While many scientists have explore the ways in which humanity has exploited Nature and how the damage done to Nature could put humanity’s survival in peril, few have considered how this exploitation has shaped the way humanity’s social hierarchies. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s monograph Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us about the Origins of Good and Evil does exactly this with engaging precision. The work offers comparisons between both the human and the natural realms, and in the process, Masson challenges the language humanity employs to demonize Nature, revealing humanity’s unreasoned fear of the natural realm, and notes that those traits that make humanity unique are often not flattering, while animals are often capable of demonstrating traits many humans assume are only present among humans. Taking the reading on a survey of the animal kingdom and an historical journey beginning with the advent of agriculture, Masson illustrates not only how humanity’s exploitation of Nature has brought out the worst in the animal kingdom, but also helped instil humanity with a degree of apathy that mandated a nomenclature populated by words like ‘torture’, ‘domestic abuse’, ‘genocide’, and ‘colonization’, all while creating walls of needless estrangement between various members of the human race. Though the work offers a bleak picture of human society, it also offers insights that lay the foundation for ecocolonial theory and proposes the source of oppression, which in turn has the potential to lay the groundwork for the kind of paradigm shift required to address both environmental concerns, and pressing social issues.
MISLEADING ECOLOGICAL METAPHORS
One of the common themes in Masson’s work is the fact that humanity often relies on disparaging ecological metaphors to frame uniquely human behaviour as being some kind of devolution into animalistic behaviours. When one, for example, is behaving brutally or violently, others might be inclined to describe this person as a ‘beast’ or an ‘animal’. However, as Robert Zajonc states, “The term beastiality when characterizing human violence is an offense to the nonhuman species” (qtd in Masson, 62). Masson illustrates this throughout the work, most notably when referring to the monograph Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.Masson notes that it is a“Cute title, but in reality there is no such thing as a psychopathic snake” (123). Though a rabid animal may display some characteristics that are similar to those displayed by a psychopath, animals do not behave in a psychopathic manner. This psychological phenomenon is one that is uniquely human; thus, using a member of the animal kingdom to frame this human behaviour is misleading. Masson observes that this likewise occurred in reviews on Roman Polanski’s Carnage when one critic wrote that “‘Beneath the surface of civilized behavior lurk animal impulses’”. Masson challenges this view, however, retorting that “animals do not behave this way”, and goes onto state that violence like “Child abuse is rampant in all human societies but absent in almost all animal societies” (38). Thus, such comparisons are likewise misleading.
Such a deceptive nomenclature leads to a number of misleading terms, such as ‘bullfighting’. As Masson notes, “to call bullfighting a fight at all is a misnomer” (70) because the bulls aren’t actually fighting. Masson notes that “To create the show of a fight, the bull is wounded and disabled before entering the ring, and is given large amounts of salt to make sure he drinks to the point of being bloated and will move slowly.” The bull then has “Vaseline is rubbed into his eyes so he cannot see… and newspaper is stuffed into his ears so he cannot hear”. The bull’s horns are then “shaved to make them less dangerous and to throw the bull of balance” and the “muscles in his neck are cut so that he cannot raise his head in normal fashion”. Moreover, the bull’s “kidneys and testicles are beaten” and he “is given laxatives, tranquilizers, and drugs to induce paralysis, and other drugs to disorient him.” As if this were not enough, the bull is also “kept in total darkness in a tiny cell for at least twenty-four hours, dazed and confused, without food or water”. Picadors then “drive long sharp lances into his back to weaken and enrage him”, and banderillos “are sunk into his neck and spinal cord causing deep tissue damage and internal hemorrhaging.” The bulls, upon entering the ring, are “urinating and defecating in terror, and as “a last resort, some bulls attempt to push away their attacker with their horns.” Masson concludes that this “is not an attack, but a final defense” (71-2). Hence, the term ‘bullfighting’, as Masson argues, is a misnomer. Yet, humans insist on employing a language that frames this as a fight, and the likes of Hemingway idealize and glorify the ‘bullfight’, though, as Masson observes, one will not find any of these gruesome details in Hemingway (71). This is perhaps the most potent example of the effect language has on how we see things. What is essentially a series are barbarous instances of torture perpetrated against an innocent and ignorant sentient being, is viewed by many as a valiant battle because it is called a ‘fight’ instead of ‘inhumane torture’.
