Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Monstrous Intentions

Atlas Obscura is one of those websites where you could spend all day and feel like you’ve just traveled the world. Featuring less know locations, and strange spots that you might like to visit, sometimes it also has stories about monsters. Well, at least one story about monsters. A friend of mine recently shared Cara Giaimo’s story about thirteen lesser-known monsters from history. While none of these are likely to keep you up at night, they do demonstrate the endless imagination people devote to the unknown. Monsters, like religion, defy easy categorization. Is something that’s “too big” or “too small” for its type a monster? Is it a monster if it is a mix of things that don’t normally come together? Or is it merely a matter of baleful intention? What doth a monster make?

Taking a page (almost literally) from John Ashton’s Curious Creatures in Zoology, the Atlas Obscura page runs down some monsters once believed to have existed. Some of them, despite our flattened world seen only through the eyes of rationality, were actually reported to have existed. The “monster” of Ravenna, for example, was apparently a sad case of a medieval/early modern birth defect that, in the popular imagination took on monstrosity. We now know that birth defects may contain throwbacks to earlier stages of evolution, or that genetic coding may contain mutations. None of this suggests any evil intention on the part of anybody. Accidents of nature may be the saddest kind of monster of all.

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A surprising number of the monsters from Ashton’s sampler here are mixes between human and animal. Indeed, that mix is still a potent force, theologically. One of the loudest voices speaking out against evolution is the one that says people are “not animals.” Having grown up with that belief, it took a couple years of college to convince me that we fit into the greater biological scheme of things. We fear that which resembles us, but is not quite us. Perhaps part of the mystique is that we haven’t quite yet learned to be humane to one another. Being a monster may just have more to do with what one does with prejudices than it does with physical features of their bodies.

Thinking about Thought

The history of thought can be compared to a slow-moving pendulum. At other times it can be more like a ping-pong game. Acceptability for ideas can take time, but sometimes the perceptions change rapidly. Having been raised in a small town in a Fundamentalist setting, it is difficult to assess where exactly the “status quo” was when I was growing up, but by the time I had reached college it was pretty clear that the challenge science posed to my particular brand of religion was pretty firmly entrenched. Materialism—in the philosophical sense—had obviously gained several champions. B. F. Skinner and his followers applied this template to human beings, and it became fairly common to hear that we were basically automatons. (Ironically, double predestination in the Calvinism I was learning about taught pretty much the same thing.) Today there are even more vocal heralds proclaiming that all that is, is material. If it can’t be measured empirically, it can’t exist. The pendulum, or ping-pong ball, has come to one side of the table, or arc, awaiting rebuttal.

An article in Scientific American from two years ago (my personal pendulum sometimes moves slowly as well) asks the question “Is Consciousness Universal?” The article by Christof Koch describes panpsychism, the theory that anything beyond a certain level of organization is conscious. Koch begins by discussing dogs. Those of us who’ve spent time with dogs know that they are clearly conscious, although a materialist would say they are just as much dumb matter as we are. But panpsychism goes beyond dogs and horses and other “higher” mammals. Anyone who has taken the time to study any animal in depth, particularly those that are obviously mobile and can seek what they wish to find, knows that animals have will, and intension. The loss of meaning only comes with materialism.

Integrated information is the term Koch uses to describe the baseline of consciousness. Of course, this would need to account for more than the merely biological. Computers may be sufficiently complex, but the information they “possess” is not integrated, thus keeping them from being truly conscious. I’m not enough of a scientist to understand all the technicalities, but I do know that something as simple as common sense suggests that consciousness is part of all animals’ experience of life. As some scientists have long realized, feeling, or emotion, is integral to the thought process. Only when we realize that we share this world with a great variety of conscious creatures will we begin to make any progress toward understanding the difference between mind and mindfulness.

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Top Predator

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The reboot of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has been on my mind. Back in the early days of this century I hadn’t bothered to see either Jurassic Park II or III. The original, despite its faults, was like a childhood dream come true. I’ve always felt that dinosaurs (along with vampires and pirates) made for the best movies, although space has to be right up there in the top since 2001 (not the year, the movie). Since the summer I’ve made a point to carve out time to finish out the holy trilogy of dinosaur flicks. I liked the character Dr. Malcolm in the original, but he should’ve never been the main character of the sequel. The Lost World almost lost my resolve to see the series through. The story was unvarying: humans meet dinosaurs, dinosaurs chase humans. New and innovative means of trying to contain or exploit them try to demonstrate the evils of hubris and greed, but dinosaurs always prevail. Jurassic Park III was a bit better, going back to the original formula but adding something bigger than Tyrannosaurus Rex—the Spinosaurus. It was unbelievable, however, that a paleontology doctoral student couldn’t recognize it, thinking it a mere Suchomimus. At the turn of the century, new dinosaur finds had suggested that Spinosaurus was larger than T-Rex, and the movie reflected the new top predator of the time.

