I have greatly enjoyed an odd little book I read over the summer. It is Lucy Cooke’s The Truth About Animals (Basic Books, 2018). Cooke takes us through a journey of animal behavior, chronicling the curious narratives that naturalists, philosophers, theologians, and other high-thinking professionals impose on animals to render their behaviors meaningful, moral, and relevant. Cooke shows us how tempting it has been historically for people to seek and discover confirmation of human values in all those other pairs so happily coupled on Noah’s Ark.
It has often been an important tool for feminists, as with other sets of thinkers, to make these connections as well. And, as one familiar with the classical charges that women are more inherently corporeal than their spiritual-intellectual male counterparts, and that therefore women are more animal than the more accurately “human” form that their male counterparts represent, I understand the feminist investment in nature. I appreciate that it involves a sort of ownership and redefinition of the slur; an acceptance of space and place as limited and essentially animal; an awareness of environmental sustainability; a deep sense of connection to the continuum of creaturely being that is the giant ecology of our planet.
Cooke’s work reminds us, however, of the error of anthropomorphizing animals. It reads as an exposé on how we have done this very thing to the array of animals she considers, and particularly so with regard to penguins from whose behavior the book derives its namesake. Often idealized as paragons of Christian virtue on the basis of their alleged monogamy, fidelity, and indefatigability toward general family values, Cooke good-naturedly debunks this narrative, pointing out an array of sexual behaviors in penguins that ranges from inter-species interludes to necrophilia. Homosexuality is commonplace; female penguins have sex for rocks.
One is tempted to be scandalized by penguins because a considerable amount of their behavior violates human taboos, but then, when one asks why they likely do what they do, it all becomes rather mundane. They are endeavoring to reproduce; they do it with varying degrees of success. All the animals Cooke discusses share the common features of being misunderstood, romanticized, and narratized for some interpretive purpose detached from their actual modes of being. They also have the feature of being uniquely fit to their natures and environments while widely varying from any others.
So, what does it mean? One lesson I take away is that we ought to be cautious of looking at animals and finding some nobility in them that aligns with something we want to see in them or in ourselves. It isn’t that it is inherently wrong to delight in creatures, or some such conclusion, but rather that it would be an error to assume that our takeaways were/are attached to some innate moral quality that cuts across animal life. Reading into animals our emotions, our cognition, our ethics, our social organization strikes me as folly.
I here raise the example of the recent revisiting of the live action Lion King. This story was marvelously disturbing to me. The heroic young Simba doesn’t eat animals; the lead male lions feed their prides; female lions demur in the hunt; lions pair-bond in wedded coupling before reproducing. All of this animal nonsense is deployed in an effort to tell the tale of Hamlet, but what tale is actually told? Male ascendancy and the how good it is to be king? I would like to rally around the female lions, arguing for their cause, championing their strength and leadership, but this too is folly. Female lions protect their young when a new male enters a pride, but if the offspring are successfully killed by the new male, the females will immediately copulate. It isn’t much prettier, from a human point of view. Their behavior is only a problem under the searchlight of a forced prospective.
This leads me to another important takeaway, which is that it is a risk to human-animal self-consciousness to impose or derive not only too much but also too little about normative social being from contemplation of non-human animals. Why too little? Because all these animals, all the varieties, operate according to their natures. There is not a consistent teleological theme to their organization. It seems that reproduction is an outcome of sexual being, some of the time, when it works. It is not a guarantee; it is not fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is, however, the manner of manners of transmitting life.
The lesson here, for me, is biodiversity. The lesson here for me is variety. The lesson here for me is the effort and striving of creatures. There isn’t a platform to proffer, emulate, pedestalize, or moralize, in humans or any other creatures. Considering animals cannot or should not confirm human behavior so much as it can help remind us of the variety of life itself and how difficult it is to achieve in the particular.
Cooke’s gentle treatment of even the seemingly most scandalous animal behavior could serve as a valuable model for a similar treatment about us, about humans. Our theological anthropology stands desperately in need of a good-natured, objective, phenomenological accounting. The Truth About Humans. What a fascinating read it will be!
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.
4 thoughts on “The Truth About Humans by Natalie Weaver”
Is your use of the term “good-natured” an allusion to the book by that name by Franz de Waal? He questions the assumption of the “naked ape,” the idea that animals/higher animals/apes are nothing but violent dominators and so what more should we expect from humans. This “scientific fact” was used to justify the Cold War and other wars.
Lucy Cooke studied with Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, so hers may be a tale with a point of view that itself can be criticized, for example as emphasizing selfishness over cooperation in evolution.
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A excellent post with many good points.
As a dedicated naturalist/ethologist (person who studies wild animals in their natural habitats) I find myself personally revolted by the cartoon characterizing of wild animals. This kind of anthropomorphizing is destructive to animals and humans.
At the same time I see a desperate need to begin to see animals as sentient beings who develop powerful personal and communal bonds, are capable of deep empathy and whose intelligence cannot be measured by human standards.
Anyone who studies animals in their natural habitats as I do becomes aware that human projection is also incredibly destructive to animals. In my research with Black bears, for example – people project their unconscious/conscious fears onto these peace- loving animals and kill them by the thousands.
The scientists Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, and Rupert Sheldrake all write about wild animals realistically. Somehow we need to funnel this information down to the general public.
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Your account of this book makes me think of all those Disneyfied, humanized animals, also of children’s TV shows that are animals wearing people clothes and acting like the kids watching the shows. So Awful! Human behavior projected on animals, whether in cartoons or in so-called real life, is dumb. Hooray for Jane Goodall and Rupert Sheldrake and hooray for the penguins!
“…the effort and striving of creatures…” may be the most essential truth that can be said about life on earth. Thank you for that brilliant and succinct thought.