Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Take a PAAS

Like so much of life, PAAS Easter Egg coloring kits were the result of an accident. To be more specific, a chemical accident in New Jersey, something which is far from rare. This particular accident, however, had a fortuitous side-effect: the brightly colored (but not radioactive) Easter Egg dye that many of us associate with childhood. Around 1880 Newark druggist William Townley spilled colored dye onto his suit, leading him to individually package holiday colors, according to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. That individual packaging allowed for a full set of egg colors to be sold together and the PAAS brand was soon launched.

The idea of coloring Easter Eggs, like so many Christian traditions, likely has pagan roots. Eggs were a sign of new life with the coming of spring in many cultures (although boiling the poor things rather defeats the purpose). Christians adopted the egg as a resurrection symbol—the chick pecking out of its shell was like the resurrected Jesus bursting from the tomb, albeit somewhat less dramatically. Watching a newborn chick hatch is an emotional experience. At the 4-H Fair, standing around the incubator in the chicken tent, you can see wobbly, uncertain, tiny birds tentatively trying to assess this strange new world that is colder and somehow more compelling than life in the shell had ever been. The mighty son of God they’re not, but they are much more like us, looking for answers and taking small steps until they’re more certain of what they face.

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The coloring of eggs has origins lost in antiquity. Nobody’s quite sure why it was done beyond the fact that they look nice. Romans ate eggs as part of their spring celebrations, and Christians came up with a story to explain colored eggs. The legend claims that Mary Magdalene, in trying to convince the emperor of the truth of the resurrection, turned eggs from white (or brown, as they likely were in those days) to red in her open hands. This proof, however, failed to convince the Caesar. What seems certain is that pagans liked coloring eggs so this provided a new source of evangelism to the Christians who assimilated the practice. Like Christmas, the Easter Egg has become a thoroughly cultural symbol—since Easter comes on a Sunday employers aren’t obligated to give the day off, so everyone can celebrate. Children hunt eggs on the White House lawn and we can still expect everyone to be in the office on Monday morning. Resurrection, after all, can only reach so far.

Floaters and Swimmers

Noah seems to have found a renewed audience these days. Nothing like a major motion picture to make even one of the most famous biblical characters even more notable. And the spin-off stories are now considered news as well. One of the many impossible stories of the Bible, the ark, as scholars have long known, would not have been a physical possibility. Quite apart from the building in days before metal smelting was invented, there was the problem of volume. Since evolution is ruled out de rigueur, each separate species had to have been represented, since no changes are allowed from that time to this. The sheer number of them, especially since new ones are being discovered even now, was deemed impossible to fit on an ark of even biblical dimensions. Add in the food necessary for 150 days, especially considering the carnivores, and the human-power required to care for all those beasts (only eight are permitted by Genesis, and Noah was 600 years old at the time) and you get the picture. Then Mesopotamian flood stories even older were discovered. It was quickly recognized that this was a myth with a larger message to tell.

Now, according to geobeats, and to the relief, I’m sure, of Russell Crowe, physics students at the University of Leicester have calculated that the ark could have floated. The story, in a one-minute sound bite, is a little shy on details. The students used the biblical cubit, and figured there were 35,000 distinct species at the time. I’m not sure where that number originates, but it doesn’t take into account how Noah got the koala’s to swim from Australia. According to present evidence, the earth is home to about eight-million-seven-hundred-thousand different species. And since they can’t evolve, that’s an awful lot of swimmers.

According to the university website, this was not intended as an exercise in biblical literalism. “The aim of the module is for the students to learn about peer review and scientific publishing. The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and find ways to apply basic physics to the weird, the wonderful and the everyday,” according to Dr. Mervyn Roy, the instructor. The students, working the math angle, didn’t expect the results to work. That they did surprised everyone. Except Noah, one presumes. The story makes clear that the number of animals was used to calculate mass, not dimensions, so squeezing all the beasts in might have been quite another chore altogether. Miraculous, one might say. As for me, I am waiting to see that pair of koalas swim from Darwin to the Persian Gulf, and then back again once the waters finally recede.

Don't forget to see the movie!

