Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Google Me This

Technology frequently flummoxes me. Although I use it daily, it changes more swiftly than I can hope to. Working for a British company, for example, my computer seems to be a loyalist. It supposes that it is in the United Kingdom even as it sits on my desk in New York. I’m told this has something to do with a mystical key called an “IP address.” When I search Amazon, prices come up in pounds. When I google something, I’m told that European laws restrict certain searches. And, interestingly, I discover that Google’s icons of the day have a British theme.

GoogleI’m assured Google is a fun place to work. One of those enlightened companies that believes reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of employees leads to good results. Were that all companies so enlightened. In any case, the famous Google logo is often decorated with a commemoration of the day. This past week, two such icons appeared on my UK searches. The first commemorated Nessie with something like the 81st year of her appearance. The icon puckishly showed Nessie to be a fake, a submarine actually piloted by aliens. Later that same week, on St. George’s Day, a dragon appeared on the icon. I began to wonder about this reptilian connection. If lake monsters are real, many make the claim that they must be plesiosaurs, their dinosaur cousins that most resemble them. St. George, clearly a character cut from the same cloth as Hadad, slays a dragon—an equally mysterious reptile.

We tend to associate dragons with evil, although in world mythology they appear equally as often as harbingers of good. Human interaction with reptiles has always been fraught. Somewhere along our evolutionary track we must’ve shared a common ancestor with them. Even today some responses, such as fight or flight, are referred to as those occurring in the “reptilian brain.” In Genesis 3 the serpent slithers in. According to Revelation, at the other end of the canon, the snake is still there at the end. It was only happenstance that Nessie and George’s unnamed monster appeared in the same week, I suppose. Nevertheless, there is a deep connection between them and us. We can’t seem to get away from them, even should we flee across the ocean.

Animal Form

Mort(e)The fear of insects is fairly common among people. It is difficult, however, not to appreciate the “hive mind” and how insects in colonies work for the betterment of all, often at the expense of the individual. Now imagine that the hive mind resents what humans have done to insects over the millennia. And suppose that their massive mind allows them to develop a hormone that transforms animals into partial humans with consciousness and, for the most part, workable hands. Then you’ve got the premise of Mort(e) by Robert Repino. A debut novel about a cat (Mort(e)) and his desire to find a friend in the fog of war that follows the transformation of animals into people, the story is as compelling as it is creative. Add in a strong dose of religious concepts (Mort(e) is considered a messiah among the battered human population, and he has a prophet) and you’ve got a captivating story perfect for comment on this blog.

While not all novels I read have a religious element, a surprising number do. And this isn’t because I pick stories with religious themes. It is because religion pervades the human outlook on life. Repino’s novel, however, does go beyond a casual mention of religion. It turns out to be central to the plot in a way that, were I to describe it here, would constitute a spoiler, and since I want to encourage reading of Mort(e), I don’t want to reveal too much. Suffice it to say, without religion a large part of the story would be missing. No matter whether you believe religion is good or bad, you’ll find plenty to think about here.

These days I read novels liberally mixed in with non-fiction reading. Sometimes I’m disappointed after I spent a few hours on a book and find it to lack substance. (Sure, I do read as a guilty pleasure from time to time, but here I mean the kinds of books you invest in.) Mort(e) is a substantial story. The world in which the protagonist operates can be described as apocalyptic, and end-of-the-world scenarios have a way of raising questions about what we believe. The time spent reading Mort(e) is a good return on investment. And once it has been out there long enough, I’ll want to return to that plot spoiler to investigate it further. It’s that kind of book.

A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.

Love the Sinner

Nashotah House, in the many years I taught there, was very saintocentric. Our daily lives revolved around Saints’ Days, many of whom I’d never heard. Not having grown up Episcopalian, I wasn’t accustomed to all the obscure people recognized as worthy of having their own day. I was, however, surprised to learn that the church did not venerate the two most well-known secular saints: Patrick and Valentine. Perhaps having its origins as an all-male institution, St. Valentine’s Day was considered a dangerous concept to commemorate? But no, he wasn’t even on the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rest of the world was celebrating love, we were generally getting ready for Lent.

The truest holidays mark the observations of subtle shifts in nature. With our indoor, virtual lives, we’ve lost track of the fascinating rhythms of the natural world. The birds begin to pair off and mate, so the etiology goes, around this time of year. So to baptize that pagan erotic longing, St. Valentine was brought into the picture. So the story claims. Religions have always found love somewhat of a stumbling block. On the one hand, it is the highest ethical good—the greatest moral regard you can have for another person is love. (We try not to tell them that, because it might betray too much, however.) On the other hand, love can lead to physical intimacy and there things get a little dicey. Religions of all descriptions attempt to regulate sexuality. It may be a fearful thing, so perhaps we should put a saint’s face on it. Could act like cold water on the natural fires of biological creatures in February.

