Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Twice Bitten

I should be aware of what happens next. I’ve seen it in movies often enough. Man gets bitten by a wolf, and he turns into a werewolf at the full moon. That gives me two days. And it wasn’t a wolf, but a pit bull. I fear what I might become. You have to understand that after a long commute—they’re doing construction along a stretch of a major artery where my route passes—and having been awake since 3:30 (a.m.) when I get off the bus I’m not always thinking clearly. I’ve done some calculating and it turns out that apart from work, commute, and sleep (or at least trying to sleep) I’m left with three and a half hours per day to do my own stuff, like write these blog posts, eat breakfast and supper, and pay bills. So when I get off the bus for my short walk home, my main concern is getting across a busy street where New Jersey drivers routinely ignore the state law that they must stop for pedestrians in a cross walk. But last night the dogs were out.

The sidewalks in my town are narrow. Nine days out of ten I meet no one on my way home. There’s one guy with a tiny dog that’s feisty and it is amusing how the little guy—just a puppy—growls and barks its tiny barks and strains to get at me. Dog owners around here pull their dogs off the sidewalk to let walkers pass. It’s a friendly town that way. Last night the young woman was no match for the two pit bulls she was walking. The street was unusually busy since two guys had just walked past me, one, commenting on the dogs, said “I don’t take my beasts out any more.” The woman pulled the dogs off the walk and they barked and snapped and as I walked past one lunged and bit me. Tore a good pair of pants. The woman they owned was aghast and offered to pay. I didn’t want her to know how cheap my clothes were. Besides, I couldn’t hear her over all the barking.

It’s been years since I’ve been bitten by a dog. This was really just a scratch and the frantic woman assured me the dogs had had their shots. But I’ve seen the movies. I know what happens next. Two nights from now I’ll be roaming the streets after dark, half human, half dog. The Hunter Moon (the official name for October’s full moon) comes on Sunday. I can’t blame the dog—it was only doing what aggressive dogs are bred to do. My commute, however, has a new hazard. Not only do we deal with construction zones, I now have to arouse myself to watch out for werewolves on the way home. It must be October.

Me, in two days.

Me, in two days.

Fictional Fact

Do you remember that tragic sinking of a Staten Island ferry when a giant octopus pulled it under? Sounds vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t living near New York at the time. A story in The Guardian tells how Joseph Reginella, a sculptor, made his commemorative piece of art for Battery Park for a fictional incident. Like the memorial for War of the Worlds in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, this is something we remember that never really transpired. We remember what never happened. It’s easy to forget that memory evolved for specific purposes. Mainly we remember for survival. Our brains evolved to keep us alive. If we don’t recall where we found water, or where that hidden cliff edge is, we don’t last for long. But we remember other things as well. The time that Oog borrowed your stone axe and didn’t give it back. Our social memory made us human, so we’re told.


No doubt it is possible to develop a keen memory. Precise recollection of events just as they happened, in sequence. It’s also possible, even collectively, to misremember things. We tell stories. We make myths. There was no giant octopus incident. Maybe we saw such a thing in a movie one time. That movie, paired with the plausible evidence of a public monument commemorating the event becomes a modified reality. I’m just sure I can remember it happening, can’t you?

Studies of such phenomena tell us that memories aren’t what they seem to be. To make distant recollections Holy Writ, for example, we have to rely on divine inspiration. Without it we might just be remembering a story somebody told once upon a time. And where did I put the car keys? Yes, our memories are open to manipulation. Things that never happened become real this way. George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree and confess to his father because he could not lie. And yet we believe. We make myths because they give our lives meaning. Face it, evolution is a pretty boring explanation for why we’re here. Natural selection has no goals in mind. Things that work best tend to survive in the gene pool. And in some people’s memory there may be a giant octopus in that pool as well. Did the the Cornelius G. Kolff get pulled under or not? Would a ship with such a name ever be made up? Myths are still born every day, even as the octopuses cower in their caves, awaiting the next naive ferry to transcend reality.

Reflecting Ourselves

There once was an old man from New Hampshire. No, this isn’t a limerick. He was famous enough to get his face on the state quarter, back when they were doing that state quarter thing. Then he fell. The Old Man of the Mountain was no more. We like to see ourselves in stone. On a trip with my wife and a couple of friends in my post-grad days in Edinburgh, we were driving around the Isle of Skye. The largest of the Inner Hebrides, the island has a mysterious natural beauty. One of the most famous monuments on Skye is the Old Man of Storr. Postcards always show it to be a rock pillar jutting up by itself at the base of a mountain. As we approached the old man from the north, I got the joke. My friends still dispute it, but if you look at the mountain crest above the pillar, it forms a perfect profile of an old man’s face. Then what is the rock pillar? It’s just the right distance from the old man’s face to be, well, you get the picture. I’m convinced that those from Skye laugh at all the tourists taking a picture of the old man’s naughty parts.