Don’t forget to see the movie!

Rocket Cats

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A few weeks ago the Internet’s attention was captured (if such a thing is possible) by rocket cats. Apparently the brain-child of sixteenth-century artillery expert Franz Helm, the story raised outrage and some giggles and then faded from view. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the issue jetted back to life in an academic forum. The article by Steve Kolowich helpfully pointed out that the idea isn’t exactly new. My regular readers know that I advocate for animal rights and I believe most animals are far more intelligent than we deign to admit. In other words, I consider this an inherently bad and distasteful idea. Nevertheless, to look at it academically—Steve Kolowich was referring to the fact that the manuscript, being digitized from Penn University’s library, had been known previously. It went viral when the Associated Press decided to make something of the story. The Internet took an old idea and made it current.

The idea goes like this: a city is under siege and you’re getting impatient. What to do? Strap incendiaries to cats and birds and send them into the city that is guarded against human-sized invaders. Although this does have an evil genius quality to it, I wonder if Franz Helm didn’t get the idea from the good, old Bible. In the commentary on the rocket cats I’ve seen, nobody is giving credit where credit is due. Samson, according to Judges, was fond of the ladies. Not just any ladies, but Philistines in particular. Prior to his wedding he set a riddle for the Philistines to solve and when they pressed the bride-to-be for the answer, Samson ended up owing the Philistines a fair bit of cash. Samson simply killed some Philistines, took their goods, and paid those he owed. Meanwhile, his father-in-law supposed, reasonably enough, that Samson no longer loved his daughter, and gave her to another. In a fit of rage, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied torches between they tails of each pair, and sent them out to burn up the crops in the field. Substitute city for field and you have Helm’s idea. With steampunkish add-ons.

In an era when the Bible is treated as increasingly irrelevant, the media (and scholars) frequently overlook how important it was to people in the past. You might even say it was inspirational. Despite all that, I’ve met a fair number of clergy who’ve never read the whole thing (it is a big book, after all) and meddlesome laity like yours truly often point out the more uncomfortable aspects of scripture. But even Samson may have to give a nod to the Hittites. Before Israel showed up on the scene, the Hittites, if i recall correctly, had figured out that it you sent a diseased donkey into an enemy’s city, the contagion would do the gruesome work for you, killing of people and well, the donkey was dead anyway. There was no Internet to spread the idea, but it was quite literally viral. Ancient manuscripts can teach us quite a lot, if we can take our eyes from the more questionable bits long enough to read the rest.

Apes and Atheists

Bonobo&AtheistFrans de Waal is among the sanest of popular science writers. I’ve been following his non-technical work since Our Inner Ape through The Age of Empathy to The Bonobo and the Atheist. As de Waal himself explains, he tended to leave religion out of his earlier works since, for a scientist such topics are generally taboo. His direct address to religion in The Bonobo and the Atheist is refreshing and enlightened. As he notes, de Waal does not believe in God, but he doesn’t believe in the abolition of religion either. This sets him against his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins, who is so bright that the rest of us are burnt out dimmer bulbs by comparison. As de Waal soberly asks: what does science offer in place of religion? What is the point of taking away something that has evolved from our early primate days without offering anything to fill its spot? Even an ape would object.

What makes The Bonobo and the Atheist so engaging, apart from de Waal’s writing, is the openness of his outlook. De Waal suggests that the origins of morality and empathy can be glimpsed in apes and monkeys. He cites the reaction of chimpanzees to rain storms and even waterfalls that hint at early religious development. As I’ve suggested on this forum before, religion may even be allowed to animals. Their experience of religion is certainly not the same as ours, but there is evidence of both thought and feeling. When these are brought together they form religious belief in Homo sapiens. Why not in our ancestors and fellow animals? No, animals don’t develop elaborate doctrines or precious rituals. They do, however, reverence the powerful, ponder death, and feel emotion. Some of our great thinkers are ready to cast all that aside in the name of progress. More humbly, and circumspectly, de Waal considers that evolution is telling us something. And when evolution speaks, its children should pay attention.

