Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

The Canine Mystique

BlackDogAnyone who spends long enough in the United Kingdom will hear about them. Not everyone believes in them, but reports of their presence are pervasive. Some call them ghosts while others call them protective spirits. They are the black dogs. As Mark Norman points out in his new book Black Dog Folklore, the tales of these spectral canines go back centuries and they also appear in other parts of the world. The majority of the lore comes from the British Isles and even there they are concentrated into certain parts of the country. Norman isn’t setting out to prove that they exist, though. This book is an exploration of folklore and the question of the reality of the phenomenon isn’t the point. The fact is people have reported encountering similar kinds of black dogs that vanish in similar ways frequently enough that secondary characteristics can be described and the accounts can be treated as lore.

Dogs were the earliest domesticated animals. Long before cattle and sheep could be tamed, humans and dogs had learned the mutual benefits of each other’s company. This very long association between species has, however, not always been smooth. Dogs retain something of the ancestral wolf in their nature, even as we harbor our inner ape. Some people fear dogs, and indeed, dogs are still used for security and can be trained to attack, or even kill, people. Their millennia-long association with humans, however, has assured them a place in our mythologies. Ancient cultures frequently mythologize dogs, making them prime candidates for an afterlife in folklore.

Traditionally, dogs are chthonian creatures. That word tripped me up the first time I encountered it. “Chthonian” is literally something like “of the earth,” but in mythology it is used to designate that they are associated with the underworld. As in life, dogs may act as guides in mythology, and one of their regular associations is with the realm of the dead. It’s no wonder, then, that dogs came to be associated with ghosts. As Norman demonstrates, the lore was pervasive enough to engage Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and perhaps even Bram Stoker used the image in Dracula. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as a black dog. Norman’s book won’t convince the reader that such things actually exist, but what it does do is draw the tales together to determine what there is to analyze. Since dogs have been our companions for so long, they have become part of our narrative tradition, participating in what it means to be human. As with all good folklore, there are those today who still swear these spectral dogs still haunt those who are willing to believe.

Monkey Puzzle

One of the unexpected consequences of Christian theology is the ongoing insistence in science that human beings are qualitatively different from other animals. Actually, it goes back to the Hebrew Bible and the concept of “the image of God.” As the absolute line between human and beast continues to blur (intelligence, tool use, language use—you name it) mainstream teaching has trouble admitting that our special differences aren’t that different. A Washington Post story by Darryl Fears describes how capuchin monkeys have been using tools to extract cashews from their toxic husks for at least 700 years. These monkeys use a two-rock system to get at cashews, which, in their natural state, are inedible. The surprise here is that this makes these monkeys denizens of the Stone Age and capable of teaching complex behavior to their offspring.

Animals watch parents to learn to eat—it might seem to be a simple idea. In reality it’s more complicated than that. As I watched a doe and fawn foraging the other day, it occurred to me that what we call “instinct” is a way of getting around admitting animal intelligence. Why would a newborn (“unconscious”) animal seek to feed, or flee from predators? We call it instinct, but what we really mean is a form of will, a desire to survive. This “will” pervades nature well below the human-animal divide. Plants strive to thrive, and exhibit a “will” to live. By just taking all this for granted and calling it “instinct” we’ve further cut ourselves off from the organic world of which we’re all a part.

Christian culture gave rise to scientific method. No doubt this is an embarrassing scenario for those who believe science should reduce all the wonder of being alive to mathematical equations. Can’t we just pretend that rationality was creeping in from the beginning? Aristotle was going that way wasn’t he? But his work was “lost,” only to be recovered by Muslims who saw the value of such logical thinking and Christians—in an over-simplified history—wanted to catch up. Meanwhile, in the Dark Ages monkeys were using an intricate system to extract tasty nuts from toxic casings without the benefit of any religion at all. The Stone Age, we easily forget, was the first recognizable step on the road to the technological world we inhabit today. And we continue to use an outmoded paradigm to understand our place in that world.

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Consciousness Times Eight

SoulOctopusPerhaps the characteristic that marks our species most distinctly is its arrogance. Conscious of who we are (we think) we stake the claim for minds for ourselves alone while all the evidence points away from that very conclusion. Naturalists are castigated for “anthropomorphizing” animals by stating that they have consciousness too, or—oh the heresy!—personality. Any of us who’ve spent time with two or more of the same non-human species, however, know that personality is a given. Animals think and feel and, yes, act on their own view of the world. I have to admit I fell in love with Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. I’ve read animal books from my youngest days, but finding an author so forthright about the feeling of getting to know another species is rare. And I learned tentacles full of information about octopuses. I had already known that octopuses are intelligent—I hadn’t realized just how smart—but since my interactions have only been with sleeping cephalopods on the opposite sides of aquaria glass, I had little to go by.

