JUNE 6, 2011
Illustration: Jack Kirby from Alarming Tales #1, September 1957
IN THE LAST DECADE, human vanity has taken a major hit. Traits once thought to be uniquely, even definingly human have turned up in the repertoire of animal behaviors: tool use, for example, is widespread among non-human primates, at least if a stick counts as a tool. We share moral qualities, such as a capacity for altruism with dolphins, elephants and others; our ability to undertake cooperative ventures, such as hunting, can also be found among lions, chimpanzees and sharks. Chimps are also capable of “culture,” in the sense of socially transmitted skills and behaviors peculiar to a particular group or band. Creatures as unrelated as sea gulls and bonobos indulge in homosexuality and other nonreproductive sexual activities. There are even animal artists: male bowerbirds, who construct complex, obsessively decorated structures to attract females; dolphins who draw dolphin audiences to their elaborately blown sequences of bubbles. Whales have been known to enact what look, to human divers, very much like rituals of gratitude.
The discovery of all these animal talents has contributed to an explosion of human interest in animals — or what, as the human-animal gap continues to narrow, we should properly call “other animals.” We have an animal rights movement that militantly objects to the eating of nonhuman animals as well as their enslavement and captivity. A new field of “animal studies” has sprung up just in the last decade or so, complete with college majors and academic journals. Ever since the philosopher Peter Singer’s groundbreaking 1976 Animal Liberation, one book after another has attempted to explore the inner lives and emotions of nonhuman animals. Bit by bit, we humans have had to cede our time-honored position at the summit of the “great chain of being” and acknowledge that we share the planet — not very equitably or graciously of course — with intelligent, estimable creatures worthy of moral consideration.
But it will take more than a few PETA protests or seasons of the Discovery channel to cut humans down to size. Contempt for animals is built into our languages: think of the word “bestial” or fressen, the German word for the distinctive way animals are thought to eat. In the great monotheistic religions, human superiority is as much taken for granted as the superiority of God over humans. Nonhuman animals were created in the service of humans, as if the deity wanted to leave us with a fully-stocked refrigerator. They offer up their flesh, their pelts and often their labor, and that, as Immanuel Kant saw it, was their mission on earth.
Such habits of thought die hard, as David Livingstone Smith’s Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others unwittingly illustrates. The “others” in Smith’s title are human, his thesis being that we are cruel to each other because we often fail to recognize our common humanity. Enemies, out-groups, subalterns, slaves and other human “inferiors” somehow get confused with animals or at least subjected to animal-invoking terminology. They are “cockroaches,” “swine,” or “rats,” and hence deserving of whatever cruelty is visited upon them. Although little of it will be news to the vast majority of readers familiar with the racist and ethnocentric ideologies that helped justify Western colonialism or World War II, Smith offers an impressively thorough survey of “dehumanization” as it has been deployed against Jews, African-Americans, and other “Others” — as an accompaniment to exploitation or extermination.
This idea, that human cruelty to other humans is based on a kind of cognitive error – a failure to recognize our conspecifics – is neither original to Smith nor particularly water-tight. True, enemies, and especially those that can be distinguished by their ethnicity are often “dehumanized” prior to slaughter, as John Dower so unforgettably illustrated in his 1986 bookWar Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. But Smith passes over the fact that wars have also been fought routinely and repeatedly among people who do recognize each other as fully human — whatever that may mean — people who, in times of peace, intermarry and trade with each other, and who may be as difficult for an outsider to distinguish as Irish Protestants and Catholics, Serbs and Croats. Furthermore, war tends to nurture a kind of symmetry among antagonists, who often imitate each others’ weapons and tactics, and it can even engender a kind of respect: recall the final battle scene in the 1964 movie Zulu, in which the Zulu army salutes the embattled British as worthy fellow warriors, and even Michael Caine seems to get a little dewy-eyed.
