Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Nature of the Beast

from: The Times Literary Supplement  Jennie Erin Smith  Mar. 20, 2018

© Dollia Sheombar/Getty Images

Cows with character

A quarter of a century ago, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote a gripping account of spying on her dogs as they roamed free in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her book The Hidden Life of Dogs, which described the pack’s surprising doings when humans weren’t in the picture, became a durable bestseller. Its author was not shy about what she felt she had accomplished. “I have always wanted to enter into the consciousness of a nonhuman creature”, she wrote.

There’s been no abatement since then of popular books that purport to expose the secret or hidden lives of animals. Thomas went on to write about cats and deer, but there are owls, octopuses, elephants, toads, bees, flies and even lobsters among recent offerings.

While the newer books tend to hang their cases on a growing body of scientific findings in animal behaviour, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, they all touch on age-old questions about consciousness and subjective experience. And because the invitation to journey into an animal’s mind requires at least a minor leap of faith, most writers will attempt to frame, or pre-empt, any concerns about anthropomorphism. Thomas brushed those off on evolutionary grounds, arguing that it is unscientific to draw too bold a line between our own mental experience and that of other animals, especially mammals, because our neural and hormonal networks evolved along similar pathways. That out of the way, she pronounced one dog pair husband and wife.

Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows, originally published in 2003, has overtones of Thomas’s classic, relying more on its author’s intimacy with her subject than on scientific scaffolding. “I have told the stories exactly as they happened but of course the interpretation of the actions of the ‘characters’ is mine”, Young writes in her introduction, challenging readers to take it or leave it.

Young’s characters are her cows, which she raises for meat on an organic farm in the Cotswolds. These Ayrshires and Herefords have long enjoyed privileges that modern factory farming would deny them. They have ample pasture, and express distinct preferences as to where to roam, what to eat, and whose company to keep. They seek out certain plants, especially willow, to eat when they’re feeling ill; they are “siblings, cousins, friends or sworn enemies”, Young writes. They are named after poets, royals, clergy and emperors. They are, above all, individuals who make choices all day long.

Young believes that the appearance of behavioural uniformity among cows, pigs, even chickens, is an upshot of factory farming. Animals and people can seem to lose their identities if forced to live in “unnatural, crowded, featureless” or boring conditions, she writes. On her farm mothers remain with their calves, sometimes enlisting female relatives as babysitters. (One cow named Charlotte did not take naturally to motherhood, Young writes, and her calf, Calpurnia, “was not permitted to suckle milk from her debutante-type mother who announced straight away that the nanny could bring up the brat”.)

It doesn’t really matter that Young’s depictions of her cows as expressing such complex cognitive states as bafflement, gratitude, or feigned ignorance when she’s scolding them fall outside the scope of the empirically demonstrable. Through decades of close observation, Young has uncovered many fascinating and unknown behaviours. As she acknowledges, however, these can be hard to separate cleanly from her imagination, or ours.

The German forester Peter Wohlleben shares Young’s conviction that animal beh­aviour is often rooted in individual character and choice. In The Inner Life of Animals, a follow-up to his book on trees, Wohlleben’s subjects are woodland creatures: red deer, squirrels, boar, mice and ravens, along with domestic animals he has raised. He has seen courageous fawns, depressed does, conniving roosters. Unlike Young, he is anxious to show that his observations are objectively valid. To give them heft, he highlights findings from the past decade or so, many of them by German and Austrian researchers.

Writing about bees, Wohlleben recalls his experience as a keeper to attest that “there’s a lot more going on inside their little heads” than the conventional wisdom would have it. Bees will attack people who have annoyed them in the past, while allowing trusted ones to approach, he says. He cites research by a Berlin neurobiologist that subverts the old notion that a hive of bees acts as a collective super-organism. In fact, individual bees are capable of a limited form of decision-making and planning, Wohlleben writes, and they are “self-aware”.

Wohlleben is especially sensitive to how certain species perceive hunger and cold, and to their pain and trauma. He reports encoun­tering on his winter walks the nests of wood mice that have been plundered by martens, which steal the rodents’ food and often help themselves to a mouse or two in the process. “What must that have been like for the other mice?” he wonders. Were they simply afraid of the marten, “or did they also realize that its activities caused one of their own to suffer?” He turns to a Canadian study showing that, as he suspected, mice become highly stressed when suffering is inflicted on another member of their group.

