around. Tyson continually exaggerated the similarities between chimp and human (by reconstructing the skeleton and musculature of his ape in a fully upright position, for example), while soft-pedaling the differences. Tyson, in fact, did not speak for a heretical and reformist notion of continuity, but for the conventional, culturally embedded idea of a chain of being. This “ladder of life”—just another way of asserting human superiority by awarding the top rung to Homo sapiens—had been challenged by the large gap between monkey and human. Tyson, in other words, did not place his chimp on the rung just below ourselves because he had freed his mind from the cultural habit of interpreting animals in human terms, but for quite the opposite reason—because he longed to affirm a conventional view of human superiority.
I begin with this tale of history misread in order to make a point underscored in all four books under review: Protagoras was right (but for a reason different from his implied message of human superiority) in proclaiming that man is the measure of all things. It is not that other animals fill less of our pint jug, but that we cannot write, study, or even conceive of other creatures except in overt or implied comparison with ourselves. These books form a fine set of contrasts and similarities because they explore the major and most diverse forms of this ineluctable relationship (leaving out, perhaps, only the contentious issue of organisms used for scientific and medical experimentation). These include the obvious interactions of animals brought into human society—the paradoxical link of husbandry and pet-keeping (Serpell), and the partnership of training (Hearne).
They also illustrate why the two major modes of interaction with animals in nature cannot supply a perspective divorced from profound human entanglement—scientific study, with its claim to objectivity (Goodall), and aesthetic appreciation, with its credo of noninvolvement (Muir). Even the “purest” of all possible positions—that we should grant animals in nature their equal right of place, and simply and absolutely leave them alone in both deed and word—cannot possibly be realized, if only because our alterations of global environment leave almost nothing untouched (our deep-sea machines even hover over vent faunas of the ocean bottom), not to mention the more subtle and unavoidable point that such an argument of “live and let live” contains its own set of rich assumptions about the evolutionary status of humans and other animals.
In the light of this unavoidable entanglement, we can do no more than struggle to define a “proper” relationship with other animals (or, to steer more toward minimalism and less toward moralism, an “appropriate” relationship). Serpell approaches this issue by defining a paradox or apparent contradiction between the two cardinal uses of animals in human society—eating and petting. Serpell does not regard flesh-eating by humans as cruel per se, but he does graphically describe the contrast between older styles of family farm or free-range grazing (where animals suffered not at all, or perhaps only at the last moments of transport and slaughter) and the modern economy of “intensive” or “zerorange” husbandry, where animals are confined all their lives in interior stalls that hardly provide room for lying down. With food supplied at one end, and waste removed from the other, they become simple “throughput” machines for the production of beef or bacon.
How, Serpell asks, can we tolerate such cruelty in a society that lavishly displays its affection for animals in the extraordinary attention and expense that so many of us invest in pet-keeping? In part, of course, most Americans simply do not know (or prefer to look the other way when told) about the sorry lives of their evening meals. But Serpell argues that the paradox cannot be resolved by simple ignorance about one of its opposing terms. He claims instead that we resolve the contradiction by denigrating pet-keeping as the silly and peculiar habit of odd and lonely people who need either a child substitute or some other surrogate for the proper human relationships that their personal problems or psychic makeup preclude.
In the Company of Animals therefore becomes, primarily, a defense of the pervasiveness and appropriateness of pet-keeping in human society. Arguing by copious example in a thoroughly researched and well-written book, Serpell demonstrates that pet-keeping appeals both to a wide variety of cultures throughout the world, and to all social classes within Western society. It is not an indulgence of the rich, idle, and pampered, but a need (or at least a strong desire) felt by many who must shoulder quite a burden of expense, time, and responsibility in order to maintain their companions. Something deep and meaningful must flow from animal to human. Citing the medical and psychological benefits of pet-keeping, Serpell concludes:
Far from being perverted, extravagant, or the victims of misplaced parental instincts, the majority of pet-owners are normal rational people who make use of animals to augment their existing social relationships, and to enhance their own psychological and physical welfare.
