Examining the animal instincts a tough read
"Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil" is the latest book from ex-psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who also wrote "When Elephants Weep" and "Dogs Never Lie About Love." In "Beasts," Masson sets out to explore why humans with their intelligence and advanced abilities are more violent against each other than animals are.
He begins the book with a statement he often hears people say, "He is a beast," meaning that a person's behavior is "awful, dangerous, violent, cruel." Then he writes, "And yet, in my research, I have been struck over and over by how far off this characterization is. Beasts — or any animal except the human animal — have few of the failings we, as a species, have."
Masson wonders why humans do not see themselves as one species together. Most of human beings' conflicts come from perceived differences in race and gender. He claims that any geneticist can explain that two humans are more genetically similar than a lowland gorilla and a mountain gorilla.
After a short introduction, Masson begins his interesting book with the chapter, "Crocodiles and Us." He relates the story of Valerie Plumwood, an ecofeminist who taught at the University of Montana and University of Sydney, and her survival of a crocodile attack while doing research in Australia. The message that both Plumwood and Masson want readers to understand is that during the attack, Plumwood thought, I am prey, or as Masson says, "Living meat." Plumwood did not allow the rangers to kill the crocodile that attacked her because it was just trying to eat to survive.
Once he makes this point about the gruesome attack, the next few chapters discuss how humans seem fixated on hierarchy and often use this as an excuse for violence and murder. He compares humans to a wolf pack because wolves also live in a pack with hierarchy. But do they murder each other based on this dominance? Very rarely. Masson is making an obvious comparison — why do humans use hierarchy as an excuse for violence when animals don't?
Masson presents example after example of violent human behavior and contrasts it to the predatory nature of animals who are hunting for food. He asks the same question more than once: "Why is it, though, that we (human beings) are socialized into racism, hatred, false views, and infinite ways to be cruel to others? Is this natural?"
So does he present an answer to this question? He tries, but is there really an ultimate answer to this? In chapters, he discusses cruelty, war, hatred, conformity, exploitation and indifference. Some of this is difficult to read — both the animal examples and especially the human ones. It's clear that animals are killing through instinct and to survive, and humans are murdering each other for much more complex reasons, but often because of emotions and learned beliefs, which have no basis except in our minds.
He includes a quote from author Peter Benchley: "I couldn't possibly write 'Jaws' today ... the notion of demonizing a fish strikes me as insane." Masson does recognize that any species that is prey probably feels fear, terror and pain when hunted and captured, but the difference is that the animal predator does not have a negative feeling toward the prey, like humans do when killing.
The end of the book deals with kindness among animals and humans. It may surprise readers that vampire bats are among the most unselfish animals on earth for various reasons, including they keep each other from starving and take care of their young well. He presents several examples of altruism and ends one of his kindness chapters with the fact that India is the only country in the world where the constitution includes kindness and compassion to animals.
This is not an easy book to read, and chances are that readers will not agree with every point Masson makes. But it is a well-researched book, full of examples to convince readers that something needs to be done about human violence. Maybe animals actually have something to teach us, instead of the other way around.
Margo L. Dill is celebrating the release of her second novel, "Caught Between Two Curses," a young-adult novel exploring love, family and the Curse of the Billy Goat on the Cubs. She also is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle-grade historical fiction novel. She lives in St. Louis with her family.