Smith offers his own theory of human uniqueness: We are unique in our ability to “dehumanize” each other and this, the reader will be astonished to learn, is a testimony to our superior intelligence:
Thinking of others as subhumans requires sophisticated cognitive machinery. Minimally, it depends on the ability to deploy abstract concepts like “human” and “subhuman” — something that is well beyond the reach of even the cleverest nonhuman primates.
There’s no point in belaboring the irony in Smith’s assertion that our apparent failure to consistently recognize conspecifics arises, not from thick-headedness, but from our presumed intellectual gifts. Would smarter chimpanzees be capable of “de-chimpizing” each other? The empirical roadblock Smith faces here is that chimps do in fact sometimes “de-chimpize” each other, or treat each other with what animal behaviorists have called “gratuitous cruelty,” as if the “enemy” chimp were a non-conspecific prey animal, such as a monkey. Smith wriggles out of this by warning against attributing “human-like mental states” to chimps:
Now, chimps are very smart, but they’re not that smart. There’s no reason to suppose that they’re able to reflect on their own intentions or that they can grasp sophisticated concepts like harm. So it looks like Jane Goodall was right. Chimps can’t be cruel.
So chimps may act mean but they aren’t smart enough to really be mean: a line of reasoning which, I am sorry to say, makes Smith look suspiciously kind.
Smith’s theory of dehumanization as the cognitive basis of human cruelty begs the obvious question: Why do we despise animals? What makes them not just non-human but “subhuman”? We all know the most patently self-involved answer to this question: that animals are really just “symbols,” reminding us, with their relative immodesty, of our lower bodies and more disreputable urges. But in his latest book, The Moral Lives of Animals, Dale Peterson, who is best known for his biography of ethologist Jane Goodall, suggests that it is our self-involvement that explains our vanity. Like all other creatures, he argues, we are caught up in our own species-specific “Darwinian narcissism,” existing “in a self-contained world in which all significant actors are members of the same species.” We humans, with our rich, all-enclosing, symbolic lives, may be especially solipsistic, to the point where we fail to recognize other animals as moral beings like ourselves.
This sounds like a refreshing perspective, promising a rebuttal of at least two thousand years of human moral preening (exemplified by the title of Robert Wright’s 1994 book The Moral Animal, which was, needless to say, not about squirrels). But there is an immediate problem with his notion of Darwinian narcissism. It is not, for one thing, universally shared throughout the animal world. Rather than being blinded by self-regard, most nonhuman animals in the wild seem, much of the time, to be caught up in close and dependent relationships with other species. Mice are acutely attuned to the behavior of cats and vice versa; hawks pass their time scanning the ground for snakes and small edible mammals. Birds of different species depend on each other to issue alarm calls at the approach of a possible predator; mammals often depend on birds to perform a similar service.
As for humans, to the extent that we suffer from a kind of narcissism that leads us to render other animals “subhuman,” it is a fairly recent affliction. The earliest human civilizations not only noticed and respected other animals, they worshipped them, albeit often in human-animal hybrid form: the jaguar gods of the Mayans, the lion-headed Egyptian goddess Sekmet, the still-extant Hindu gods Hanuman, who is a monkey, and Ganesh, an elephant, are all examples. In mythology and folklore no clear line divides humans and human-like deities from other animals: Zeus becomes a swan to rape Leda; the Cretan queen Pasiphae has sex with a bull; the Plains Indian Deer Woman dallies with bucks and gives birth to fawns. Or consider the Paleolithic cave art, in Lascaux for example, in which the animals — bison, rhinoceroses, bear, deer, aurochs, lions — are masterfully drawn while the humans are portrayed as little more than stick figures. It was the animals that bore close watching, not the other humans in one’s band. Within historical memory, European peasants shared their dwellings with their livestock; human males of many classes and ethnicities have maintained long-term committed relationships with their horses.
Peterson’s worst mistake is to devote the bulk of his book to a philosophical question which has so far eluded the finest primate minds: What is morality? No one has ever offered a satisfactory and sufficiently universal answer for our species alone, and to attempt to do so for all species at once is to court serious vapidity. Peterson offers a “functional definition” which is so general as to leave the word thoroughly deflated: “The function of morality, or the moral organ, is to negotiate the inherent serious conflict between self and others.” But “conflicts,” over resources for example, can potentially arise among paramecium or the individual cells of a slime mold, none of which possess organs of any kind, much less “moral” ones.