Descriptions of reactions and behaviors that we consider unique to humans among the animal world draw me to de Waal’s books. As a scientist de Waal has to draw logical conclusions, and those conclusions point to an inner world that is not so much unique in humans as it is evolved. Religion, I believe, is one of those traits. If animals show some of the early stages of religious development, including a basic form of ethics, how does that devalue our human efforts to explain our universe? Religion is in good company, along with opposable thumbs and basic language comprehension. Looking at how we treat each other, I consider being related to animals a compliment most of the time. Without a doubt some of the ethics Frans de Waal illustrates among the bonobos exceed those I’ve experienced at the hands of many who think of themselves as made in the image of God.

Holy Cows

Back in the days when a book was a luxury item, great care was taken in its production and protection. Having your investment lying around with flimsy paper covers that would begin to grow blunt and roll back even before you finished reading would have seemed irresponsible. To shield the vital contents from the weather and other dangers, leather was used as a kind of skin—come to think of it, it really is skin—and safely the words were housed. Many of these volumes were, naturally, Bibles. Leather and the good book became synonymous for some—even with onionskin paper a book’s not a Bible with just a printed case hardcover. Paperback? How can you take that seriously? To make a Bible authoritative, it seems, cattle must be harvested. After all, sacrifice is at the center of it all.

Being a long-time vegetarian, this often gives me pause. My belt and watch-band are made of canvas, and I try my best to avoid leather shoes (although this is often difficult). I’m pretty sure that my leather Bibles are faux skin. Even though my family respected the Bible to the point of bibliolatry at times, we really couldn’t afford genuine cowhide. Now I take a more circumspect look at the cost of appearances. We’ve outlived the need for animal-bound Bibles. It has become more of an expectation than a necessity. An affectation. There is, however, still a big business in leather Bibles, and Italian leather seems the best fit for a Semitic savior.

What troubles me the most is the idea that animals—deemed not conscious by the very religion that allows their slaughter—are made to pay the cost for human foibles. The whole sacrificial system is built around a radical inequality. Humans domesticated cattle for their own exploitation, and their skins, when no longer needed by their hosts, came to clothe holy books of their masters. In any shade or hue of the rainbow. We can make it less grim by dying it a cheerful color and declaring its progenitor had no thoughts in its vacuous head. It lived a life of servitude and when it paid the ultimate price, it received the martyr’s gift of becoming part of the Bible. The end result? We should feel less qualms about our peccadillos and atrocities. We’ve wired their brains to trust us—we are not the predators to fear. Try not to take it personally. It’s just what our religion demands of us, for we too are a domesticated herd.

From the herd of purple cows...

From the herd of purple cows…

Raptor Attention

Comments on internet sites are quite revealing. Not that many comments ever make their jolly way to this blog, but, like many people I spend too much time on the internet, and you can’t help but read a few now and again. My wife sent me an ad for the Jesus-raptor tee-shirt offered by Six Dollar Shirts. The image has been floating around the web for some time now, but I haven’t been able to determine its origin. It could be from creationist groups that believe dinosaurs coexisted with people as an end-run around evolution, but more likely it represents an effort to belittle that view. Creationists are the ultimate backward-looking crowd. Fearful of Hell, they see evolution as tantamount to damnation, and must eradicate the biological evil for the sake of their immaterial souls. Reading through the comments on the Six Dollar Shirts page, I had to wonder. Why are we so concerned with getting the past right?

Don’t get me wrong—I have an undying interest in the history of religions and the origins of religious thought. Nobody wants to get the past wrong, otherwise the present is incorrect. Dinosaurs, however, are the great corrective to a major historical error. It is easy to assume that homo sapiens represents the highest point possible on the earthly scale of measures. Dinosaurs remind us that anything can happen. Up until about 65 million years ago, there would have been no reason to suppose that dinosaurs wouldn’t be here forever. Of course, Adam was over 65 million years in the future, and even if he evolved, his primate lineage was tiny and trying to avoid the gigantic footsteps of their distant Jurassic cousins at the time. Some scientists theorize that if the asteroid never hit, the dinosaurs may have evolved distinctly humanoid features. After all, we’re clearly at the top.