It requires a certain cognitive dissonance to cite scientific paper after paper in support of your own conclusions, then to malign scientists. According to Wohlleben, scientists write in dry, academic language that “rarely leads to a better understanding of the subject”; they demand “proof” of animal feelings that cannot reasonably exist. Even the term “mating” to describe the sex life of animals seems cold and inadequate to him.

It is not a fair characterization. Ever since Charles Darwin argued for seeing mental experience across a continuum in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), biologists have had to navigate between reading too much into an animal’s actions and ascribing everything to conditioning or instinct. The pendulum has swung many times between generosity and parsimony, but the evidence now supports an ever-richer range of emotional experience, even as some canards get debunked (dogs don’t look at you pathetically because they’re feeling guilty; it’s because you’re yelling at them).

Creationists, too, are often accused of diminishing animal experience, just as they did when Darwin first made his case for it. The naturalist and broadcaster Lucy Cooke, taking a longer historical view, finds that Christians paved the way for many egregious anthropomorphic projections. In The Unexpected Truth about Animals, each of Cooke’s thirteen breezy yet fact-stuffed chapters traces the origins of a long-standing myth about a species or class of animal. Cooke identifies a pattern. An ancient observer, such as Aristotle or Pliny the Elder, described the animal in a way that may have been inaccurate, but at least attempted to be truthful. The reported traits were later seized on by writers of medieval bestiaries, who were only interested in allegory. When natural history began its comeback in the eighteenth century, naturalists such as Linnaeus and the Comte de Buffon tried to separate received wisdom from what they were observing, and often simply couldn’t.

In some cases, Cooke finds, ancient distortions have persisted into recent history. The spotted hyena, whose females have penis-like genitals, was deemed a coward and a herm­aphrodite by the Greeks. The hermaphrodite rumour stands to reason, but the coward part came not from the hyena’s behaviour – it is a skilled hunter – but from Aristotle’s theory that size of an animal’s heart determines its bravery. Christian writers rendered the hyena not merely a coward but a “dirty brute”, a pervert, and a cadaver-eating fiend that lived in sepulchres. These slanders were promoted as late as the nineteenth century by celebrated naturalists, and a textbook on mammals from the 1960s still described hyenas as cowards.

Cooke’s chapter on beavers shows an especially knotty trajectory. Once hunted for their musk glands, which look like testes, they were alleged by the Greeks to castrate themselves when cornered. 

Christian writers took from this a handy lesson: man must cut off the source of his vice to live in peace. During the colonization of North America, which was full of beavers, allegations of wise self-castration gave way to reports of utopian beaver societies. Buffon extracted from colonists’ accounts to laud the beavers’ “moderate appetites”, “simple taste” and aversion to “blood and carnage” in an essay with the hallucinatory qualities of a secular bestiary.

And then came the backlash, when later French naturalists, more deeply influenced by the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes, deemed the beaver to be no more than a living automaton, acting entirely on instinct. It has since taken a lot of time, and experiments, to untangle what motivates a beaver. Behaviourists have revealed beavers to be instinctive in certain ways – they start to build whenever they hear running water, for example – while also being learners and problem-solvers. Cooke concurs with the late researcher Donald Griffin, a more liberal interpreter of animal cognition, who argued that the beaver “thinks consciously in simple terms about its situation, and how its behaviour may produce desired changes in its environment”.

The author praises the scientists who, in the wake of pioneers like Griffin, have revealed “tool-wielding octopi [sic], problem-solving pigeons, counting crows and communicative parrots” – redefining how we think about how animals think, and making us less dependent on the philosophical and theological constructs that have hamstrung us in the past. With each new discovery, she writes, “the boundaries we have created around our uniqueness, century after century, continue to fade”. But Cooke is adamant that the anthropomorphising tendency remains “our major undoing”.