Things go downhill rapidly as Peterson attempts to identify the “rules” and “attachments” that, he proposes, are the ingredients of a universal morality. Citing the Ten Commandments as a handy example of a moral code, he asserts that one of the rules is obedience to authority, or at least “proper authority,” thus displacing the problem of morality onto the definition of “proper.” But this didn’t fly as a defense at the Nuremberg trials and it doesn’t fly now, since one person’s “proper authority” is another one’s illegitimate tyrant. Patriarchy embodies one kind of authority that has enjoyed moral respectability for centuries, the institution of slavery another.
The Moral Lives of Animals would have been a much better book if Peterson had left aside the philosophizing and confined himself to examining animal behaviors that at least look to us humans like moral behavior: the capuchin monkeys who get visibly upset by perceived unfairness in the distribution of treats, the primates who reach out to help conspecifics or unrelated creatures, sometimes at apparent risk to themselves. Or, to give an example Peterson doesn’t mention: the Ethiopian lions who in 2005 saved a 12-year-old girl from a group of human males who had abducted and were beating her — driving the men off and then guarding the girl for about half a day until the police arrived, at which point the lions “just left her like a gift and went back into the forest.” Commentators have questioned whether the lions actually cared for the girl or were they were merely obeying some genetic program requiring protective behavior toward a small whimpering creature. We can’t know, of course. But the same question could be asked of any human savior who happened to appear on the scene.
Unfortunately, Peterson’s favored sources of animal anecdotes are his own pet dogs, Smoke and Spike, one of whom he had judged to be a “bad dog” until a course at Obedience School revealed that Peterson was actually a “bad” owner, in need of a calmer, more confident approach. The pages he devotes to his reform as a dog owner at best illuminate only a tiny, scarcely representative slice of animal (or human and animal) moral behavior. Dogs have been domesticated for only around about 9000 years, and they still serve a variety of roles other than being companions to skittish middle-aged human writers. There are working dogs, like those that pull Inuit sleds; and there are guard dogs, like those kept by people in West African compounds, which no one would think of petting or putting through doggie school. There are even wild dogs, some of whom, I suspect, might be insulted if they were to catch the drift of Peterson’s rhetorical question: “What dog is more lonely, distracted, and distressed than the ragged one over there without a master?” This is the same kind of condescension, I can’t help pointing out, that has been traditionally leveled at unmarried women.
It’s a real relief, then, to move along to a book that does not take “human” and “animal” as immutable categories or even, in the case of “animal,” as a very useful category at all. Though it may come as a surprise to both Smith and Peterson, the notion of an “animal” is not universal to human cultures. Many Native American languages lack a word for “animal,” as does that of the Jinuo minority of China and the Huaulu of Indonesia, although all of these groups are and were abundantly familiar with the creatures we lump together as “animals.” As Paul Trout makes clear in his fascinating Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination, the important distinction, from a human point of view, is not between animals and humans, but between animals that we eat and animals that eat us.
Trout’s book is the most ambitious survey to date of the relationship between humans and the wild carnivores that have preyed on them as long as Homo sapiens, or our hominid ancestors, have existed. I stumbled on the theme of animal predation on humans while researching my 1998 book Blood Rites: On the Origins and History of the Passions of War, and did my best to make the case that in many ways, especially those involving the use of violence, “human nature” has been shaped by our long, terrifying history as the prey of creatures far bigger, faster and better armed in the tooth-and-claw department than our distant ancestors were. Trout goes over some of the same ground — with generous acknowledgments of my work, I should note — but he has far more material to work with, and takes it in some novel directions.