It is the little boy in me that keeps me coming back for dinosaurs. Some of my favorite toys were cheap, molded plastic dinos, and when my daughter was young we bought her all the more realistic (and pricey) Safari versions. When I get to the store, I still stop and look at the species we never acquired and make a wish. I think it’s because dinosaurs represent something we can never have. Species that grew to enormous size and had armor-like skin, and even, if some paleontologists are to be believed, considerable intelligence. Of course, that may just be the movie talking. In a world where all things are equal, we’d never stand a chance against dinosaurs. They are like reptilian deities.

When Amanda Kirby (ironically, the only adult to be addressed by first name in the movie by new acquaintances; the males are called by their titles even after they’ve been through several dinosaur attacks together) sees the incubators at the compound, she says, “So this is how you make dinosaurs.” Dr. Grant (let’s give him his title) responds, “No, this is how you play God.” Playing God is a trope as old as science itself. Planting crops to grow where you want them to grow is playing God in its own way. Creating uncontrollable forces that can destroy you seems to be a uniquely human trait. And so my imagination is drawn back to dinosaur days. Those who make the movies tug on wishes that any mere creature would have: to create its own gods and somehow manage to survive them. Hubris, it seems, is just as human as dreaming of dinosaurs.

Monster Smash

MnfsttnMnstrsIt’s the time of year when young men’s minds turn to monsters. Well, at least this middle-aged man’s does. Seeing a book by Karl P. N. Shuker entitled A Manifestation of Monsters, I was intrigued. I had some Amazon points burning a hole in my internet, so I took a chance on it. The fact is good books on monsters are hard to find and Shuker is listed as “Doctor” and that sometimes stands for something. Subtitled Examining the (Un)usual Suspects, the book is a curious Mischwesen of folklore, actual animals, and cryptozoology. The latter should be no surprise as Shuker is a noted cryptozoologist. Compiled from many of his previously published articles, the book contains some fascinating accounts of extinct creatures and some improbable accounts of modern monsters.

Since Banned Book Week is a time to explore challenged ideas, why not read about some cryptids? They are anti-establishment monsters. Banned creatures. As is usual with monsters, there’s little rhyme or reason to the arrangement. Unlike many in the field of cryptozoology, Shuker is skeptical of outlandish claims, and has actual training as a zoologist. What stood out to me as I read accounts of unusual creatures is that some people report seeing the oddest things, and that other people are driven to hoax all kinds of monsters. It is clear that the human mind is programmed to believe in the possibility of the improbable. Critical thinking, as anyone with advanced training knows, is hard work. Belief can be a far simpler matter. We crave a world with the exotic, and potentially dangerous. Shuker’s piece on the mythical chupacabra demonstrates that nicely.

While I’m pondering things that are banned, I consider how some who use critical faculties well like to disparage others. This, of course, is not in the best interest of science. We haven’t discovered everything yet. We think that because of the internet we’ve gone about as far as we can go in hive-mind mentality. Never mind that bees and ants beat us to it. People, many of them very intelligent, continue to see things they can’t explain. Others say that any living creature larger than a breadbox has already been discovered. I tend to think the world is a pretty big place and that people prefer to huddle together in cities for a reason. The mountain gorilla, for example, was discovered just in 1902. Now that the season for monsters is upon us, I like to imagine what else might be wandering around unseen by human eyes. And I hope banned ideas may continue to thrive in the forests of our minds.

Doubting Dawkins

A recent Guardian introspective on Richard Dawkins reminded me of the dangers of idolatry. Dawkins, an internationally known intellectual pugilist, the article by Carole Cadwalladr intimates, is as human as the next guy when you can catch him off the stage. Ironically, it is evolved primate behavior to adore the alpha male, but, at the same time, to prevent abuse of power and to get away with what you can behind said alpha male’s back. We are worshipping creatures, at least when it suits our best interests. Anyone who’s been intellectually slapped down (something yours truly has experienced multiple times) knows that it is an unpleasant experience that one doesn’t willfully seek out. We try to keep out of the way of those who assert themselves, preferring the safer route of just doing what we’re told and apologizing for something we know isn’t really our fault. It’s only human.

Evolution

The media have provided us with ever more expansive ways to build our “experts” into gods. Dawkins, a biologist, has become one of the go-to experts on religion. The media don’t seem to realize that hundreds of us have the same level of qualifications as Dr. Dawkins, but in the subject of religion. Many of us are not biased. And yet, when a “rational” response to religion is required, a biologist is our man of the hour. Granted, few academics enter the field in search of fame. Most of us are simply curious and have the necessary patience and drive to conduct careful research to try to get to the bottom of things. We may not like what we discover along the way, but that is the price one pays for becoming an expert. Those who are lucky end up in teaching positions where they can bend the minds of future generations. Those who are outspoken get to become academic idols.