Though inaccurate and disparaging metaphors and terms may seem innocuous, they have a dangerous potency to them. With bullfighting, for instance, we see how the likes of Hemingway have popularized and romanticized the tradition by upholding the phrasing and leaving out the brutal details of this exploitative practice. Though barbaric and antiquated, this blood sport has persisted and been widely celebrated for centuries, while equally cruel practices such as bear baiting have disappeared from practice altogether, and dog fighting and cock fighting have been made illegal and, though still practiced, are socially unacceptable. Why might bear baiting disappear while bullfighting remain? The terminology may be a factor. With the term ‘bullfighting’, the bull is phrased as a warrior, and thus seen as a threat. The term ‘bear baiting’, however, implies that the humans are baiting a bear, and should an animal need to be baited, it clearly isn’t a willing participant. Though one cannot conclusively argue that the nomenclature of the two parallel forms of cruel exploitation impacted their popularity, it is clear that the language of one practice is certainly more reflective of the nature of such blood sports. More broadly speaking, though, this kind of language demonizes the natural realm. Masson, for instances, notes that a popular myth about monkeys suggests they kill one another, so when the population of chimpanzees in equatorial Africa drops from several million, to less than 300,000, it is easy to dismiss the problem as the result of cannibalistic tendencies. However, such fantasies, as Masson suggests, fail to underscore the fact that this catastrophic loss of life is “due to habitat destruction, hunting, and the introduction of diseases” (50). The language we use clearly impacts the way in which we see the world around us, and so it is important to consider how the language we use influences the way we see Nature.
UNREASONED FEAR OF NATURE
This language also instills humanity with an unreasoned fear of Nature that can cause adverse negative effects to animal populations and in turn ecosystems. The wolf, for example, is considered to be an infamously terrifying animal that is a danger to humans. To see a verification of this, one need only examine, as Masson points out, the allegories we tell our children: Little Red Riding Hood, the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the Big Bad Wolf, Peter and the Wolf, and The Chronicles of Narnia, among others (129). Each of these stories instills youngsters with an unreasoned fear of wolves, when North America only has, according to Masson, “two documented cases of a wolf actually killing a human” (129). The irony of this, of course, is that wolves were actually vital to human advancement and were the first animals to be domesticated. As domesticated pets, they would warn humans of incoming predators, and even protect humans from them. Because of this unreasoned fear, though, bounties were placed on wolves and the wolf population in North America has seen a dramatic decline. People have similar fears of sharks, bears, and crocodiles, each of which Masson addresses, but relatively few people are killed form these animals. In Australia, for instance, only one or two people are killed by crocodiles each year (9). This means that toddlers pose more of a threat to people than do bears, crocodiles, and sharks combined, at least in America where in the first four months of the 2016, toddlers had killed 23 people! In fact, vending machines, coconuts, high school football, and champagne corks have each individually proven more deadly than sharks, bears, wolves and crocodiles combined! Yet that language we use and the stories we tell have instilled us with such disdain and fear for animals that pose almost no threat to us, that we have hunted and killed some of the animals to near extinction. This is the power language has, and which Masson highlights so effectively.
Masson’s observations on the relationship between Nature and language lay the groundwork for an element ecocolonial theory. This relationship establishes the patterns that humans first apply to Nature, only to later apply to other people. Ecoclonial theory examines the ways in which humans have asserted their authority over Nature, and then draws parallels to the ways humans have used these same power structures to assert authority over other humans. For example, the unreasoned fear of wolves is akin to the Islamophobia that has been a blight on American politics since 9/11. While the 2016 RNC displayed the fear mongering that instills the populace with an unreasoned fear of Muslims, the facts tell a different story. For instance, while police are celebrated as heroes in America, they actually kill more innocent people in America each year than do Muslim terrorists. Consequently, Americans are more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist. Moreover, just as toddlers kill more people in America than wolves, crocodiles, and sharks combined, so to do toddlers kill more people in America each year than do terrorists! Still, Republican leaders like Newton ‘Newt’ Gingrich are openly willing to ignore the facts in favour of feelings that are dictated by wilfully misinformed and intentionally deceitful rhetoric, promoting a fear that is no different than the unreasoned fear of wolves that children’s fairy tales have endowed society with. Moreover, just as bounties have been put on animals like wolves, so too have bounties been put on Muslims, and though such bounties are reserved for people who have been confirmed to be involved in terrorist activities, there should be concern that the government has sanctioned the death of a person in exchange for money without due process.