The technical term, as I’ve discussed before, for seeing that which isn’t really there is pareidolia. Some people call it matrixing. Our brains, wired to see other people, often see them where they don’t exist. The Old Man of the Mountain formed a passable human face before the rock face collapsed in 2003. This past week I read an article in the Washington Post of the collapse of Duckbill, a rock formation in Oregon’s Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area. Like many cases of pareidolia, this rock pillar was only seen as a duck by those whose brains make the connection. People like to go see that sort of thing. It makes us feel less alone.

Do you see it?

Do you see it?

The article by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., however, points out that Duckbill didn’t jump. He was pushed. A group of eight guys, caught on video, rocked the pillar until it toppled. This is why we can’t have nice things. The deliberate destruction of monuments is a crime, and the culprits are being sought. Make Way for Ducklings, the Robert McCloskey children’s classic, was cast in bronze in Boston’s Public Garden. In 2009 vandals stole one of the ducklings, which was quickly replaced. It’s difficult to understand the mentality of those who wish to destroy our duckbilled friends. Yes, Duckbill was only rock. No, I never had the chance to see it. As long as the Old Man of Storr lies recumbent in the Scottish highlands, however, we will have grounds to wonder.

Intelligent Life

arewesmartPerhaps the most pervasive trait of religion is its ability to construct worldviews. Even when the religion is eventually abandoned, the worldview remains. Most scientists would deny that religion lies behind their perspectives, but in the case of human exceptionalism it remains the most logical cause. I always eagerly await new books by Frans de Waal. Ever since I read his book on empathy and apes, I couldn’t wait for the next one. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, although the title is a mouthful, does not disappoint. As I’ve noted before about his works, de Waal is perhaps the most sensible person writing in science today. He considers the evidence and takes his own biases into account. In a competitive world where science money is often doled out to those who can exclude others, de Waal is willing to leave the door open when the evidence demands it.

What is really ironic is that evolution has become the line in the sand between biblical literalists and science. As de Waal points out, the idea that people are different from the animals from which they evolved—in some qualitative way—is an idea based on religion. Many scientists still hold to it in a way that can only be described as, well, religious. This is very strange when evolution works by gradual changes over long periods of time. When did humans gain whatever trait that separates them from “the animals”? When I was a child it was tool use. When that was disproved, it became language. When that was disproved it became consciousness. The latter is the safest since nobody really knows what it is. As de Waal amply demonstrates the Behaviorist school was clearly wrong about animals (including humans). What no Behaviorist wants to admit is that the idea that we alone are conscious comes from the cultural interpretation of the Bible.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is, like many of de Waal’s books, full of wonderful observations of the ways animals actually behave. They solve problems. They learn from experience. They anticipate the future. In some cases they have been shown to outperform humans on cognitive tasks. And yet we still insist that people are somehow different. Better. Interestingly this is one area where religions and science tend to agree. People are just more important than animals. I wonder if one of the underlying reasons—not addressed by de Waal—is that we have come to depend on a lifestyle that unfairly exploits animals. After all, we eat them, use them for work, and even experiment on them. If we admit that they are intelligent we would need to, yes, rethink all of this. Given what’s happening in the world today, it is perhaps time to admit what we don’t really know.

Evolving in Place

ImprobablePrimateEnvy is not a word I would use to describe how I feel about those trying to piece together the earliest stages of humanity. Evolution, naturally, is a given. Once beyond that, however, the landscape gets dicey. Clive Finlayson is an author I don’t envy. I just finished his The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolution, and it felt like he had to put this immense puzzle together while missing about nine-tenths of the pieces. Early human fossils are rare and it doesn’t take much to throw a laboriously constructed scenario into yesterday’s mistaken hypothesis bin. The central premise of the book, as stated already in the subtitle—human evolution followed water—seems about as firm as any idea. We need water daily and our bodies evolved to help find it efficiently. It’s a fascinating story. Along the way I learned that much of what I’d previously learned about ancient human development was probably wrong. I’m only a casual evolutionist.

Finlayson suggests—and not all biologists would agree with him—that all humans living on earth at any one time (with one possible exception) were of the same species. That is to say, the model I grew up with of separate species (Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon were the usual suspects) duking it out over scarce resources doesn’t match growing evidence very well. We Homo sapiens seem to share some Neanderthal DNA and that paints a somewhat more romantic encounter between the species than the violent one I learned. The same goes for other human ancestors, according to this little book. Our first instinct may not be to kill the stranger. We may have lived apart for a few thousand years, but when populations come back together they “share genes,” if you get my drift. This still happens, of course. The difference is today we’ve become politicized and entitled. We don’t want people not from around here to share our stuff.