I agree entirely with this argument, but must question the frame that Serpell constructs for its presentation. I am not convinced that we try to resolve the paradox between pet-keeping and slaughter by belittling the pet-keepers, thus forging a consistency from our worst practices. How can Serpell claim that “we” denigrate pet-keeping when more than half of us are in the supposedly disparaged category. To say that “we” belittle pet-keeping when most of us keep pets produces a logical conundrum much like the old claim of 1920s eugenics that the average mental age of Americans is thirteen. (Since there can be no standard apart from the general population, and therefore nowhere to measure thirteen as an external criterion, where can a “we” be found outside the majority of pet owners who, I assume, like and defend what they are doing.)
Serpell’s paradox therefore presses even more strongly upon us, for society does not even propose a standard resolution for him to challenge. But can this paradox be defined as something special about our relationship with animals? I don’t think so. The inconsistency between slaughter and pet-keeping is but one case among the dissonances that we all accept to make life supportable in a crazy world, to create islands of sense and comfort in a sea of danger. How else can we tolerate any of life’s real and immediate pleasures in a world of apartheid, AIDS, and threat of nuclear annihilation. Be thankful for this guide of sanity, but beware of the complacency that flows too easily from its comfort.
If Serpell treats the major modes of exploitation—what animals can do for us, either as food or companionship—Vicki Hearne explores the deepest form of explicit partnership: the exacting discipline of animal training. Her title, Adam’s Task, invokes the responsibilities imparted by the second, and less familiar, biblical tale of creation (Genesis 2), where God makes Adam first, then creates other animals, brings them to his first man, and gives Adam the task of naming each species. We usually view this story as more chauvinistic and anthropocentric than the traditional version of Genesis I, where humans are merely the final term in a continuous sequence of creation lasting for six days. But Hearne, who teaches English and ponders philosophy while maintaining a career in training dogs and horses, argues that Genesis 2 is the better story for forging mutual respect—for training engenders the responsibility of partnership, while the differing natures of human trainer and animal partner preclude any concept of domination or exploitation.
She asks if the trainer’s art is “just a sentimentalization of the enslavement of the domestic animal,” and replies:
Well, dog trainers and horse trainers insist that training…results in ennoblement, in the development of the animal’s character and in the development of both the animal’s and the handler’s sense of responsibility and honesty.
Hearne presents this humane and wise resolution for how animals, forced to live in our society and on our terms, can win respect and approbation for their nature (and thus, in a deep sense, their freedom) from within. Yet she mars this message with a withering scorn for any other view, thus herding her animals and their trainers into a citadel, besieged by the fainthearted softies of misplaced sugary kindness. Her self-styled enemies are both academic liberals (ignorant and hypocritical) and Serpell’s pet-keepers (soft and self-centered).
The academics, in her view, particularly those who study animals in psychological laboratories, display the special ignorance of false objectivity. They eschew the ordinary anthropomorphic language that imputes emotions and intentions to animals, and insist instead upon a supposedly “neutral” description hiding an unstated theory that regards animals as Cartesian machines.
But their hypocrisy is even worse. These academics preach a holier-than-thou version of kindness among human beings. Misunderstanding the art and mutuality of training, they brand it coercion and, constantly seeking metaphors and synecdoches to affirm their own moral superiority, accuse trainers of a species of Nazism. Hearne writes that “one must get past the notion of the bridle as an instrument of the kind of subjection that, in my experience, exists only in the fantasy lives of people who have bizarre notions about the nature of power.” Trainers, for Hearne, are martyrs on the scapegoat principle:
There has to be a separate class to get bitten, kicked and stomped on so that the humane and schizoid patter can continue without interruption. Like policemen, trainers exist on the frontiers of social order, as a kind of windbreak.
For the softhearted and weak-willed animal lover, “the humaniac” of her scorn, Hearne has even more contempt. The academic, at least, is ignorant, but the pampering pet-keeper destroys the souls of animals in the name of love and kindness. Consider her tale of a man who has not properly trained his Great Dane:
He is working about as hard as anyone can at not correcting his dog. The sight of him inspires instinctive revulsion in me, as does the sight of anyone who encourages a dog to misbehave, especially if they, while doing so, look around smiling genially to see if anyone is admiring the display of “love.”