There is yet another interesting parallel to be found: just as humans demonize and vilify relatively peaceful animals who only strike out against humans when humans first strike out against them, so to certain groups of humans demonize and vilify others relatively peaceful groups who only engage in violence when provoked. The bull in a bullfight, for example, is framed as a wild beast, though he is only responding to the violence that is thrust upon him. Likewise, great white sharks and tigers who attack humans only do so when humans act as the aggressor by disrupting their ecosystems. This is similar to the ways in which the Western media has vilified a variety of groups. The Vietnamese, for example, were led by Ho Chi Minh as they sought self-governance only to find themselves framed as the villain by America during the Vietnam War. American soldiers in Vietnam were not fighting to protect their home: they were fighting people who were protecting theirs. Yet America, who had no practical reason for denying the Vietnamese are fair election, stunted the democratic process and initiated a war predicated on a lie, eventually killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, none of who had ever attack American soil. Yet, it was the Vietnamese who were framed are barbarians when they were only defending themselves against colonizing aggressors. The same could be said of Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East, many of who were established in response to American military actions, starting in the 1980’s with both the Iran Contra Affair, as well as the Soviet-Afghan War, and leading to the War in Afghanistan (carried out in response to the 9/11 attacks despite the fact the country had nothing to do with the attacks), and the War in Iraq (carried out to protect America from weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist). In both instances, America was the aggression, killing over 150,000 people. Though one cannot justify acts of terror on the part of Islamic fundamentalists, it is unfair to frame only these people as terrorist when the America government and military were complicit in countless war crimes, including torture, prisoner abuse, and the rape and murder of young girls and their families. However, just as humans overlook the cruelty they carry out against animals while demonizing predators, so to do humans overlook their own thirst for blood when vilifying the enemies they create with their own acts of aggression. When looking at the ways in which Masson frames the nomenclature humans have created to assert their moral superiority over animals, it becomes clear that the structure is akin to the nomenclature created by colonizing forces when trying to justify their own morality. In this way, Masson establishes the foundation for ecocolonial theory.
WALLS OF NEEDLESS ESTRANGEMENT
This ecocolonial perspective is supported by Masson, who argues that the systems of oppression that exploit humans did not arise until after advent of agriculture, and worked in concert with constructed divisions. Masson states that “along with the advent of agriculture came social inequality, sexual inequality, and diseases unknown before, as well as the despotism of cruel leaders” (45), and that agriculture gave “humans far too much room to exercise cruelty” (46). Though some might think the jump from the cruelty of factory farming to societal despotism is a reach, Masson refers to a widely accepted example: “Children who torture pets are more likely to grow up to harm other humans” (48). It is a widely known fact that children who torture animals are more likely to grow up to be serial killers, or at the very least, develop sociopathic and unhealthy social behaviours, but this has a broader application. The most obvious instance is the institution of slavery. In the Americas, the enslaved peoples of Africa would be sold and inspected like cattle on the auction block, and then forced to do the same work as the beasts of burden. Because humanity saw the enslavement of animals as justified because animals were an ‘other’, all one needed to do to justify the enslavement of a human was to frame them as an ‘other’. So the advent of ‘race’, a fallacy that still holds to this day. The parallels becomes tragically obvious when we look at the nomenclature used in the Antebellum south, as the children of Africa were referred to as ‘donkeys’ or ‘monkeys’, or any host of names associated with brutes. There is a military application for this as well as soldiers are often taught to dehumanize the ‘enemy’, just as animals in a pen or factory farm are dehumanized. In Vietnam, this led to soldiers seeing combatants as ‘gooks’, and not humans, which in turn lead to violent, cruel, and inhumane practices These acts included soldiers collecting ears and decapitating dead enemies, as detailed in Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and the destruction of entire villages, as happened in My Lai. Just as animals are established as some ‘other’ and devalued, so too are humans. The process of dehumanization and the inhumane treatment that follows is foreshadowed in humanity’s relationship with Nature, and just as the child who tortures animals is more likely to grow up to be a serial killer, so too is the society that tortures animals more likely to develop into one that validates and rationalizes oppression.
