Two Franciscan Texts and the Worm in a Wild Apple

Today is World Animal Day, an event currently sponsored by Naturewatch Foundation as a contribution towards making the world “a fairer place for all animals”. This year it has more or less coincided with the publication of a survey showing exactly how fair the world has been, at least for undomesticated animals, over the last fifty years. According to Living Planet Report 2020, published by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, there has been “an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016”. This makes the World Day emblem, high-WAD_logo_2016_RGBmindedly aimed as it rightly is at promoting a sense of human responsibility, seem more than ever a wistful phantasm.

The date for World Day, chosen by its founder Heinrich Zimmermann in the 1920s, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. Even in his time, the early thirteenth century, St Francis was preaching the need, as Living Planet Report puts it, “to heal our relationship with nature”. Centuries later, just as humans were beginning to use the world up at a faster rate than it could regenerate itself (the Report makes 1970 the tipping-point), a latter-day disciple of his was telling an audience of scientists that we would not escape ecological ruin unless we took St Francis for our guide to sustainable living. Lynn White, a history professor at UCLA and a committed Christian, was addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science at a gathering in Washington on the day after Christmas, 1966 (his talk was published soon afterwards in their journal Science). He spoke of St Francis as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history”, in that “he tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.” In order to fit humans to give up that fantasy of cosmic favouritism enjoyed by them under orthodox Christianity (“the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”), St Francis had preached “the virtue of humility not merely for the individual but for man as a species”. In fact St Francis would surely have had that World Day emblem with the hand of God underneath, and man himself a silhouette among the others.

It was this heretical saint’s most remarkable miracle, Professor White said, that he didn’t “end at the stake”. All the same, “He failed.” Christianity held on to its conception of man as world-monarch. And that same conception, so White argued, was therefore inherited by Western science, which was, until at least the middle of the nineteenth century, practised as a branch of Christian thinking called ‘natural theology’, or the study of God’s mind in nature. Christianity declined, but that convenient self-image did not decline with it. Science and technology, “so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature”, have indeed been able to turn the image into a matter of blatant fact. White therefore concluded that “More science and technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis . . . We must re-think and re-feel our nature and destiny.”

Professor White’s paper is quoted by Esther Woolfson in her book published last month, Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species. The book is a comprehensive tour of our history and present days of divine-right monarchizing over the other animals: hunting them, eating them, showing them off, experimenting upon them, dressing in them, compulsively trading in them and in their images, corrupting them as fancy pets, and theologizing to keep them in their places (where Professor White comes in).

In short, the familiar pageant of misery and wrong: need we see it going by again? Of course, because the real thing itself is going round in an everlasting circuit, and besides, there are always new things to be made to see in it. And Esther Woolfson has a sharp eye for the humanly or psycho-pathologically expressive instance, being both an anthropologist and a person of imagination and sensibility. Her account of taxidermy and its grotesque byways (“a badly stuffed mouse in spectacles”, “birds and squirrels acting out faux-human weddings”) is a notably horrid example woolfson bookof her acuteness in this respect (I can’t believe that she was happy to see one of taxidermy’s “sorry memorials” used to illustrate her book’s cover). So also is her study of the hideous vanity-culture of hunting. She quotes Ortega y Gasset from a greetings card intended for the hunting man in your life: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted”. For she’s clever with vivid quotations; in his own words she pins down the crooked human nature of Harry Harlow (he of the maternal deprivation experiments). That comes in the chapter titled ‘Rights’, which is mainly devoted to the subject of vivisection, a word she does use in the text and the index. It’s a word that rarely appears in indexes these days (they prefer the polite ‘animal research’). When it does, I take it for a sign of candour, and this is indeed a candid, un-euphemistic book.

