Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

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.

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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.

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.