The past must always be approached with humility. Relativity may tell us that it is still here, but I can’t even access the moments just seconds ago as I typed these words. The delete key is a dangerous thing. Science has pretty much unequivocally demonstrated the evolution is a fact of life. It is our past. No matter what Ken Ham says, I’m pretty sure even Moses would’ve noted the spectacle if dinosaurs trudged aboard the ark. So Jesus never met any raptors in real life. Some of the commentators on the tee-shirt page appear offended at the blasphemy of the joke. Or maybe they’re just being ironic. In either case, that’s now the past and the best that any of us can do is comment on it and watch out for the big feet that are stomping this way.

Image credit: Dropzink, Wikicommons

Image credit: Dropzink, Wikicommons

Dromedary Dilemma

Photo credit: John O'Neill, WikiCommons

Photo credit: John O’Neill, WikiCommons

This past week two friends have pointed me to news articles about camels. In the modern, western imagination camels are biblical animals, pushing their way onto the ark, carrying long-suffering patriarchs across the desert, and squeezing through the eyes of needles. These news stories indicate that camels were actually not introduced into the Levant until about the tenth century B.C.E., i.e., a few centuries too late for poor Father Abraham, whom, according to Genesis, was a noted camel owner. Of course, the reason that this is news is because Fundamentalist groups insist that every word of the Bible is literally true. If it says Abraham had camels, then, by gosh, camels he had—archaeological evidence or no. One story points out the problems for Zionists, for whom claims on the land derive from the mandate to Abraham (and, presumably, his camels). Biblical scholars have long been aware of the complex methods of scripture writing, and no camels are no problem. The bigger issue, I suspect, is that Abraham has been awol for some time as well.

Abraham, as the progenitor of the three major monotheistic religions, bears a tremendous weight on his weary shoulders. It is the weight of history. Or lack thereof. I may be a few years outdated here, but the earliest figure historically attested in the Bible is (or was) Omri, the king of Israel who spawned the notorious Ahab. Prior to that, historical records are pretty silent. Yes, I know the Tel Dan stele mentions “house of David,” but that is like mentioning Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—it doesn’t make Mr. Wonka any more real (even though you can buy a Wonka bar at some candy stores). That means that, in the jumble of biblical history, everyone in Genesis falls into the questionable historical category. Even if Moses (himself historically dubious), wrote Genesis (and he didn’t), he wouldn’t have known Mr. Abraham personally. He had been long dead. If he’d ever been born. I’m getting worried about his camels.

Religions have often tied themselves to historical claims. Such claims are always tenuous and negotiable. For instance, I watched a movie about Abraham—Lincoln, it was called—where I learned quite a bit that I didn’t know about a very historical Abraham. At the same time, I knew the movie wasn’t history. When we rely on history to cite our superiority (often one of the functions of religion), we had better be willing to take the risks. The first biblical historical figure is a “bad guy” king of a secessionist kingdom, this time in the north. Even once we learn that the storied characters of the Bible may have never trod the earth, we don’t leave them as camel fodder. They are part of the tradition, whether they participated in history or not. I realize, however, for some it would be easier to swallow a camel than to strain out this particular gnat.

Asp and Receive

Among the X-Files episodes that bothered me the most was “Signs and Wonders,” where Mulder and Scully visit the snake-handlers. The human fear of snakes is so deep that it reaches back beyond our split from chimpanzees—our curious cousins who also fear serpents. The reality show Snake Salvation, which I’ve only seen once, has lost its star due to, you guessed it, snake-bite. I don’t rejoice in the death of Rev. Jamie Coots; it is tragic when a person with such faith falls victim to it. Nobody castigated Steve Irwin for swimming with rays, however. It comes with the job. Snake-handling tends to be an off-shoot of an extreme literalism. Many of the rest of the Christian mainstream are content to know that the snake-handling passage (note the singular) in Mark is a disputed section of the Gospel. It is likely not original and carries weight only for those who accept the King James without question. It doesn’t command the handling of snakes; it is merely a suggestion.