Throughout her charming book, even if the evidence is anecdotal, Montgomery reveals the personalities of the octopuses she got to know at the New England Aquarium. The reader can be left with no doubt that these are animals with personality, different from one another and strikingly conscious. We can’t define what consciousness is, but I tend to agree with Montgomery that it is what many people call “soul.” She admits that her religious tradition would likely frown upon her willingness to share such a valued commodity with an animal—an invertebrate, no less—but surely she is right. Many, if not all, animals have a form of consciousness. Heaven will be a much more interesting place for it.

Please don’t confuse my enthusiasm with sentimentalism. Those of you who regularly read this blog will know that books on animal intelligence by a variety of scientists make up a steady part of my literary diet. Biology, however, often has a difficult time in a world where physics and chemistry are treated with reductionistic glee. I was strangely satisfied when Montgomery mentioned that Stephen Hawking signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness which proclaims humans alone are not the guardians of this phenomenon we don’t even understand. The Soul of an Octopus was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to keep reading, even if it meant being on my long commute each day. And I can’t help but think of how much intelligence we squander by claiming that only our own kind possesses it.

For the Dogs

DogsThatKnowYou know that feeling of being dropped into a very strange place?  Sure, it’s disorienting for a while, but once you get used to it, you start to enjoy your surroundings.  Now ask yourself: what if my entire way of looking at life is based on a faulty paradigm?  Many, I suspect, will drop out at that point.  There’s strange, and then there’s going too far.  For those wedded to the idea of finding the truth, however, weirdness is part of the journey.  I just finished reading Rupert Sheldrake’s Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.  Yes, it felt like the room was spinning (actually, I read it on the bus, so that might’ve been true a time or two), but it confirmed something I’ve suspected for many years.  The reigning, mechanistic universe paradigm is wrong.  Please don’t take this as an anti-science statement.  Sheldrake is a bona fide scientist, and I’m an avid reader of science books.  It’s not so much that science is wrong as it is that science doesn’t go far enough.  Ever since the Industrial Revolution—not coincidentally—we’ve been informed that the universe is really a giant machine.  We can figure out how it works using this squishy stuff in our heads that insists we can find Pokemon everywhere we look when it’s not busy solving the riddles of the mulitverse.

Sheldrake, who is given a wide berth by many scientists, states what any of us who grew up with pets knows: they know more than they’re saying.  Admitting up front that much of the evidence is anecdotal, Sheldrake provides empirical studies to demonstrate what folk say.  Dogs do know when their owners are coming home, before they are within sight, hearing, or smelling range.  His study, however, isn’t limited to dogs or to knowing when someone’s coming.  Animals, by virtue of their own minds, have abilities that we do not.  Since they don’t speak our language, we assume they are dumb.  In fact, as this book shows, a great many animals know a great deal more than we do.  The question is, if this is the truth why don’t we hear more about it?

We prefer, it seems, our truth to be qualified.  There’s a lot at stake here.  The reigning paradigm keeps us plugged into this corporate machine we’ve devised.  Our lifestyle cannot subsist without the subordination of animals.  We can’t give them abilities we lack, apart from tastiness.  If the universe isn’t a machine, it might open the door for a broader view of reality.  Maybe it is better to be post-Christian, but religion has proven benefits to humans (and perhaps animals).  Why does religion remain in a mechanistic universe?  Perhaps what we call “souls” are the same as “minds” and perhaps they aren’t the same as brains.  If we really do have minds, it is in our best interest to care for them, develop them, and improve them.  It may seem like a strange world indeed where your dog informs your view of reality.  Read Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, however, and see if you don’t find yourself wagging your tale, just a bit.

Dinosaurs, Old and New

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Tyrannosaurus rex, aside from being a photogenic movie star, was one of the top predators of its day. Ironically, in the Jurassic Park original trilogy (which would have been, more appropriately Triassic Park) tyrannosaurus rex becomes the ultimate protagonist, while unfeelingly killing to meet its own instincts. Since saying “tyrannosaurus rex” wears you out, we’ve become accustomed to calling the great carnivore t-rex. Everyone knows t-rex when they see it. Its a sign of danger, aggression, and unthinking acquisition. In one of nature’s great ironies, however, t-rex had tiny arms, nearly vestigial. What it wanted it had to get with its mouth. To live like that you have to grow pretty big, so big that nobody else can really challenge you. Punching is out of the question.

I’m often struck as how appropriate dinosaur evolution is to the human situation. Dinos (because “dinosaurs” is also too long) grew to be the top life-forms of their day. (We like to think of being the top. The perspective from down here in mammal land, in those days, was pretty different.) If you’re big enough, who’s going to stop you from taking what you want? Endless rows of teeth and a constant hunger can do wonders for evolutionary development. But then, extinction. Recent analyses have shown that it wasn’t as simple as an asteroid strike. It seems that many features of nature conspired against the dinosaurs, including the tyrant lizard king. T-rex had evolved into the monster featured in many pre-teen nightmares, only to be replaced by birds and mammals. Maybe it grew too big to be supported by the planet that allowed it to crawl out of the slime eons before.