Esther Woolfson is also the author of Corvus, a vivid and fascinating history of her relationships with a number of crows living en famille at her house in Aberdeen (Corvus is discussed elsewhere in this blog). Perhaps by preference, perhaps on the advice of her publishers, she has used a similarly personal style in Between Light and Storm. The book is therefore as much a memoir of her encounters with places, books, and ideas, as an account of these things in themselves: “beautifully observed experiences”, as one testimonial on the back cover calls them (quite accurately). This format worked in Corvus brilliantly well, but then that was a book about her bird-companions and what she learned from them over the years. In face of the great disaster of human misuse of other species, which is her subject in this new book, the personal element ought surely to be purged away. Instead, it’s very much in the foreground, and produces a meditative, even whimsical, effect:

Questions stay with me – what can be inferred about us from what we choose to eat? [she asks in the chapter titled ‘Blood’] Do vegetarianism and veganism necessarily indicate anything about our propensities for virtue? If they do, which and what and how? They may, but then again, they may not.

Moments like this need the kindly editor’s blue pencil through them, but as I have said, I suspect that the publishers felt that this book would be more attractive to the general reader, its horrors more willingly beheld, if presented in this ‘innocent abroad’ style. Good, if they’re right, because while nobody can tell the whole wretched story, a large part of it really is well and unflinchingly told here.

The worst part of the story, namely that humans have in no essential way changed, is made clear throughout. The author writes on page 4 that the complex of beliefs which supports our assumption and practice of “dominion over everyone else on earth” has endured for three thousand or so years “like some lost-cause corpse hovering in cryonic vitrification”.  Two hundred and seventy pages later, having thoroughly illustrated the assertion, she says it again: “The ancient religious-philosophical arguments about human supremacy on which our lives and economies are founded seem as entrenched as they ever were, as damaging and expedient.” The book’s sub-title should really have been ‘How We Still Live with Other Species’.

World Day for Animals is an occasion for optimistic and purposeful actions in the manner of St Francis, and for the celebration of animal-friendly projects round the globe. All the same, reading Esther Woolfson’s book, and looking back at what we’ve failed to do in the fifty years since Lynn White made that address to America’s scientists, it’s hard not to feel restless in one’s own human skin. Here again, one of Esther Woolfson’s quotations fits the case very well. It comes from a poem by Robinson Jeffers, published in a collection of 1948 and titled ‘Original Sin’. Jeffers pictures the human species in its earliest days:

The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape, physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world.

These pioneering humans discover how to trap a mammoth in a pit and cook it alive in situ. Around them, as they enjoy their disgusting triumph, is “the intense colour and nobility of sunrise”. Contemplating this paradox of beauty and delinquency, the poet says

These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.


Notes and references:

Living Planet Report 2020 is published online here: Quotations are from pp.4 and 6. It’s a very well-presented and authoritative document, though not of course quite Franciscan in philosophy: that is, it has the conservationist mind-set of viewing by species rather than by lives.

Professor Lynn White’s paper, titled ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, was published in Science, 10 March 1967 (vol.155, pp.1203-7).

Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species is published by Granta. The book Corvus is spoken of in this blog here:

The poem ‘Original Sin’ appeared in the collection The Double Axe (Random House, 1948).

How to Learn about Magpies

Another of those ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ stories appeared in the Times last week. In fact probably they appear every week, somewhere around page 15, reporting on new research thought charming or grotesque enough to engage the readership. This one was headed ‘Magpies show their caring, sharing side’. Apparently, biologists at the University of Vienna have discovered that azure-winged magpies (cyanopia cyanus) will make food available to their flock-fellows in routine acts of “unsolicited altruism”: a surprise, it seems, because until very recently “many researchers believed that this sort of selflessness was a uniquely human characteristic.” Yes, they would have believed that, of course. Who had ever supposed that scientists were merely unprejudiced students of nature?

The middle of a daily paper, with views in all directions of murders, wars, law-court wrangles over huge fortunes, poverty, acts of cruelty and scenes of deranged luxury, isn’t where one can best appreciate that comfortable old scientific belief in selflessness as a human speciality. Nor was this magpie research itself exactly a kindly and sympathetic attention to other ways of life. On the contrary, it was a calculated interference. The birds which showed their altruistic behaviour were not enjoying what the original report (in Biology Letters) so evocatively calls “naturalistic contexts” (= freedom). They are (or perhaps were, their after-careers not being specified) caged birds, and were performing in a drastically simplified and controlled version of flock-life. But indeed, the whole behaviourist tradition to which this research belongs is the theoretical equivalent of such experimental settings, a drastically simplified conception of animal life.