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According to the story on USA Today, Rev. Coots refused medical treatment after his bite and soon died. Snake bites are not as fatal as they once were—with proper treatment they are often survivable. The faith, however, that declares asps risk-free comes with a caveat that doesn’t allow for medical intervention. If it’s your time, it’s your time. If it weren’t for reality television, probably none of us would even know. Snake-handlers do get bitten from time to time, just as surely as Baptists dry out once they get out of the water. It is the way of nature. Religion tends to view itself as capable of overcoming nature in various ways, and that seems to draw in the reality TV crews.

Not only Jamie Coots, but the famed evangelical Duck Dynasty took a hit recently. That’s because the stars are only people. When we put them on the magic box we either worship them or wait for them to fall. Authentic faith, I firmly believe, does not come through television. Shortly after the invention of the tube, evangelists found their way onto the airwaves. But reality television is necessarily about the slightly off-kilter, those who aren’t like the cookie-cutter executives in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chances are they’ll be from the south and people will watch with incredulity. Isn’t that what belief is all about? Faith is a wonderful thing when it works. Like most non-empirical phenomena, however, it doesn’t always work like view on demand. Snakes evolved to bite, and people evolved to believe.

Horse Sense

In an article in last month’s Federalist, Tom Nichols lamented the death of expertise. Well, not exactly. Expertise is not so much dead as lost in the wash. In the days of internet reality, it is difficult not to feel an expert after half an hour on Wikipedia and with a glance at a few headlines. What concerns Nichols, however, is that those who have done the hard work of going through educational programs and heavy research to learn materials minutely and intimately, are no longer considered any more qualified to speak the truth about their subject than anyone else. The web is full of self-proclaimed experts, and even I was always a little alarmed at student papers that took online resources at face value (I warned students about us bloggers). We have truly entered democracy—intellectual democracy—and it is scarier than anyone might have imagined.

I’m not a snob. I grew up in a blue collar home and I generally trust blue collar people more than my more educated colleagues. In the working class, at least in my experience, if someone intends to harm you there is usually some warning shot fired across your bow. In the world of business and finance the unseen and surgical strike is carried out with far more finesse. Experts can make brutally efficient killers. It was only after years and thousands of dollars I had not yet earned that I could claim to be an expert on ancient religion. From the first day in the classroom (particularly at Nashotah House) I found myself face-to-face with self-acknowledged experts who put up with my instruction only by dint of ecclesiastical command. Being an expert meant I was to be mistrusted. I was the one who might lead astray. The internet was already out there, but it was only lurking in the background. In religion, expertise had been dead long before Jesus showed up on the scene.

The problem with religion is that nobody can have the whole truth. I used to show my students a photograph of the silhouette of a horse against a sunset/sunrise. You can’t tell which way the horse is facing—toward the camera or away. When I asked them which way the beast faced, some would say away, but most said, predictably, towards them. Then I would reveal that not one of us in the room knew the answer. Religion is like that. The photographer who stood near the horse knows, but the person behind the camera may as well be in heaven for all it helps us. I was an expert because I’d spent years learning arcane languages and looking at texts in as close to the original format as we had available. All I had learned is that no one knows the direction that horse is facing. Tom Nichols is right: we face a crisis of expertise. But for me the only source of truth may be found astride a noble steed.

Photo credit: Waugsberg, WikiCommons

Photo credit: Waugsberg, WikiCommons

Porcine Prognostication

Punxsutawney Phil phled his shadow this morning, leaving many despairing another six weeks of winter, which meteorology seems to dictate anyway. I used to tell my students that Phil is a most peculiar prophet, in that he is, presumably, neither Christian nor Jew, but rather of the rodent religion (whatever that may be). People pretend the little guy has powers beyond those of the average mammal when it comes to predicting vast, chaotic systems. If a groundhog flaps his eyelids in Pennsylvania, prepare for plows and shovels and more thermal underwear. Playing into this annual phenomenon is the provocative persistence of the idea that prophecy is prediction. As much as scholars attempt to expunge the idea that foretelling wasn’t what prophets were ever really about, the populace likely wouldn’t have paid them any attention, had the possibility not presented itself that these preachers knew something the rest of people didn’t.