I have no animosity toward Richard Dawkins or his work. I’ve read a few of his books and I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. Still, a trained academic should know better than to “follow the leader” all the time. (Some schools, note, are better at teaching independent thought than are others!) The academic life is one of doubt and constant testing. Once you’ve learned to think in this critical way, you can’t turn back the clock. One of the things that those of us who’ve studied religion know well is that all deities must be examined with suspicion. Especially those who are undoubtedly human and who only came to where they are by the accidents of evolution. I’m no biologist, but I inherently challenge any academic idol. I’m only human, after all.

Interstices

College move-in weekend can be a stressful time. In our particular case it means crossing a couple of state lines and staying in a hotel. Well, I suppose we technically might manage to load, drive, unload, and drive in a day but that seems awfully abrupt. You need time to shop for those supplies that might have run out, wait for roommates to arrive, and spend the last quality time together before facing an empty nest for four months. So we find ourselves in a hotel. It’s the one closest to the university, but it is also the host to some kind of event that draws a lot of people but fails to make internet event calendars. We usually stay at this hotel, and they even emailed us at the start of summer to make reservations early. The clientele this weekend is a cross-section of town and gown. It’s a mixed group. In the hall I see other students about, but there are those here who’ve come for non-academic entertainment, whatever that might be.

The barking started about 6 p.m. I grew up with dogs and most members of my family still have dogs. In fact, evidence points to the dog—the wolf at the time—being the first of the domesticated animals. Before agriculturalists rounded up sheep and goats and cattle, the dog accompanied the hunter-gatherer and both engaged in a win-win scenario. The successful hunt of a large animal left food for both humans and their best friend. Ironically for dog-owning anti-evolutionists, dogs are among the most selectively bred of animals. Looking at a pug, or a maltingese, it’s difficult to conjure up images of the wolf pack. The dog next door, obviously lonely and abandoned, was the small, yippy sort with a high-pitched, insistent bark. It was clear there was more than one in there. And, of course, hotel doors are about the least soundproofed surfaces on the planet. It was like Fifi and company was in the room with us. When I turned in about 10, the barking was still going on, and the front desk said they were trying to locate the guests registered for that room.

What's that shining?

What’s that shining?

I grew up with dogs, and I understand the attachment. I do, however, sometimes wonder about the courtesy of others. Some actions impact other people in direct ways, and sometimes we just don’t think of the consequences. I don’t just mean dogs. Lying awake, listening to distraught pets, I thought of the point of higher education. It is an “industry” in which I have a strong investment. The point of it all is to make our life together on this planet better for everyone. There will always be those who can’t travel without their dogs. There will always be those who have to venture far from home to get the education they want. Can’t there be affordable hotels with doors to dampen the noise just a little bit? Or maybe some of us a just over-sensitive at times like this. Maybe it’s time for me to go back to school to try to figure it all out.

Being Sheepish

Being among the animals at the fair, you begin to notice things that are foreign to those of us with exposure only to the house-pet variety of fellow creatures. Up close, for example, sheep are bigger than you might think they are. Since they’re domesticated and wooly, I tend to think of them as little—maybe knee-high—and in need of constant attention. The truth gives the lie to such false constructs. It was in the course of seeing sheep that I found out about Shrek. Shrek the sheep, now unfortunately deceased, has his own Wikipedia page. This was a single-minded ungulate who decided that the ’70’s lifestyle wasn’t truly over. The New Zealander took off from his heard, to avoid shearing, so the story goes, and hid in a cave for six years. With echoes of Odysseus, the ruminant survived just fine without human help and grew a serious coat of wool. When finally discovered and, of course, sheared, he gave enough wool to make suits for twenty men. Shrek had to be euthanized four years ago.

The story might have ended there. Shrek, however, fueled the imagination of several Christian writers who saw all kinds of parables in the lifestyle of this prodigal sheep. After all, in the pastoral culture of first-century Palestine, sheep suggested themselves as the fodder for the original set of Christian parables. Sheep wander, get lost, and get saved. They need someone to look after them. A good shepherd, preferably. In fact, sheep tales go further back in time, even to the Hebrew Bible. Perceptive prophets noticed how similar we are to our distant, quadruped cousins. It would be very odd, in hindsight, if nobody had picked up on the story. The mental picture is simply too appropriate.

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Metaphors, some have argued, are what make us human. We can see ourselves projected into just about any part of nature, and looking at nature, we can spy ourselves. Parables, by their definition, are never literal. We have to peer into them and find truths that gainsay the obvious. If we’re honest, we’d have to admit to being very much like Shrek. Who doesn’t want to run away and hide from what “the man” instructs us to do, against our own will? Yes, sheep have wills. Like any sentient creature, they have a sense of what they want and the best way to survive. With our fancy neocortex, we’ve domesticated sheep and bred many of their natural tendencies out of them forever. Still, I’m heartened to learn of Shrek the sheep. The lesson I draw from his story may not be the same as many Christian websites, but it will be no less true, I should think, for being such.