The old moral codes and allegories are perpetuated, Cooke alleges, in the popular press and on natural history programmes. A documentary about penguins (March of the Penguins, 2005) was seized on by evangelical Christians who saw in it a lesson about sacrifice, fidelity and family when really, Cooke says, a penguin will have sex with the frozen head of a dead compatriot if it must. Painting animals with an “artificial ethical brush” denies us the astonishing diversity of life.

Another creature’s experience is different, and we do not know how it is different”, writes Daisy Hildyard in The Second Body. This playful and original essay touches on the limits of our ability to imagine that experience. Hildyard, a novelist who was trained as a historian of science, tries to find the ways we intuit boundaries between our bodies and our ecosystems, between ourselves and other animals.

To be an animal, Hildyard writes, is to be in possession of a physical body that can eat, drink and sleep. That body “makes individual choices and has individual thoughts”. The other is entirely without boundaries, integrated with other forms of life and whole ecosystems near and far. To be a living thing, then, “is to exist in two bodies”. Nonetheless, she notes, “this is not how it feels on the ground”.

Hildyard describes a sort of horror in having to view the body and its components as intertwined, permeable, shared. Even scientists, she finds, have a tough time getting to grips with humans as a bona fide part of an ecosystem; ecology textbooks describe us as like a “climatic or divine” force – we disturb, we damage. But where, she wonders, do we belong?

The author attempts to integrate insights from experts she interviews – evolutionary biologists, microbiologists, in one case a butcher – with her own lived experience with what she calls “the collective global animal body”. She remembers that as a child she got a pheasant to respond to her calls, giving her a welcome sense of belonging to its world, even if she was unsure what the bird was communicating. On another occasion, she found herself recoiling after discovering the dried-up tail of a fox, instantly knowing that “its flesh was not my flesh”. She felt a similar apprehension decades later when a nearby river rose and flooded her house in North Yorkshire, bringing “the whole of animal life” inside: fish, bacteria, strange slug-like creatures. The second body colliding with the first.

All this seems to prompt the question of why, if so much of life is transferable and shared, the consciousness of another creature is so hard to access. In lieu of conclusions Hildyard leaves us with paradoxes. Species boundaries are an illusion. Individual life is an illusion. Animal bodies circulate uncontained. Our cells have more in common with fungi than we’d care to admit. All that said, she writes, “let’s not waste time posing philosophical questions about whether you are a dungfly”.

It has long been thought that the urge to get inside an animal’s head, however incompletely or inadequately, is innate to humans. In his wonderfully clear-eyed book The Animals Among Us, the behaviourist John Bradshaw presents a trove of evidence for anthropomorphism as a hard-wired compulsion, and not merely a sentimental expression. He finds it in the relationships between people and our pets.

The mentalizing trait that allowed humans to become good hunters some 50,000 years ago came with a corollary desire to relate to animals on other levels, including by taming wild individuals and bringing them into the home, Bradshaw says. While the pet-keeping tendency has waxed and waned according to economic, religious and cultural norms, some form of it has existed nearly as long as we diverged from our hominid ancestors. We’ve recruited many of the same species all the while, especially cute, furry ones.

Bradshaw is a researcher who has worked for much of his career on questions of dog and cat welfare. His field, anthrozoology, looks specifically at the relationships between people and a handful of domestic animals, mainly dogs, cats and horses. He is, as they say, an animal person. Even so, he takes a deeply sceptical view of a huge range of claims that have been made (and are now widely accepted by society, if not by science) for the physical and mental benefits of pet-keeping. “The belief that pets are not simply companions but have the power to educate us, console us, and even to prevent us from becoming sick has become all-pervasive”, he writes, and then goes on to show how little of it holds water.

Cats and dogs don’t make us better people. Children who are violent to pets do not have a higher likelihood of becoming violent to people as adults, studies have found, and those who are kind to animals will not necessarily be kind to humans. Some types of childhood allergies are exacerbated by pets, while others can be prevented. Petting a dog or cat will cause a temporary drop in blood pressure, but having one in the house has not been shown to reduce strokes or heart attacks. It is far from certain whether the psychological benefits seen with therapy dogs in nursing homes is because of the dog or its cheery handler.

Only for narrowly defined circumstances is there evidence that a pet can enhance human health and well-being, Bradshaw finds. A pet acquired specifically for a child with autism can prompt him or her to communicate better with family and peers, while a pet that was in the child’s home all the while may not do the trick.