Prophecy is a strange phenomenon. We claim that we would like to know the future, but I’m not sure that we really would. Knowing that we’ve set ourselves on many tracks that inevitably lead to tears, do we really want to know? After taking my daughter back to college, we sat in a fast-food place to grab a bite on the way home. It had been snowing again, as it will do in the winter, and the television in the corner was blaring on about another apocalyptic band of snow. A bearded and burly Pennsylvanian at the next table turned to me, attracted, I supposed by my own facial hair, and said, “What about this global warming?” I nodded politely, not being very burly myself, but I thought of the fact that global warming does mean more severe winters in some places and warmer conditions in others. It is marked, scientists predict, by erratic weather, not a constant sauna in those regions accustomed to snow.

Although a Pennsylvanian by birth, I have noticed that my ancestral New Jersey does not receive much snow. Until this year. We’ve had the white stuff on the ground for over two weeks in a row. Yes, it snows in winter, but not usually here. I shiver and think of global warming. It is a chilling thought. Punxsutawney Phil may live far enough inland not to have to worry about learning to swim, but the same can’t be said of the inhabitants of most of the major cities of this country. We know it is coming, but we turn a blind eye. Progress in the name of unbridled big business interests brighten a future otherwise a bit more gloomy than we might prefer. Phil ducks back into his burrow and the rest of us clutch our coats a little tighter around us. Prophecy is a mixed blessing indeed. We already know the outcome before the groundhog awakes.

An agnostic groundhog ponders the inevitable (photo credit: I. EIC)

An agnostic groundhog ponders the inevitable (photo credit: I. EIC)

Not Knowing

WhatIDontKnowAboutAnimalsBegin with a basic premise: we cannot know what a creature without language thinks. Add in the thoughtful anxieties of a post-domestic writer who knows about animals and you have What I Don’t Know About Animals, by Jenny Diski. Part biography, part science, part philosophy, wholly human. I knew from the day the book was released that I would read it since, like the author, I am one haunted by the relationship between the exploited and the exploiter. Diski’s confessions are difficult to read at times, veiling herself, as she does behind the curtains of one’s most private experiences, but she reveals plenty to those who read on. We can’t know for certain what another person thinks, so how can we know what a sentient animal thinks? Some, following Descartes and Skinner, would declare that animals don’t think, they simply do as programmed. The rest of us know that they are wrong. The evidence accumulates more each year that animals think and feel, but, as Diski repeatedly points out, we need to drive with the brakes on. We can’t get inside them to actually know if human experience corresponds at all with animal experience. We’ve shared the planet for millions of years, but we’ve lost track of our common origins.

As I suspected, the Bible came into the discussion. The book of Genesis lurks in the background of most human-animal rationalizations. The divine division into separate “kinds” must be kept discrete at all times. The problem is, nature won’t always play along with that game. One type slowly morphs into another and some biologists are even questioning the usefulness of “species” at all. Fear of bestiality, as Diski points out, is found already in the Bible. Best to keep everything in its proper pigeon-hole, whether that’s where it belongs or not. Genesis gives us the right to exploit, and so we continue to use animals for our own purposes. Although the feline, it turns out, may have figured out how to set this order on its head. In some cases.

What I Don’t Know About Animals is not a defense of vegetarianism or of radical, thoughtless abandon. Diski writing on spiders will cause many heads to nod in agreement, and her rage against the loss of the common lady-bug struck an amazingly responsive chord with this reader. The lady-bug’s demise came at human tampering, importing asian beetles as pest control—beetles that eventually edged out the harmless lady-bug, replacing the Volkswagen of beetles with a biting, omnivorous, massing pest. In Wisconsin the southern side of our faculty house was literally blanketed with them in the spring. Diski uses the same word I did then: biblical. Swarms seem to be the way that the Almighty has of telling us too much of even a good thing will go bad. Although I couldn’t agree with every statement Diski makes, I have the feeling this is a book I will reread more than once. Wisdom often comes in the form of admitting just how little we know.

Almost Human?