In a recent photo of a Trump rally, one of the signs of a supporter had flopped over leaving just the word “rump” visible. I had to ponder this. T-rump. “Dinosaur” is a word used today to mean something that has outlived its time. Ideas, as well as such practices as, say, claiming that one race is superior to others, have rightfully gone extinct. There are those who say that t-rex was less a fierce carnivore than a scavenger. A vulture rather than an eagle. They claim that such a large snout and such small arms better suit one who picks at that which is already dead instead of working hard to bring down the more challenging beasts, often with horns. I’ve always thought dinosaurs were very appropriate metaphors for the human situation. Even Jurassic Park was superseded by Jurassic World, after all.

Man’s Best Fiend

While reading the Hull Daily Mail (don’t ask), I came across an article entitled “Rock legend Alice Cooper ask questions about the Beast of Barmston Drain.” Apart from that lovable Britishism of making groups into grammatical plurals, this brief article gave me much to wonder about. After all, Paul Simon’s most recent album features a song entitled “The Werewolf,” (about which I recently wrote) and here is another rock performer from my youth raising the question about a similar beastie. According to the piece by Amy Nicholson, the Beast of Barmston Drain is a new urban legend about a creature half-man and half-dog. No doubt, werewolf reported sightings have been in the ascendent over the past few years, but how such an insignificant beast drew the attention of Alice remains unknown.

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Many who know me—and those are few—are shocked to learn that I grew up listening to Alice Cooper. A fundie kid listening religiously to the father of shock rock? Songs about monsters, spiders, female maturation, and necrophilia? Perhaps it was because Welcome to My Nightmare just summed my childhood up rather nicely. Whatever the reason, to this day Alice Cooper is the only big name rock act I’ve even seen in concert. And that was only about six years ago, when I was still teaching at Rutgers. I had trouble hearing student’s questions in class on the next Monday night. Alice and werewolves in the same headline feels so much like yesteryear that it makes me want to believe in shapeshifters all over again. No wonder Hull is set to be the City of Culture. (Hey, Glasgow had it’s turn, so fair’s fair.)

To me, werewolves reveal much about a culture that strives to be far too civilized. We suppress our inner animal to become tie-wearing, wine-swilling sophisticates only to wonder where the wonder’s gone. And we start seeing werewolves lurking in culverts and drainage ditches. At least people are getting out at night. I’ve followed American tales of the dogman for years now, reading all of Linda Godfrey’s books on the subject. Even if it doesn’t exist, we stand to learn much of the creature that just won’t go away. Of all the transformations people talk about, that to the wolf is the most compelling, and among the most ancient. It may only be a dogman that people are seeing at the moment, but given some time it will evolve back into the wolf from which the story had its very beginnings. The answers, as always, probably lie in our childhood.

Nature’s Voice

SpellSensuousCivilization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s got its moments—modern medicine, indoor plumbing, Honey Boo Boo—but often it’s artificial. It’s like somebody made up a set of silly rules and those who dare violate them are treasonous barbarians. Over the past few years I’ve been reading books that consider our biological development and what nature seems to indicate about how people might exist more holistically in the world. I don’t mean New Age outlooks, although, surprisingly, such treatments often aren’t far off base. I’d never heard of David Abram or his book The Spell of the Sensuous. (For those who think sensuous means only one thing, the subtitle is Perception and Language in a More-Then-Human World.) Although somewhat dated, this is an insightful book. The basic premise is that we are, by nature, part of a much larger world but we have, like spoiled children, decided to take it all for ourselves and isolate our species from all others, claiming a superiority that none dare challenge. In the process we’ve lost much of what it benefits us being animals, and have separated ourselves from the wonders of the world all around us. Working in Manhattan, I have to agree.

Basing his observations on having lived among aboriginal peoples, Abram notes that although anthropologists have denied the tenets of Christian missionaries on the religious front, they have continued in that teaching concerning biases against nature-based belief systems. Peoples who live close to the land observe things which seem superstitious to the “civilized,” but which are, in reality, simply astute realizations based on watching how the world works. Like Thomas Nagel, he notes that consciousness pervades the natural world. Animals, plants, even the earth itself displays forms of awareness that we ignore in our rush to exploit and gain “wealth.” In reality, we suffer for having made ourselves something we’re not.

There’s a lot in this book, far more than a single blog post can say. I don’t agree with all the points Abram makes—that writing may be responsible for our dilemma is a bit of a stretch—but there is great wisdom in this tome. At several points I had to stop and ponder the implications of what he was saying. Yes, nature speaks. Creating a world where “success” is measured in removing yourself as far from nature as possible requires elaborate rules. As far as I can tell, obeying the rules means that if you’re one percent of the one percent you’ll have nothing to complain about. If you have enough money—itself an artificial construct—you can run for president with no other qualifications. Meanwhile, nature suffers at our hands and may only recover once the world is forced from our hands and the sensuous once again takes over, doing what it has always done.