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So instead, Valentine’s Day has become a secular holiday. Kids send one another cheap cards indicating their enforced regard for one another. Guys carry flowers awkwardly through the streets of Manhattan. The clerk at the chocolate shop, even several days in advance, sends you out the door by saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It’s the secret we all know. Ironically, the church has backed away from Valentine. Perhaps, if our religious institutions took seriously what it means to be human, and promoted love as the highest good rather than political conformity, we would truly have cause to celebrate. But don’t mind me—more likely as not, I’m just gazing out the window, watching for birds and the hope of spring.

Seeing I

One of my few Twitter followers (stawiggins) suggested that I watch Dr. Ken Hayworth on YouTube. Specifically, Part 3: If we can build a brain, what is the future of I?, hosted by Galactic Public Archives. It is well worth 9 minutes of your time. Trying to figure out consciousness has been a major preoccupation of mine for some years. I don’t have the tools of neuroscience, but I do have over half a century of coming to know this “I” that constantly seems to wake up in this same body and experience all its woes and occasional joys. Hayworth suggests that the self is a model projected by our brains to help us make decisions and to plan for the future. In a fascinating thought experiment, he notes that if a duplicate self were made, we (or I) should not object to being executed since there is an exact copy now. Hayworth notes, however, that any individual will object because we are “designed” to think this way about ourselves. Designed, I wonder, by whom? I suspect Hayworth means evolution designed us that way, but evolution is non-teleological, and, I suspect, not really reificatory. Evolution is merely a process.

Perhaps the horns here are only those of a semantic dilemma, but I feel not. Hayworth goes on to discuss how instinct works to continue this illusion of self. I’ve never found instinct a very believable concept. We use it when we want to deny consciousness to animals and very young children. Since they can’t have a concept of “I” they have to have “instinct” to preserve themselves. Logically, to me, this seems to be fudging. What is instinct? Is it really any different than admitting at some micro-level, animals have consciousness? To me it seems that consciousness is one of those “turtles all the way down” kinds of propositions. To be alive is to be conscious at some level. Be careful how far down you dig here.

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Hayworth then goes on to what sounds like an almost biblical conclusion. Ethics insists that humans are part of a whole. (A very diseased whole, as the imbalance in society forces us to conclude, but a whole nevertheless.) To kill one is to violate the consciousness of the whole. This concept seems sound, and I would suggest that it might benefit from expansion. Why stop at the human level? We are animals. Animals are conscious. Here we are back at the turtles again. Perhaps we have expended too much energy trying to parse self from soul from mind from consciousness. Perhaps we are all part of a large collective consciousness. If so, we got some very sick units near the top. Any organic being that insists only one percent needs to be kept in perpetual plutocratic indigence while billions of others wonder how long they will survive at this payscale in this economy, or, more realistically, act as slaves to that one percent, is a sick beast indeed. If consciousness is collective, we could all use a massive shrink.

Weather for the Birds

As Christmas nears so does a warm front, dashing hopes of a white Christmas in New Jersey. Well, at least there are no tornadoes coming. The weather, as my readers know, has long been perceived as a divine barometer. In a time when patience is wearing thin with religion, and weary headlines ask if it will ever finally disappear, our animal cousins seem, as usual, to pick up on clues more readily than we. An article on the BBC science page describes how a set of tagged golden-winged warblers vacated their nest a day before a tornado struck. Scientists suspect that the birds—and likely other species of birds as well—picked up the infrasound of the tornadoes that is well below human hearing range. Sensing the danger, they flew nearly a thousand miles, stopping just south of the storm’s track.

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Of course, tornadoes don’t last an entire day. If the birds fled that long in advance, they couldn’t, I suspect, have heard a tornado that hadn’t formed yet. Since I’m no scientist, I’m not really qualified to offer an explanation, but I do wonder if such behavior isn’t related to consciousness. Several books that I’ve read recently have explored the concept of animal consciousness, and although we are reluctant to admit them to the realm of the self-aware, I wonder how long we can deny it. No doubt, if the birds fled (and returned after the danger had passed) there was an intentionality to their actions. Jealous of our intelligence, we must find a way to explain that animals can predict natural disasters of many kinds long before humans detect their more obvious traits. Our technology gives us seconds, or minutes, of warning. Dogs, cats, and birds know well in advance. But we are the superior beings here.

One of the problems with consciousness is that we can never get outside our own. Other people act in ways similar to us, and describe similar mental states, so we assign them the same kind of consciousness we have. Animals, not using human language, also act in similar ways to us. We call it “instinct” and continue on to the truly important stuff. I have no idea if birds can detect infrasound; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they could. Without the ability to place it in the context of danger, however, I doubt they would take a thousand mile vacation just after their annual migration. We could learn a lot from our fellow creatures, if only we’d admit them to the conscious club and not the food club. And perhaps they might be able to explain to us why, despite all we know, religion never seems to go away.

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.