Man and Other Animals
The natural, original disease of man is presumption. Man is the most sensitive and frail of all creatures, and the most given to pride. He sets himself above the Moon, brings the very heavens under his feet. He equals himself to God and sets himself apart from all other creatures. Although they are his fellows and brothers, he imagines them having limited force and faculty. How can he presume to know the hidden, inner life of other creatures? What leads him to conclude that they have the attributes of senseless brutes?
When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her? We entertain ourselves with mutual monkey-tricks. There are times when I initiate and she refuses, and vice versa.
Why do we assume it is a defect in the animals and not in us that we cannot communicate with them? We do not understand them any more than they understand us. They may think of us as brute beasts for the same reasons as we think of them to be so. It is no great miracle we can’t understand them, when we can’t even understand the languages of our neighbouring countries.
We have a vague understanding of what animals mean: they have the same of us, in about equal measure. They fawn on us, threaten us and entreat us – as we do them. Between themselves, they can converse perfectly. They understand each other, not just within one species but across different species. A horse knows when there is anger in a certain bark of a dog, and with other barks, it does not react the same way. Even in animals that don’t make sound, we know they have some means of communication between them, from the way they work together. Their very movements serve as arguments and ideas.
What aspects of our human competence cannot be found in animals?
Is there any system more organized and efficient in the allocation of tasks or maintained with greater constancy than that of the bees? How can we imagine that something so striking in its orderliness is conducted without reasoned discourse and foresight?
Take the swallows; when spring comes they ferret through all the corners of the house and find the best place to build their nests. Is that done without judgment or discernment? Then, the nest itself is so beautifully and wondrously woven together. Why would birds make a circle rather than a square, or an obtuse angle rather than a right angle, if they didn’t have some awareness of their properties of effects? Do they bring water and then clay without realizing that hardness can be softened with damp? When they cover the floors of their palaces with moss or down, do they not foresee that the tender limbs of their little ones will lie more softly and be more comfortable?
And why does the spider make her web denser in one place and slacker in another, using this knot here and that knot there, if she cannot reflect, think or reach conclusions?
We should realize how superior they are to us in most of their works and how weak our artistic skills are when it comes to imitating them. Our works are coarser, and yet we are aware of the faculties we use to construct them: our souls use all their power when doing so. Why do we not consider that the same applies to animals? Why do we have to imagine they have some slavish natural inclination just because their work surpasses all that we can do by nature or by art? When we assume this, aren’t we saying that their brutish stupor is superior to our divine intelligence?
Now, some people complain that Nature has clad all other creatures in shells, pods, husks, hairs, wool, spikes, hide, down, feathers, scales, fleece, or silk according to their necessities. She has also armed them with claws, teeth and horns for attack and defense, and taught them to swim, run, fly, or sing. Man, on the other hand, is sent to earth naked, and without learning, can do nothing but wail. Such a view is false. Nature is much more just than this.
Our skin, like theirs, can firmly resist intemperate weather. There are places where people live without any clothes at all. And besides, we ourselves leave our face, feet, hand, legs, shoulders, or head uncovered and don’t have problems enduring wind or air. As for the wailing, many animals too cry and whine an infants. And eating – for us, like for the animals, does not have to be learned. A child, once able to feed himself, would know how to go in search of food. Earth, with no farming and no arts, produces more than enough for our needs. Perhaps not for all seasons, but she doesn’t do that for animals either. See how ants store for the barren season.
As for weapons, we have more natural ones than many other animals, and we have a greater variety of movements. Nature also teaches us instinctively how to acquire means of protection. Note how elephants sharpen their fighting teeth, bulls throw up dust around them when they fight, wild boars wet their tusks, and the mongoose smears itself all over with kneaded and compressed mud to serve as body-armour. Arming ourselves with sticks and iron bars is equally natural.
As for speech, I believe if a child were brought up in total solitude, he would come up with some kind of language to make himself understood.
One thing I admit: man is the only animal who can imagine things which are and which are not. He can imagine his wishes, or the false and the true. But he pays a high price for this advantage – it is the chief source of his problems: sin, sickness, confusion, and despair.
I hope I have shown that there is no rational reason to believe that animals are forced to do by natural inclination the same things we do by choice and ingenuity. They use similar faculties. Therefore, we should admit animals employ the same method and reasoning as us. Why should we think they have some kind of natural instincts that are different from our own? Our empty arrogances make us attribute our skills to ourselves rather than to Nature. It is more honourable that we be guided by the natural properties of our being.
When the Thracians want to cross a frozen river, they first let a fox loose on it. The fox brings its ear close to the ice to see how near to the surface the current is running, and in this way estimates the thickness of the ice. Would it not be right to think the same reasoning passes through its head as would pass through ours – that it thinks and draws consequences with a natural intelligence similar to our own? ‘That which makes a noise is moving, that which moves is not frozen, that which is not frozen is liquid, and that which is liquid bends under weight’. Attributing this just to the foxes supersonic hearing is ridiculous.
Should we pride ourselves on our ability to capture them and make them work for us? But aren’t slaves in the same position? And soldiers too! Tyrants have no problem finding men to swear their lives to them, and whole armies are bound to their captains in this way. Trained gladiators vow to fight to the finish too. The men who serve us do so more cheaply than our falcons and horses, who have to be taken such good care of. We bow to all kinds of menial tasks for the convenience of our animals, feeding, cleaning etc. Those who keep animals can be said to serve them, not be served by them. Furthermore, there is a nobility in animals where no lion has ever been enslaved to another lion, and no horse to another horse.
We say man has scientific knowledge, based on reason and skill, because he knows what plants are useful as medicine and which are not. Yet, the goats of Candia can be seen picking out dittany from a million plants when they are wounded by spears, and if a tortoise swallows a viper, it at once goes in search of origanum as a purge. The dragon wipes its eyes clear and bright with fennel, elephants remove darts and spears thrown in battle from their own bodies with more skill than we ever could, and with less pain. In their cases, why do we not call it reason and skill? In order to lower them and raise ourselves up, we say Nature is their teacher. This does not deprive them of knowledge and wisdom, it only attributes it even more surely to them.
Animals are also not incapable of instruction. We have have our fill of talking parrots, dogs doing monkey tricks, and so on. But I am more moved by the guide-dogs that lead blind men. I watch these dogs stop at certain places where they know their owners will get alms, or walk on uneven paths so their masters walk on level ones beside them, or even avoid narrow streets that they themselves could easily pass through but that they know will be troublesome for their owners. How do they know to neglect their own interests and serve their master? And how do they know a path might be wide enough for itself but not for a blind man? Could all this be grasped without thought or reasoning?
more later ….