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By Linda Simon


The Montréal Review, July 2012


"Animals and the Human Imagination," Aaron Gross and Anne Vallely, eds. (Columbia University Press, 2012)


The greatest breach in nature, philosopher William James wrote in 1890, "is the breach from one mind to another." It is impossible, he argued, for any individual to know with certainty the thoughts, feelings, and quality of personal consciousness of any other individual. By individual, of course, he meant humans. In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his essay "What Is It Like to be a Bat?" considered another breach in nature: that between species. If it is impossible to enter into another person's consciousness, how much more impossible is it to understand the consciousness of a small winged mammal? By studying bat physiology, by observing how bats catch insects or fly, we might, he conceded, imagine what it would be like to behave as a bat: "But that is not the question," he said. "I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted by the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task."

The twelve essays in Animals and the Human Imagination posit an overarching question that subsumes those asked by James and Nagel: how do humans understand their own subjectivity through their ways of imagining animals? The contributors respond to this question from a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, in essays grouped into three sections: Animals Across Cultures, which looks at various societies of hunter-gatherers, the culture of early modern China, and ways of controlling aberrant animals in contemporary South India; Human/Animal encounters in the contemporary American West, which examines hog farming, children's literature featuring dogs, the MTV series Wildboyz, the use of wolves as a wilderness icon, and particular artists' representations of animals; and Theorizing Animal/Human, which considers relevant works of philosophers Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and novelist J. M. Coetzee.

In his introduction, Aaron Gross points to a "danger" in a scholarly study of animals whose contributors come from the humanities and social sciences, rather than the natural sciences: that animals themselves might become "absent referents," as he puts it; when "animals themselves seem beside the point. . . .when there is no one looking in the horse's mouth or even in the direction of the horse." Certainly animals as specific references are not often found in this collection. There are passing mentions of pets, but the only animals given extended discussion are wolves (as they represent wildness), dogs (as they are imagined in children's stories), hogs (as they are treated by industrial farmers), and, notably, bacteria (as imagined in a science fiction novel). Nevertheless, the essays-erudite, engagingly written, and accessible to general readers-serve admirably to call attention, as Gross puts it, "to how a certain understanding of animality is implicit in our self understanding (and thus our understandings of language, symbol, myth, subjectivity, religion, etc.)" and can possibly "expose the naturalness of the category animal as illusory." Once the human/animal binary is no longer useful, we will be able to see both terms as "strange" and may move toward new conceptions and definitions.

As Gross notes, the phrase "human self-conception" remains problematic for all of the essayists. It means both the ways humans consciously imagine themselves in, for example, "philosophical discourse on subjectivity or an anatomical sketch of the human body"; and "unconscious or entirely different modes in which more obscure aspects of human imagination are implicated. . . for example, through language or through a basic responsiveness to other living beings."

Human responsiveness to other animals has changed radically through time, as Brett Buchanan, a professor of philosophy, shows us in his historical overview of animal ontology in Western philosophy. Before Carl Linnaeus's taxonomy, which placed Homo sapiens along a stratum with simians, and Charles Darwin's proposition of an evolutionary link between humans and nonhuman animals, philosophers insisted on the duality between a rational soul and sensual body; it was the mind, and the soul, that elevated humans as superior to base animals. But after Darwin, Buchanan writes, "the animal could no longer be so easily dismissed and became a more philosophically intriguing puzzle. To ask about the meaning of human nature now requires that one ask about (instead of presuming) the meaning of the animal-and vice versa." Evolutionary theory undercut the idea of the animal as "other."

In another historical overview, Gavin Van Horn, director of Midwest Cultures of Conservation at the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago, traces how this undermining of the idea of "other" emerged in our conception of the wolf. America's early settlers saw the wolf as a villain and criminal, justifying extermination so that they could claim and farm their land. After the turn of the twentieth century, a growing interest in conservation generated a strong, if sentimental, interest in preserving some animals whose "wildness" seemed a useful contrast to humans' increasingly "civilized" environment. The wolf, though,-a violent predator-was exempt from concern. In the 1950s, however, a growing ecological movement emphasized compassion and posited humans as part of the biotic community: "Suddenly, the wolf-ever associated with the wild-now came to symbolize loss. . . .[T]he wolf became an icon of all that was good and right in the world-an icon of freedom, authenticity, and wildness that needed to be preserved." Membership in the biotic community meant more than physical, biological connection, but also psychological and spiritual. Preserving "wolfness" meant preserving a connection to innate human wildness and freedom.

Perhaps the most unsettling essay is Myra J. Hird's "Animal, All Too Animal," which examines a science fiction novel by Greg Bear in which a geneticist develops lymphocytes that can function autonomously. He injects the DNA from these cells into bacteria commonly found in the human intestine, and soon they are reproducing, with the ability to "develop their own memory and the ability to understand, process, and respond to their environment." As the physician Lewis Thomas reminded us in Lives of a Cell, our bodies provide a universe for bacteria; they inhabit us; they are us. But the bacteria in Bear's novel manage to move out of the geneticist's body to other human and nonhuman venues and to exchange DNA with other bacteria; and they manage to communicate about their world. "We have studied INDIVIDUAL in your conception," one noocyte reveals. "We do not fit the word." There is no single individual, but rather clusters, which share tasks and, most significantly, memory. "Mentality is thus divided between clusters performing a function. . . .What you think of an INDIVIDUAL may be spread throughout the totality." Hird's essay points to the idea of symbiosis--the interdependency among species for survival.

Hird's essay, and many others in this provocative volume, grapples with "the ethical contours of our engagements with animals." By ethical contours, the authors do not mean only whether we keep livestock penned in horrendous conditions; whether we slaughter our pigs or cows cruelly; whether or not we eat meat at all. They have moved beyond the nostalgia and sentimentality that characterized 19th century environmental movements, and the compassion and sympathy that compel some animal welfare activists. "Kindness," in these essays, is a complicated term, implying both emotional generosity and recognition of kinship: of being one with another kind. The authors inquire into the notion of difference itself, and the enduring riddle of human identity.


Linda Simon is Professor of English at Skidmore College, New York. She is the author of "The Biography of Alice B. Toklas" (1977), "Genuine Reality: A Life of William James" (1998), "Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray" (2004) and "Coco Chanel" (2011).




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