Mark Cocker

Animals make us human

Anthropomorphism was once seen as the ultimate scientific sin. Not any more, as three fascinating books explain

Animals make us human
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The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief and Compassion — Surprising Observations of a Hidden World

Peter Wohlleben

Bodley Head, pp. 281, £

The Animals Among Us: The New Science of Anthrozoology

John Bradshaw

Allen Lane, pp. 352, £

Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild

Martin Lee Mueller

Chelsea Green, pp. 384, £

There was a time when biologists so scorned the attribution of human qualities to other animals that anthropomorphism was seen as the ultimate scientific sin and suitable only for children’s stories. Not anymore. Today the inner lives of other creatures are widely accepted as a major research frontier, and here are three books that reflect these preoccupations. One of them even defines it as an entirely new discipline: anthrozoology.

Peter Wohlleben may be no scientist, but he is a professional German forester and the author of the enormously successful The Hidden Life of Trees. In this new book he sets out to overturn the stock assumption that other creatures are mere automata driven by instinct, drawing particularly on studies that use MRI digital imaging of the human brain.

The research demonstrates how people, when asked to make decisions and register them with either the left or right hand, have often made choices seven seconds before they even ‘know’ how they will choose. Wohlleben argues that the selection process is happening in the unconscious parts of the brain and that the ‘decisions’ are subsequently rationalised by the study subjects.

His wider point is that if our ‘rationality’ is partly an outcome of instinctual responses, why shouldn’t other animals be equally capable of higher emotion or complex thought processes? He goes on to illuminate his arguments by drawing on a lifetime of forest experience and his own intimate encounters with pets and domestic livestock — dogs, cats, mice, chickens, pigs and goats. He shows not only how crabs and lobsters plunged in boiling water can suffer agony, but also that horses feel embarrassment, dogs have a sense of fair play, mice and pigs feel empathy and magpies can show gratitude.

The tone is friendly and informal and the prose largely free of scientific jargon; but the problem with Wohlleben’s approach is that he is already a believer. He freely acknowledges that he interferes in cases of inter-specific predation, rescuing one bird he thinks of as ‘good’ from another he looks upon as ‘bad’. Someone who imposes moral judgments upon perfectly natural parts of animal behaviour is hardly an objective scrutineer of the data. At one point he writes: ‘When I look at animals, I like to make analogies to people, because I cannot imagine that they feel so very differently from us.’ His book is entertaining and thought-provoking, but it is not overly convincing, and too often his assumptions are made on slender premises.

If one requires a stricter level of proof, then John Bradshaw’s The Animals Among Us is backed up by impeccable research. He also narrows his focus to look mainly at anthropomorphism as a characteristic of modern human psychology, using our present pet fixations as his key field of enquiry.

The British spend an estimated £6 billion annually on domestic animals, with almost half of households owning either dogs or cats. This is modest, however, when measured against pet fashions in the US, where over a third of the population keep dogs and almost a third have cats. Collectively, Americans spend $60 billion on their animal companions, with one genetically engineered pooch going for a cool $155,000.

A dominant part of the trend is the axiomatic assumption in popular culture that pets are good for our wellbeing, as sources of exercise and longevity, as bringers of companionship and as guarantors against loneliness or a variety of other mental conditions. Bradshaw reveals how, regardless of the persuasive power of this ‘meme’, the evidence is much more nuanced, with most data suggesting that dogs may well be very good for some, but by no means all, owners.

A subsidiary goal of this excellent book is to explain the origins of our anthropomorphic tendency, and while this component is more speculative, and draws strongly on the works of the anthropologist Steven Mithen, especially his superb The Prehistory of the Mind, Bradshaw provides a convincing case that our fascination with the interior lives of animals was an essential part of our evolutionary development.

An ability to anticipate how other species might behave not only made us more efficient hunters, but it was also fundamental to the first trials in domestication. In short, the capacity to enter the inner worlds of other animals is an intrinsic part of what makes us humans and our 21st-century craze for pet dogs is a direct linear descendant of this ancient talent.

In Being Salmon, Being Human the German philosopher and storyteller Martin Lee Mueller adopts a radically different approach. He is not so much taken with our unique gift for inhabiting the other; rather, he despairs of the modern western propensity to deny an inner life to anything other than ourselves. For this Oslo-dwelling author it is Norway’s salmon industry that provides the substance of his critique.

And what a ghastly business it turns out to be. Farmed fish may now be the country’s second biggest export and worth £4.4 billion annually, but it relies upon confining the salmon — surely one of the ocean’s ultimate icons of long-distance migration — to crowded wire pens that leave many of them blind and deformed. The sewage produced from the captive stocks is twice that of Norway’s human population and a single tank can hold the equivalent number of fish — 500,000 — as the country’s wild salmon total. The pollution and other negative effects are driving the free-swimming species towards extinction; yet rather than triggering any Norwegian crisis of conscience, leading fishery economists merely ask ‘so what?’

How can we so reduce this prince among fish to nothing more than protein biomass? That question is Mueller’s cue for a radical and meticulous exploration of the philosophical roots of our dysfunctional relationship with other life forms. The quest takes him back to the 17th-century separation of mind and body, as defined by the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes.

Over the intervening 400 years, Mueller argues, the widening chasm in our experience has led to a radical suppression of our embodied capability to feel and sense the world as a living process both within and without. Mueller freely acknowledges his debt to the works of the American philosopher David Abram (author of The Spell of the Sensuous). As a counterpoint to Western exploitation he also extols the value systems that once operated among the first nations of the Pacific Northwest, that were also salmon-dependent communities.

At times the author’s tone borders on dreary moral piety and in the acknowledgements he thanks the trees, which he insists on calling ‘the green ones’, for offering themselves to make the pages of his book. Elsewhere, he calls humans ‘the two leggeds’, as though he could imagine how fish might conceive of our species, while his extended essay, in which he attempts to describe salmon at sea as if he were one of them, borders on the ludicrous. For all these shortcomings, this is the richest and most challenging of the three books. It is also a notable achievement for a first-time author, especially for the complex philosophical map which Mueller layers beneath his account of modern salmon-human relations.