Last week the New York Times ran a story on the efforts of the Nonhuman Rights Project to have chimpanzees declared “legal persons.” Naturally this has set many legal persons at arms, given the unstated, biblical origin of the concept of human superiority. Without the biblical mandate we simply have to admit that we rule over animals on the basis of “might makes right,” a philosophical concept that never makes it far either in the classroom or the courtroom. We hold animals captive and experiment on them because we can. They can’t speak, can’t register protest, so we assume their silence as complicity and carry on. Research over the past several years, however, has pushed the human-separatists harder and harder. Animals are more like us than we are willing to admit. We acknowledge that we’ve evolved from them, but we suppose that at some point—probably the vocal cords—we surpassed them and therefore if they can’t speak they can’t think and they can’t feel. Even today many people still hold to the biblical orthodoxy that animals are merely here for our enjoyment and exploitation.

Considering how we treat other human beings, this is probably, sadly, no great surprise. In a world where many nations still allow women to be treated as property, putting a chimp in a cage and labeling it “mine” doesn’t appear so odd. Only the most crass of chauvinists would dare say that women are not human, but far too many, based mostly on religious biases, have no problem stating that women are inferior humans. Again, “the Bible tells me so.” This kind of thinking, prevalent even up until the 1950s in “civilized” countries like the United States, has yet to die out fully. What is it about the male psyche that insists on its own superiority? The Bible, it seems, has much for which to answer when found in the hands of men.

What makes us think that we are all evolving toward the “high point” of white males? Some of us in that class know that it is long past time that this glass “ceiling” should have been irreparably shattered. Nonsense, however, has staying power. Some of us even feel inferior just knowing such distinctions were ever made. Not that long ago Africans were said, by some, to be closer to apes than Caucasians. Women were said to be closer to snakes than men. What has been lacking is a sense of balance. Common sense. Genders and races equal but variable. Until that minimum bar is reached, how can it be hoped that fair treatment of nonhuman persons can ever be achieved? Some animals have been taught to read, at least in basic, symbolic ways. They understand that certain symbols stand in for defined rewards. Given time it might even be that this most human of inventions could be shared among nonhuman persons. If they do not learn to read the Bible with more sense than some human persons, however, we face a future of many other layers of distressing oppression.

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Phoenix Rising

As a bird with the incredible gift of resurrection, the Phoenix is one of the most enduring symbols of Greek mythology. We, as people, are pretty accustomed to messing things up and the hope of renewal is something we earnestly crave. The Phoenix, when its long life is over, goes up in a burst of flames only to be reborn from its own ashes. Christians early latched onto this poignant symbol, as have many other religions. In origin the Phoenix is likely related to the sun mythos. Isn’t there always a small shadow of fear that somehow it might fail to rise tomorrow morning, plunging us all into interminable darkness? The Phoenix is a harbinger of hope. These are my thoughts as I soar, birdlike, toward Phoenix, Arizona. A city named after the resurrecting bird. I’m not certain what awaits me here—I’ve never been to Arizona before, but I do know it is desert, and that life in the desert is always precarious. I’m glad to have brought my mythology with me.

Phoenix was, appropriately enough for October, first named Pumpkinville. It is difficult to imagine this sixth most populous city in the United States coming to prominence under that moniker. Since it is October, however, there is an aptness to such history. My trip, as most of my travel, relates to business rather than pleasure—there is a kind of hope in resurrection here as well. As a city in the desert, resurrection would seem to be central to those millions who call Phoenix home. Indeed, the concept of the gods as we know them seems to have been conceived and born in the harsh environment of desiccated lands. Some suggest the Phoenix was originally taken from Egyptian lore. Egypt was, outside the Nile delta, a nation only a few miles wide, snaking alongside a life-giving river in the wilderness.

Phoenix

What is it about deserts that brings the spiritual to mind? It always seemed to me that it was an issue of utter dependence. People living in a harsh environment need all the help they can get. It is difficult to suppose that harsh deities might arise in perfect circumstances. Today Phoenix depends more on engineering and control of the environment than on providence. The gods of the desert nevertheless find a home here. Even if they have adapted to an affluent lifestyle. As go the experiences of people, so go the fortune of the gods. And resurrecting birds.