Why, in an age of supposed reason, “have a few kinds of domestic animals become imbued with almost mystical powers?” What in human nature wants so desperately to believe in the healing powers of pets? Bradshaw asks. His answer is that we’re not behaving rationally at all, but instead are engaged in mental gymnastics around an innate adaptive urge, one that would have benefited our ancestors’ survival. Precisely how pet-keeping could be adaptive is difficult to pin down, and Bradshaw’s case rests on a few big assumptions, some of them derived from studies of modern hunter-gatherer cultures. Were women who behaved in a motherly way towards pet animals really preferred as brides, as he suggests? Regardless of how it first took hold, the anthropomorphic tendency means that we are stuck “with brains that our ancestors evolved in a world in which wild animals played a huge part”, and, by extension, with emotional support pigs.

Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses is an arresting book of essays, which might better be called short stories, imagining the moments in our history when animals got into our collective neocortex, and how they transformed us and we transformed them.

Each chapter spins a yarn around a single, iconic animal, beginning with a 39,000-year-old mammoth found just a few years ago in Siberia. The frozen animal, named Yuka by its discoverers, showed marks not only of a fight with a lion, but also of opportunistic butchering by humans. Here is how Passarello envisions the hunter: “To be a human on the steppe was to hold a codex of every muscle in a lion’s neck, a bison’s spine, a caballine flank running to safety. Before it became anything else, a human brain was first an almanac of living shapes changing in the passing light”. To steal the injured mammoth from the lion, “he becomes the lion”, Passarello writes. “He finds the rhythm of the lion inside him and brings it forward.”

All these millennia later Yuka is not extinct. She “reinflates inside the humans that touch her as a circus pachyderm or an elephantine nursery toy”, an ancestral memory “buried not in the brain, but in marrow and fiber and peptide”. There are many evolutionary and anthropological arguments swirled into a breathless narrative here.

Over seventeen chapters modelled, like Cooke’s book, after a medieval bestiary, Passarello treats Jumbo the Elephant; Clever Hans; Mozart’s beloved pet starling; Harriet, the Galapagos tortoise that returned on HMS Beagle; Cecil the Lion. Her writing indulges some tortured constructions now and then, and every so often a whole chapter falls flat.

But no human or animal figure in these stories is beneath the author’s sympathetic attentions, not even the much-maligned bestiary writers who in her telling were “learned men” who had “kept track of the nature of things since the time of their amphitheater”. Their versions of events are not irrational, she finds. 

The sins of the wolf are “the sins of rogues, apostates, and highwaymen”, because that’s quite how the wolf lurking at the gates of Gubbio behaved before Francis of Assisi came to reason with it. “Choose one creature to honor, the books said, and one to hope you’ll never let inside yourself. Be the pilgrim, not the highwayman. Be the lamb and not the wolf.”

Passarello sees in Clara – the rhinoceros that toured Europe in the eighteenth century – an animal whose reality could not dislodge the memory of Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 engraving of one. Dürer had of course never seen a rhinoceros in the flesh; his came with an extra horn and looked as if it was covered in armour. When a French artist painted the docile, soft, pink-tinged Clara from life, the image failed to excite, Passarello finds, because it “amplifies a basic limitation: the barrier that a natural animal body presents to human understanding. We humans can only go so far toward another ‘real’ creature”. Better suited to us, she says, is the ill-executed beast of Dürer, an image “twisted by the facts of human anxiety and awe” that retained its appeal long after Clara came and went.

In her chapter on Mozart’s starling, Elena Passarello takes a side trip into modern neuroscience, weighing humans’ ability to relate to a class of creatures whose brains evolved on a separate track from ours. She recounts with a healthy sense of divine weirdness the twin mysteries of Mozart’s brain and the starling’s. Three years after buying the bird, seemingly for its compelling, changing song, Mozart organized an elaborate funeral for it. It was an honour he did not extend to his own father, who had died just weeks before.

“Why buy a bird? Why bury it and not your father?” the author asks. “Is it even possible to bond with a creature only by the sound it makes? We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.”

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