Thursday, February 03, 2011

History lesson, and a review of the book it came from.

coverIt is still being taught in universities that animals have no mind, no consciousness. Rene Descartes' despicable, insane notion that animals are nothing but "biological machines" has that deep a hold on our society.

What's interesting, though, is that if you look back before Descartes, back to early colonial America or Medieval Europe or before, you find that people not only believed that animals were conscious beings, they should be considered members of the community. This is most obviously evidenced by judicial trials in which animals, from termites to bears, were accused of committing crimes, from trespassing to murder. They were accorded equal rights under the law, and humans and animals could even be tried together as co-conspirators. Animals were assigned public defenders for these trials.

Underlying all this was the assumption that animals possessed rationality, free will, moral agency, motivation, and emotions.

Then came the "great" philosophers. Descartes took away animals' souls and minds. John Calvin declared that God made the world and its animals for the benefit of humans. John Locke declared animals were "perfect machines". The separation of man from the rest of the world became an unchallenged notion in our society.

Since you are reading this blog, I assume you know how wrong that notion of separateness is. I thought it was interesting to look back in time to when society at large did not have that idea. That history lesson comes from an essay by Jeffrey St. Clair that serves as the introduction to a new book called "Fear of the Animal Planet", by Jason Hribal.

The premise of Hribal's book is that when an animal "attack" makes the news, we should look for and consider the circumstances that led the animal to do that, that the animal was provoked in some way. I don't disagree with that idea; I already held it long before this book appeared.

The book itself is, unfortunately, not going to persuade anyone who doesn't already have that opinion. Most of the book is little more than a listing of various incidents at zoos and theme parks. Hribal doesn't provide the necessary details of what led up to each incident. He needed to provide definite sources and evidence, and he does not. This hurts his effort a great deal. He seems to work on the assumption that ALL zoos, and ALL theme parks, and ALL animal handlers are necessarily and inherently evil; and with this view, providing details becomes unnecessary. This is not the way to get people interested and involved.

The book overall is a slapdash production, which will also put people off. Besides missing details, wrong dates are given, the author rambles off in odd directions, and even falls into incoherency at times. A good editor would need more than one red pencil to take on this book.

Animal attacks make news. The idea that the animal was acting in self-defense or was goaded into such action does not make the news. Bringing the idea of animals as intelligent emotional creatures to the forefront of our societal thinking is a very vital necessity for them and for us. This would be a major paradigm shift, and it's going to take a better effort than what was put into this book.

The first three-quarters of Jeffrey St. Clair's introduction is actually the most compelling part of the book. Maybe he should take on the job of producing a second edition.


  1. I found this an interesting read Craig. For me personally Animals do have reasons shy they attack people. It can be because they are by nature predatory in the case of Lions,tigers and other big cats. There is a situation where an animal may be injured and attacks out of hunger. Territorial issues, young with the animal bears can attack people. Lack of fear of humans. So many things I could write down and still come up with more with sourcing and proper references. Sourcing and support of any claims made as you have pointed out are important if trying to state something as fact. Which it seems in the above book you've reviewed is the case. We are ourselves a predatory species. We can't separate animals from ourselves as Henry Beston so eloquently quoted about Wolves

    "Wolves are not our brothers; they are not our subordinates, either. They are another nation, caught up just like us in the complex web of time and life."

    I would say that applies to all the animals in our world.

    Great Post

  2. Thank you. I'm not always sure that what I say makes sense to anybody else.

    I like that quote. The idea of animal "nations" corresponds to my contention that they have their own societies that we haven't paid attention to.

    Beston's words promote a "different yet equal" point of view, which is reasonable if a person takes the time to think about it. The trouble is, somehow "different" tends to become "inferior" in people's minds. Personally, I lean toward the "brothers" side of the argument, to try to help get people past that notion of "inferior".