This inhumane treatment only occurs when a division is established between two or more groups, and as Masson notes, once humans learned to exert authority over nature, they created divisions among each other and then applied these lessons of exploitation to their fellow humans. For example, Masson observes that “many people around the world… had hardly any awareness of ethnic differences in the former Yugoslavia: all who lived there were Yugoslavs. Yet ancient hatreds still simmered after hundreds of years” (18). These walls of needless estrangement, were related to the death of Serbian leader Stefan Lazar at the hands of Kosovars in the 14th century. Though the peoples of Yugoslavia were all seen as one by the rest of the world, and though no discernable difference could be delineated visibly, throughout the country many of those who identified as Serbian and those who identified as Croatian saw each other as adversaries. The constructed divisions framed each group as the ‘other’, and once this arbitrary difference was accepted as fact, it allowed each group to dehumanize the other. This, of course, led to some of the most horrific war crimes in recent memory. This is the same pattern of behaviour that occurred with respect to animals. Once animals were deemed as food or free labour, they were treated as something none-living, leading the inhumane treatments seen at factory farms. This pattern has been seen throughout human history, whether it be the treatment of the enslaved peoples of African living in the Americas, as mentioned, the First Nations people of Australia, New Zealand and the Americas, the Jewish people and Gypsies of Europe during WWII, or the peoples of colonized nations like India, South Africa, and Vietnam. This pattern, first established with the natural realm, foretold the ways in which humans would colonize one another.
Just as humanity’s treatment of the natural realm established the template of oppression that has plagued humanity, Nature itself serves to challenge the false divisions created by humanity. Masson demonstrates this with an anecdote shared by Emmanuel Levinas, who spent a significant portion of WWII as a POW. While in a POW camp, Levinas noted that a dog visited him and other POWs as often as he might the German soldiers. For the dog, as Levinas notes, “there was no doubt that [the POWs] were men”, causing him to conclude that “This dog was the last Kantian in Nazi Germany.” The dog, unlike the German soldiers, knew “these men were simply men—not Jewish men, or prisoner men, just men” (as qtd in Masson 20). In this instance, Masson highlights how an element form the natural realm, a dog, can easily cut through the fallacy of the divisions humanity has created to divide itself. In this way, an ecocolonial reading highlights how exploring humanity’s relationship with Nature highlights the structure of oppression, while examining how Nature interacts with humanity deconstructs humanity’s fallacious walls of estrangement.
While Nature transcends the barriers that humanity constructs, humanity works to undo its claim to supremacy through its actions. Though humans may boast about accomplishments that are uniquely human, Masson observes some of the more barbarous traits that are uniquely human. One of the most obvious, as discussed, is the fact that “Only we create artificial and arbitrary distinctions—different race; different language; different religion—for which we are willing to kill and die” (3). This means, as Masson states, that “No other animal is burdened with such misinformation, prejudices, and clichés of their culture”, concluding that it is “Odd to think that swans know more about equality than Darwin” (82). These divisions breed behaviours that can only, and with significant irony, be described as inhumane. Torture, for instance, “is completely absent from all animal societies” (38), and yet something that the only ‘rational’ creature on the plan has a rationale to defend. War is likewise a uniquely human phenomenon, as is genocide, which sharply contrasts the behaviour of elephants, who “wander about almost invariably peaceful in their encounters with one another and even with other animals, whereas we are constantly faced with moral choices for which we seem ill equipped” (141). While the macro view of humanity is disheartening to say the least, the micro scale is not much better. Masson notes that “Violence against women, domestic violence, and stalking that is based on rejection… are terms that can be applied only to human families” (38). Though gorillas are seen as violent creatures, “No one has ever seen a silverback or an adult female hit a young gorilla in anger” (138-9). The same, tragically, cannot be said of the human species. Likewise, “animals rarely rape, and when they do, it has to do with reproduction, not random viciousness” (54), and child sexual abuse, which “is often about violence [and] even murder” cannot be found among the animal kingdom with any kind of significant regularity: it is only human children who have “been raped and murdered by” their own parents. As Masson poignantly notes, he is “unaware of any similar behaviour in any animal species” (55). Each of these behaviours challenge the anthropocentric view that humans are superior to animals and highlight humanity’s failings.
