Animals and Us

Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name

by Vicki Hearne
Knopf, 274 pp., $17.95

Muir Among the Animals: The Wildlife Writings of John Muir

edited by Lisa Mighetto
Sierra Club Books, 196 pp., $17.95

The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior

by Jane Goodall
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 673 pp., $35.00

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.