Putting aside whatever cruelty may be thought implicit in the technique of the experiment, the project can’t even be called dis-interested as science. The larger problem which this research – like other such research, on other species – claims to illuminate is “the evolution of human altruism”. As the author of the book featured in the previous post, The Science of Animal Behaviour, said in 1963 (perhaps the high noon of the behaviourist tradition), “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.” And the comprehensive world-view in which that assumption plays its part is this: that the whole astonishing many-million-years history of animal life is properly seen as a warm-up act for ourselves. Whereas really (if I’m to keep to this on-stage analogy), the brief but savagely destructive contribution made by humans to the show is probably best likened to the house-fire which destroys both the show and most of the venue.

Fortunately the behaviourist tradition in animal studies has for some time been challenged or at least complemented by ethology, the study of animals as far as possible in their “naturalistic contexts”. As its great pioneer Konrad Lorenz has shown, such studies may include everything from meticulous and self-effacing observation in the field to full human participation. In fact ethology, though newish as a tolerated science, has been a going concern over many centuries in the form of amateur natural history and, more generally, of human curiosity and affectionateness. For a brilliant and delightful instance of this longer tradition, and therefore as an Corvus.JPGoffset to the Vienna University research, I recommend Corvus: a Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta 2008).

One of the rescued birds whose life in the Woolfson household the book describes is a magpie (not of the azure-winged sub-species, though of course both are corvids). He was christened Spike, and being part-domesticated from earliest life he could never safely leave the house. You might therefore expect a series of anecdotes of cute and humanized behaviour. No: Spike’s stubborn otherness (I have to use that fashionable term here), and the strength of will through which his nature as a magpie expressed itself, are everywhere insistent. At the same time, qualities and conduct which we might carelessly regard, following our scientific mentors, as “uniquely human” – thought, empathy, practical joking, football games – this history of Spike compels us to believe we see fully translated in him. Pioneered, rather: magpies, after all, knew and enjoyed the world long before we arrived.

Scepticism about our assumptions, and about what we really can know, is not a monopoly of scientists. Esther Woolfson certainly has it, but she qualifies its mental austerity or aloofness with a generous and affectionate egalitarianism, participating in these other lives without speciesist reserve.

On the one hand, then, she doesn’t wish or guide her birds to behave humanly; she doesn’t yearningly impute human motives to them, or make humanity the measure of value (in this, she is more ‘scientific’ than the Vienna researchers). She says, “I don’t want birds to be other than they are.” And habitually she tempers or quizzes what, as a human, she sees and thinks. For example, when Spike takes a fervent part in family ball-games, she describes him “shouting with what seemed remarkably like joy” (my italics).

On the other hand, she is always moved to see how much there must be that Spike and the other birds do share with humans, in emotions and in conduct: “it makes me feel as if I live in an indivisible world, that my belief that we’re nearer in every respect than I could have imagined is correct, that we are, whatever we are, something of the same.” Those last nine words, with their intellectual modesty and life-hospitable “we”, bring together all that is best in science and in humanity.

No doubt the research done at Vienna will make a useful addition to a certain kind of knowledge of some bird-life. It may even do a little to counter our prejudices against magpies: the Times correspondent very properly thinks it should. But I would say that one can learn more about the life of magpies (to say nothing about their possibilities as individuals), and therefore about our true and proper relation to them, from such a book as Esther Woolfson’s than from all that can ever come from the world’s cages and laboratories.


References: The Times news article was written by its science correspondent Oliver Moody, and appeared on 19 October, at p.15. The original report of the research, titled ‘Proactive prosociality in a cooperatively breeding corvid, the azure-winged magpie’, was published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on 18 October, and is accessible in full online. Quotations from Corvus: a Life with Birds are taken from pp. 163, 199, and 169.