It is an eco-existentialist interpretation that further highlights the disparity between the sins of the human species and other animals on the planet. One of the core elements of existentialist theory is the notion of choice. Only when choice is present can one truly define one’s identity. It is true that there are predacious animals that kill; however, these animals have no choice in the matter. As the title character of E. B. White’s famous children’s novel Charlotte’s Web notes, though she, as a spider, does eat flies, she does so only because that is the ways she’s made (White 39). While humans, as Masson suggests, cheer when they see a video of herd of buffalos fighting off a predacious lion, such lions “are simply sitting down to a mean” (40), and they have no choice as to their diet: they eat what they are born to eat. The hypocrisy is that humans may cheer for the buffalo, but then sit down and have a cut of veal for dinner, and the baby calves from which the veal is made, “are removed from their mother at birth and then slaughtered after several months of living in a small crate tethered to the front of a stall so that virtually all movement is restricted” (40). Which is more inhumane: a lion chasing down a buffalo, or a human imprisoning a baby calve for the entirety of its brief life before killing it? What makes this worse is that humans have a choice. On the difference between people and animals, Masson notes that humans who eat meat “make a choice about [their] diet that [animals] cannot” (13), and that “One might argue that animals have no choice [because] they behave according to instinct.” While animals “don’t make a rational choice about what they will eat or whom they will fight… [humans] do have choices” (24). Though some might plead ignorance to the barbarity of factory farming, “choice always means we can know what we are doing, even if we choose not to know or to ignore what we know in our hearts” (40). Thus, even those who might plead ignorance are still making a choice, as argued by Kate Cooper in her etalk titled ‘The Secrets of Food Marketing’. It is because humans have a choice, and because they know the suffering that they inflict, that they are more culpable for their crimes than are animals. A lion kills a zebra because if they don’t they will die; humans torture baby calves because they prefer the taste of veal to the multiplicity of vegetables that can provide protein.
EMPATHY IN ANIMALS
Though humans can lay exclusive claim to the most barbarous of human behaviour, they cannot do the same with respect to the qualities they prize most, especially with respect to empathy. Masson highlights any number of examples of such empathy. Among crocodiles for instance, which are generally regarded as cold-blooded killers, there is strong empath. When “a young crocodile… utters a distress call”, for example, it “will attract immediate help from completely unrelated adult crocodiles, even if it means risking their lives.” Masson concludes that “If we find this altruistic behavior surprising, it is merely an indication of how reluctant some humans are to recognize the intimate lives of this and other species” (15). Likewise, among buffalo, if “The herd hears [the] distress calls [of a calf]… all the animals stop… and head… back toward the struggling calf”. Masson concludes that the buffalo “obviously care deeply about their calves” (39). Even in the sea animals display empathy. When, for example, a BC ferry near Powell River injured a young Killer Whale, its parents tried to keep him from turning over, which would have cause him to drown. The boat received a report fifteen days later “from a resident of Powell River, who… observed ‘two whales supporting a third one, preventing it from turning over’” (42). Just as humans care for their young and display sacrificial behaviour, so to do animals. This empathy even extends to other species in some instances. For instance, when a matriarchal elephant injured a rancher’s leg, she used her trunk to pull him over to a tree and stood by to protect him (124). Humanity, despite its anthropocentric views to the contrary, does not hold a monopoly on empathy.