He begins with a bracing catalog of some of the more formidable creatures with which our Stone Age ancestors had to contend. There were far bigger cats than we can imagine today, like the New World saber-tooth tiger, which sported 10-inch-long tusks and weighed over 750 pounds, twice the weight of African lions today. Bears were another problem, especially the now-extinct American short-faced bear, which was 11 feet tall when it stood on two legs. Human residents of Paleolithic Egypt had to worry about snakes up to 65 feet long weighing in at about 800 pounds, and early Australians faced Megalania, a 30 foot long, 2000 pound, carnivorous lizard. As for the canids with which so many pet-owners still struggle to coexist, Trout reminds us that “hunting in packs, they were as dangerous as any single big cat.” He supplements this nightmarish bestiary with archeological evidence for predation on humans — hominid skulls pierced by holes spaced at the exact distance between the teeth of Pleistocene leopards, for example — which were at first mistakenly classed as intra-hominid homicides.
If it is humbling to think of other animals as cultured, moral and artistic beings, it is downright humiliating to think of them as predators dining on our own kind, whether routinely or opportunistically. “Man,” the eminent archeologist Louis Leakey once blustered, echoing the once-dominant “man-the-hunter” model of human evolution, “is not cat food.” But we may, for some predators, have been an especially delectable snack. Trout reports that in some African myths, “humans are casually referred to as the ‘meat without hair.’”
While scientists like Leakey have often felt queasy about predation on humans, classicists and folklorists can hardly ignore it. As Trout argues, if there is one central human mythological theme, from Gilgamesh to Beowulf, it is that of the man-eating creature that ravages the countryside until someone — hero or god — successfully confronts it. The predator in these stories is often explained away as a “symbol” for some entirely human fantasy or preoccupation. But lions, for example, were a real and widespread threat to humans. When the Achaean heroes weren’t fighting Trojans, for example, Homer tells us that they were tasked with trying to keep their kingdoms lion-free. Tigers took a huge toll on humans in India well into the 19th century, leaving large swaths of the subcontinent uninhabitable for humans, and still do in the Sundarbans, where every village has its “tiger widows.” In Eurasia, wolves not only preyed on travellers, but managed to break down doors and drag off humans well into the 20th century.
Deadly Powers does not skimp on the horrors of being eaten alive. Sometimes predation is a silent affair, as when a giant snake swallows a victim — a child, for example — whole. But predators may emit terrifying sounds –the roars of big cats, the growls of wolves or hyenas, the “sonic shrills” of attacking raptors – for the apparent purpose of causing their prey to freeze. As for the prey, Trout tells us, “Some of them snort, some bellow, some bray, some screech, some bleat, some shriek, some scream, some squeal, and some wail as they protest being clawed, bitten, eviscerated and dismembered.” Surviving conspecifics may find few fragments of the victim left to mourn, or they may find too many. Trout reports that “one of the most horrifying collections of stomach contents taken from an African crocodile included eleven heavy brass arm rings, three wire armlets, wire anklets, a necklace, fourteen human arm and leg bones, and three human spinal columns.” And, he reminds us, the ultimate humiliation, referred to in “myth after myth,” is to be eaten and then passed as excrement.
Being stalked and attacked in the night, having one’s child snatched up in broad daylight: these experiences left deep marks in our species and, in many ways, Trout argues, have made us what we are today. Our brains are wired for fight or flight. Our nightmares still feature devouring beasts, both imagined monsters and actual animals. Our cultures evolved out of the need for defense against creatures far mightier, and at one time far more numerous, than ourselves, and the experience of rallying together to confront a dangerous intruder still provides an ecstatic high, even if the “enemy” is only another town’s football team. Over the millennia, early humans had to find ways to imitate their animal enemies, by, for example, sharpening stones to mimic beaks and claws, making loud noises, and donning body paint and head-dresses to make themselves look more intimidating. Our proudest achievement — language — may have evolved out of the alarm calls used to signal the approach of a predator. Perhaps most important of all, though Trout does not stress this, most evolutionary biologists today agree that we would not be social animals, huddling together in our villages and cities, if the Pleistocene environment had not swarmed with dangerous animals.