A Dog’s (Inner) Life

Last week’s Sunday Review in the New York Times included a piece tucked under Opinion entitled “Dogs Are People, Too.” Gregory Berns, the article’s author, a professor at Emory University, describes how he trained his dog to enter and remain still inside an MRI machine long enough to scan brain activity. The results, repeated on other trained dogs, indicated that dogs share the same level of sentience as a human child. Berns’ conclusion: dogs are persons. I tend to agree. Although I’m no longer a pet “owner,” I grew up with dogs (and cats, birds, reptiles, and hamsters). There was never any question in my mind that our dogs could think. The also shared emotions with people—as Holmes would say, it’s elementary. Obvious. Staring at you with puppy-dog-brown-eyes-right-in-the-face obvious. Science, however, has always had an uneasy relationship with consciousness, the ghost in the machine. Dogs, many declare, are just machines. They salivate at the sound of a bell, for goodness sake!

Berns, however, has found the holy grail of scientific proof. The brain scan is accepted as a measure of human conscious activity. It is difficult enough to lure a human into an MRI and have her or him hold still. Dogs, however, are smart. They can be trained to do this too. Berns has succeeded and now has evidence that the emotional centers in dogs’ brains respond much like human brains. If they are emotional beings, as many of us knew all along, they are persons. Berns points out that this has legal implications. We make laws about unborn humans, but we treat fully alive canines like, well, dogs. Consciousness is part of the animal, and perhaps even the plant world. That stands to reason, if not scientific proof.

Christianity is largely responsible for advocating the concept of human superiority. We are, after all, made in the image of God. The Bible tells me so. Although scientists tend to abandon the Bible, they retain the myth of human superiority. Some concepts are just too convenient to relinquish, even in a rational world. We assume, since animals don’t talk the way that people do, that they are not thinking creatures. Even scientists appear afraid, at times, to take on the immaterial concept of thought. If the materialistic view is correct, thoughts are only electrochemical signals. Only this, and nothing more. As time nears to get dressed for work, I’d like to send my electrochemical signals out to get the paper. If I do the paper will still be on the lawn when I get home at the end of the day. I’ll have to fetch my own slippers, I guess.

Need I say more?

Need I say more?

Crowing Up

GiftsOfTheCrow Whether we climb up or down the evolutionary scale, one factor remains constant—our human sense of superiority. Despite the castigation of biblical-era thinking in the eyes of many scientists, few are willing to relinquish that Genesis-bestowed sense of being the pinnacle of nature. We know the universe is vast, but we assume we’re the best and brightest in it. Climbing down the ladder a bit, we like to distance ourselves from our fellow creatures because of our superior mental capacity. That is why I am so engrossed by scientists who explore animal intelligence. We find we are not so different after all. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell is such a book.

If you’re like most people in this electronic age, you probably haven’t given much thought to corvids. Corvids are the members of the crow family: ravens, jays, magpies, and, of course, crows. Scientists have long known that these birds are exceptionally intelligent, and Marzluff and Angell have written a spell-binding little book that shows a remarkable level of intellect among the birds. Documented cases of tool making and use, conscientious interaction, and perhaps even language, have occurred among the corvids. We try to shoo them from our crops with “scarecrows” and we poison them en masse when they become “pests,” but when we take the time to understand them, we find that we may be far darker than the crows.

Not that Gifts of the Crow is all that easy-going. There is plenty of brain physiognomy and quite a bit about brain chemistry here as well. Knowing that not all of us are scientists, though, Marzluff and Angell include a generous portion of narrative description of what corvids have been observed to accomplish. For three days in a row I climbed off the bus stunned, scanning the skies for crows, just to see for myself. In this suburban jungle outside the New York City metropolitan area, crows aren’t so abundant as they were when I lived in the Midwest. They will, however, serve to remind me, when I see one, that our privileged place in nature has more to do with our thumbs than with our intelligence. When I saw a solitary crow atop a tree during a neighborhood stroll after finishing the book, I stopped, smiled, and bowed. Nature belongs to each and every creature, and there sat one intelligent enough to appreciate it.