Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The Importance of Animals or Beasts

What is it about animals that they "get through" to the most severely impaired children? How can animals reach a human mind dead-ened to anything else? It's not mystical or spiritual, but elementary biology. Animals are and always have been throughout our evolution the most stimulating, fascinating things in the world around us. Today, dulled as we are by the high-tech, fast-paced world we have made for ourselves, we see animals as remote and irrelevant.

We may not have animals consciously on our minds very often today; nonetheless they are alive at the deepest levels of our consciousness. Their importance to the human mind and culture is well known to art historians, folklorists and anthropologists.

The animal presence was best explained by biologist Paul Shepard in his 1978 book, Thinking Animal Animals, he said, got our attention more than anything else in nature as we were evolving. "Animals," Shepard wrote, "are among the first inhabitants of the mind's eye. They are basic to the development of speech and thought. Because of their part in the growth of consciousness, they are inseparable from the series of events in each human life. indispensable to our becoming human in the fullest sense."

Throughout our evolution, animals have helped us come to terms with the strange and wonderful world around us. When we lived as foragers with Earth-bound religions, animals were the First Beings and world-shapers, and the teachers and ancestors of people. When we became agriculturists and looked to the heavens for instruction about the seasons and the elements, we saw animal forms among the stars. Of the 48 Ptolemaic constellations, all but a few are organic, and 25 are named for animals. Of the 22 more that were added in the 17th century, 19 have animal names. When we built colossal earthworks to appeal to the power in the heavens, we built them in animal forms.

In Ice-age eaves, the first art shows the human fascination with animal forms. Animals were thought to embody the spirits and powers of nature, and, as art historians know, animals have been used to symbolize nature ever since. In ancient Egypt, Hathor, the cow goddess of the sky, was believed to have given birth to the sun. The sky was seen as a giant cow, her legs the four corners of the world. Ancient astronomers explained the workings of the universe by reference to the zodiac, which means, literally, "the circle of animals." Universally, animals have bonded us to the rest of the living world.

Animals must feed and empower the human mind like nothing else, for we see their presence also in children's toys, in nursery rhymes, in Aesop's fables, and in other moral tales. And we see the animal presence in language, where they provide the basis for some 5,000 expressions.


We tend not to think about the importance of animals anymore. In taking over the world, we have marginalized animals, reduced them from kinfolk, powers, and spirits to commodities, sources of spare parts and pests. Animals no longer matter -- or so we like to think.

But they do matter, and in powerful ways that we need to understand if we are to come to terms with nature. In reducing animals' stature, we reduced all of nature and constructed a world view in which people are above and apart from nature. This "dominionist" worldview was built, most agree, during the transition from foraging to farming that occurred between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago. Marginalizing animals was a cornerstone of the whole edifice, for more than any other agricultural development, it broke up the old ideas of kinship and continuity with the living world.

When early herders and farmers intensified their uses of animals, they needed ways to suppress their older beliefs in animal spirit-powers. People were, after all, gradually enslaving their former gods, teachers and ancestors. Before animals could become tools and commodities, they had to be brought down from their pedestals. Over time, the emerging culture came up with a new set of beliefs about animals' essential evil and baseness. Those combined to form an attitude of hatred and contempt for animals.

Today, we describe serial killers and other criminals as "animals" or "beasts" when we want to describe their lust, cruelty or senseless violence -- all behaviors that are, nature writer John Rodman notes, "more frequently observed on the part of men than of beasts."

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