Part of that is natural, I suppose. Finlayson points out that the feeling of belonging in natal territory is something we share with other primates. We feel that we belong where we’re born. That seems to me a difficult thing to quantify, but I feel it nevertheless every time I venture back to my hometown. It just feels right. Not that we can’t adjust to elsewhere, but our nature rewards us, in some measure, when we come home. This is a wide-ranging study for such a small book. I don’t envy all the meticulous jigsaw staring without a box-top that students of human origins must do, but the results are still quite interesting. Even if the picture, when enough pieces are finally found, ends up being something different than we thought it was.

Simply Beautiful

Simple BeautyThe scientific method has been a boon to humanity. Knowing how to sharpen the rational faculties has demonstrated its benefits time and time again. Sometimes, however, overemphasis on rationality contains hidden costs. Humans are not always rational, and sometimes this is a very good thing. Culturally we’re told that reason trumps emotion and that evolution has somehow led us to this. That’s only part of the story. Marcelo Gleiser’s excellent The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected serves as a wonderful corrective to this one-sided view. Although I’ve been trained in rationalistic thinking, my humanities background lacks the credibility of similar training in the sciences. Gleiser, as a physicist, demands respect. As he notes throughout this book, physics asks the hard questions. The only proper response, he rightly declares, is humility. Arrogance in any human endeavor may make for a good story, but it is bad citizenship on this planet.

I have to confess to being one of those poor souls who really doesn’t care about fishing that Gleiser mentions early on in his book. That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with his outlook and mature thoughts on the subject. Using fly-fishing as a kind of bait, he draws the reader in to consider some deep and meaningful questions about life. Although he describes fishing literally, he clearly has a metaphorical usage in mind as well. Rare is the scientist who will admit that science can’t answer all questions, and moreover, wouldn’t want it to. Showing the limits of rational thought can feel like taking one’s clothes off in front of a crowd for those wedded to empirical evidence. Applied science clearly works very successfully. That’s not the same as having all the answers. Gleiser beautifully illustrates this, acknowledging that the spiritual has a role to play even among the rigorously trained and actually employed of the intelligentsia. This is a very important book.

Admitting that some things happen for which there is no rational explanation, Gleiser advocates for appreciating the wonder rather than trying to force science into situations where its explanatory power fails. This doesn’t happen often—indeed, rarity is what makes the unexpected so wondrous—but when it does happen we need to, like a fisher, accept it as part of the way the art unfolds. In Gleiser’s terms, not every fishing trip is successful. If you always had success, what would be the point in trying? He ventures into the murky waters of religion a time or two, but this is catch-and-release, not for the kill. The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected is an example that includes itself. Those who read it will learn what this means.

Things Unseen

The reductionistic mind doesn’t care for mystery. Unlike a lover, the unknown is a problem to be solved so that the march of nice, neat solutions may continue to march on, unabated. Fear of fuzzy thinking leads to a coldness that those of us experiencing life find not a little unsettling. Take the cougar, for example. Right now I’m in one of the few habitats of the grizzly bear in the lower 48. It is also home to mountain lions (pumas, panthers, ghosts of the Rockies). Just a week before I came here a local website posted a rare photo of a cougar caught unawares. These creatures are seldom seen, and are officially extinct for most of the country east of the Mississippi. That doesn’t stop them from existing, however. Reports from my native Pennsylvania continue to be filed. I saw tracks when I was a child, but never saw an actual cat. A friend in West Virginia had seen one shortly before we visited that state some years back. Even New Jersey still gets the occasional sighting. Officially these are misidentifications.

I recently read a couple of books that addressed the beast of Dartmoor, in the United Kingdom. Dartmoor is a wild and remote area and for many years an uncomfortable story has circulated about an unknown creature that haunts the moors. The story is older than Sherlock Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had the detective face the hound of the Baskervilles in that region. Those unhappy with the unknown have sought a rational explanation and now some are claiming that escaped cougars are the basis for the tale. A zoo owner even declares that some of his escaped in the 1980s, causing the stories to arise. The fact that the beast had been part of folklore for over a century already at that point suggests that this may be a little too little a little too late. It’s better than mystery anyway.


My minimal experience on Dartmoor didn’t lend itself to seeing folkloristic beasts. Even my somewhat extended time in this wilderness hasn’t led to a cougar or grizzly sighting. The mysterious gains its reputation by rarity. The thrill of seeing a relatively common moose is akin to theophanic. I know it’s just a big deer. It’s more than just a big deer. Wonder is an essential part of the human condition. Without it we become as soulless as the mechanistic universe some so desperately want to explain neatly, according to the rules. Cougars escape. Cougars escape detection. What else might we be missing in a universe we’ve only just begun to explore.