Indeed, empathy in Nature can sometimes exceed that seen in humans, and extends beyond individual cases to the macro level. Among buffalo, empathy is embedded in a social structure that might fairly be defined as socialism. As Masson points out, “The buffalo herd exists to protect its smaller and weaker members, and the bulls protect the herd. It is such an effective defensive unit that cows who are blind, calves who are lame, and even three-legged bulls who can no longer defend themselves continue to thrive within the herd” (68). This is the ultimate in ecocolonialism as the animals are able to achieve a political system that even the most advance and plentiful human civilization are unable to achieve, undermining the colonial hierarchies that define the West. These hierarchies have led to a wealth gap in ‘developed’ countries like America, who though wealthy, have more empty homes than homeless people and see impoverished people starving while food get thrown in the garbage. Even the buffalo can arrange a system where the sick are cared for and the weak have food. This is a template offered by Nature where animals display a greater degree of self-sacrifice than do humans. This has been seen among gorillas as well as “Scientists studying them… discovered that when gorillas grow too old to look after themselves, other gorillas provide them with care” (138). However, while gorillas have enough empathy to take care of their elders, 25 million Americans aged 60 or more in are economically insecure. Moreover, while buffalos and gorillas takes care of their ill, America continues to promote the concept of individualism and use it as a rationalization as to why millions go without healthcare. It seems that Nature has offered a template as to how humanity can solve its social crises.
HUMANITY’S IMPACT ON NATURE’S BEHAVIOUR
There are instances of brutality in Nature that rival that of humanity, but as Masson argues, this often occurs when humans interfere with Nature. For example, “cockfighting is an entirely human construct. The roosters are fitted out with spurs, razor sharp dagger-like steel blades” (66-7) and “hot pepper is put into the anus of the rooster to drive him mad” (68). When these roosters fight to the death, it is only because humans compelled them to. Likewise, in instances where whales stranded themselves on dry land en masse, it was found that they did so because “sonar noise… from large military ships in the ocean” caused “their delicate sonar system to jam” (30). In 2000 alone, four different species of whales “stranded themselves on beaches in the Bahamas. A government investigation revealed that a U.S. Navy battle group’s use of sonar in the area was at fault. Bleeding in their ears was present often and is similar to decompression sickness” (31). There are any number of such instances: ants that act as genocidal colonizers because “an alien species of ant was introduced by humans” (64); a tiger eating people because it “has been compelled through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet that is alien to it (74); and polar bears resorting to cannibalism to survive because “the seasons are now ice-free much longer” and bears are consequently “unable to move about freely” and can therefore not “find enough to eat” (158). Each actions is the direct result of human interference, and so, the most brutal acts that occur in Nature are due to human interference. Thus, as Masson suggests, “any example of a wild animal behaving in a mysterious fashion, from elephant rape to honeybee colony collapse disorder, can be traced back to the trauma that humans create by interfering in the animals’ normal habitat” (29).
Masson’s Beasts outlines the structure for ecocolonial theory by illustrating the ways in which humanity’s exploitation of Nature created the foundation for the arbitrary divisions that have led to the exploitation and oppression of people. Masson illustrates how misleading ecological metaphors erroneously reinforce humanity’s anthropocentric views regarding Nature and validate an unreasoned fear of Nature. He also underscores the way humanity’s relationship with Nature has created arbitrary and self-defeating divisions, not only between humans and the natural realm, but among humans as well. Such divisions have permitted the rationalization of many of humanity’s grimmest and most tragic practices, from torture, to war, to genocide. While humanity may boast of those accomplishments that distinguish humanity from the rest of the world, it is humanity’s sins that make it stand out the most, and as Masson demonstrates, it is Nature that ironically offers the most ‘humane’ template for social structures. Masson’s observations come across as insightful, but ultimately, it is a tragedy that observations that should be common sense read like novel concepts that could inspire a paradigm shift in the way humanity interacts with Nature. It seems as though nobody was listening when Mark Twain observed that man in the cruelest animal; hopefully people will pick up on this argument soon.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil. New York: Bloomdsbury. 2014.
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper Collins. 1952. Print.