It is not within Trout’s purview to chart the human transition from, as he puts it, “a timid and innocuous bipedal primate into an aggressive and brainy killer.” He’s more interested in some of the more sinister effects of this transition on us. Ten thousand years after our collective ascent to the status of global alpha-predator, we are still obsessed with nonhuman predators and the entire business of predation. We pay money to see movies in which our conspecifics are ambushed, torn limb from limb, and often consumed right in front of us. As the old animal predators have gone extinct, we have substituted monsters of our own imagining, from medieval dragons to the extraterrestrial beast in the Alien series; at this particular cultural moment, we seem to be especially drawn to creatures – vampires and werewolves – who are always conflating appetite with eroticism. On the far fringes of predator fixation, Trout reports that there are even a few surgically altered “were-predators,” like the man “who had his teeth filed into fangs and had dozens of operations and tattoos to make himself look like a tiger,” including the surgical implantation of a tail.
It is the “other animals” who of course have paid the highest price for the human ascent to the top of the food chain. In no small part because of our own terrifying prehistory as prey, humans could not seem to stop killing, as if we had to keep reassuring ourselves, over and over, that we had indeed evolved from prey to predator. Many explanations have been offered for the massive extinctions of large animals (megafauna) that began about 12,000 years ago — viruses, meteor hits, climate changes — but the soundest hypothesis is summarized by the word “overkill.” Humans killed what they needed to eat and then killed much more, eliminating animal populations as they spread out over the globe on foot or by sea. In the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Australia, megafaunal extinctions follow closely upon the arrival of humans. Prehistoric hunting peoples drove herds of bison off cliffs, often leaving the bottom layers of crushed animals to rot. White settlers and colonialists hunted for fun or at most for trophies like tiger skins. Today, the whaling industries in Japan and Iceland persist in their exterminatory mission despite a near-complete absence of demand for whale meat.
A couple of years ago, on some misanthropic whim, my son and I started sending each other news reports of animal attacks on humans: Wolf attacks on villages in India, orcas capsizing kayaks and devouring their contents, a mountain goat goring a hiker to death in Washington. Little did we know that someone was keeping track much more systematically: Jason Hribal, author of the late 2010 book Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance. Hribal assembles scores of cases in which animals — mostly elephants, tigers and orcas in captivity — have rebelled, usually targeting their victims with remarkable specificity. There is, for example, the case of Tatiana, a four-and-a-half year old Siberian tiger in the San Francisco zoo who in 2007 scaled the twelve-foot high wall of her enclosure to attack three teenagers who had been annoying her by shouting obscenities, waving their arms and possibly throwing things at her. After she ripped one of them to pieces, the other two ran away, with Tatiana in hot pursuit. As Hribal recounts the chase:
For twenty minutes, Tatiana roamed the zoo grounds. She was presented with many opportunities to attack park employees and emergency responders. She could easily have gone after other visitors. But Tatiana was singular in her purpose. Just as she closed on the surviving boys in the zoo’s café, police shot her dead.
Comprehensive as it is, Fear of the Animal Planet should be supplemented with John Vaillant’s highly entertaining The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, in which a wild Siberian tiger stalks and eats a human poacher who had been catching tiger cubs for their skins and eating their flesh. The avenging tiger attacked no other humans, despite opportunities to do so, but he destroyed everything bearing the poacher’s scent, including the pots that had been used for cooking tiger cubs.
Are we in danger, then, of a widespread, coordinated, animal revolt? Given the rate at which humans continue to exterminate, enslave and gobble up the habitats of other animals, the answer is probably no. Nor, I should reassure anxious readers, is there any evidence yet of cross-species coordination against human hegemony. But we should definitely relinquish two cherished human views of animals: both the Cartesian idea that they are simple biological automatons, devoid of consciousness, and the more recent animal-liberationist notion that they are gentle, innocent victims of human greed and cruelty. They are different from us — each species, perhaps each individual, alien in its own way. But they are capable of premeditation, reasoning and moral outrage. And, it should never be forgotten, some of them are our ancient antagonists, the carnivores who once ruled the world.