From Altamira to Anthropomorphism
In the beginning, our lives were totally immersed in the world of animals. In the beginning, in fact, we were animals, in the colloquial as well as the technical sense of that word. Our Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon ancestors relied on birds and beasts for food and clothing; they went to the mat one-on-one with tigers and bison and bears, and they took heavy casualties. We were an integral part of a world that was "red in tooth and claw." Surely it is no coincidence that our oldest surviving visual art?the cave paintings at Altamira, Lascaux, and other sites in southern Europe?depict cattle, horses, bison, and deer as objects of hunting and veneration. Animals predominate; there are very few human figures in any of this work. Then there is the idea that our earliest music might have been created in response to the myriad sounds of the natural world. After all, those were the only sounds we heard: There weren't any jets, jackhammers, or jukeboxes around, but there were songbirds in profusion. No wonder Orpheus, the beguiling musician of Greek mythology, could mesmerize a rapt menagerie of wild beasts, who responded to every note of his lyre.
While the very earliest Paleolithic art is dated about thirty thousand years ago, the famous work in southern Europe is dated about 10,000 b.c. Anthropologists believe that those highly artful ancestors were still exclusively hunters and gatherers, but this economic and cultural restriction would soon be overcome. At just about the time the Solutreo-Magdalenian artists were producing their greatest "canvases" at Altamira, the peoples of Mesopotamia and the Middle East were beginning to domesticate mammals. In the long story of our relationship with animals and our still-evolving understanding of the animal mind, domestication marked the beginning of the estrangement that is still with us today. It was a watershed of incalculable importance, as proved by the fact that it was incorporated into all the creation stories of the time.
The first chapter of Genesis says:
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he them; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
The subsequent thirtieth verse of that chapter reads: "And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth on the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so." Some commentators believe that this verse implies that the Garden of Eden before the Fall was a vegetarian society. I diplomatically take no position on this provocative notion, but there can be no doubt about the disposition of the earth's resources following the Flood:
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hands are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.
In short, God gives mankind dominion over all that lives on this earth and He makes it clear that eating meat is condoned. Various passages throughout the Old Testament prescribe respectful treatment for domesticated and wild animals, and the same holds for Judaic Law, but the essential message of the Pentateuch and the legacy of the Old Testament are clear enough: Animals were created, or designated, for our needs. Nowhere in the New Testament is this message challenged. In Matthew 6:26, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, in the verses that precede the beautiful "lilies of the field" image, "Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?" In his first Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul reiterates this theme when he writes, "For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain." Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt. And writing 350 years later, St. Augustine cites Jesus' withering of the apple tree that had failed to bear fruit, and his sending of the devils into the herd of swine, as proof that the natural world is not subject to the concepts of morality that should govern our dealings with other men and women. The natural world is our rightful domain.
Nor could this relationship between man and animal be otherwise in the West, because it flows necessarily from our having been created by God in His image. If humans are kindred to God, aren't we therefore fundamentally different from every animal? As God has dominion over us, so must we have dominion over them. It is logical, and it is written. (And thus, by the way, the adamant prohibition against bestiality in Western culture. Unlike incest, also the subject of strictest censure, bestiality is an act without bad reproductive consequences, so to speak, but it does lower the status of man by moving him away from God and toward the fallen world. It is the gravest insult to the Creator, and thus it is not tolerated.)
I should mention that I was raised a Methodist in Georgia. I recall these biblical passages not in order to challenge the Christian faith in any way but simply to underline the heritage of our culture regarding the nature and status of animals. Besides, our other major cultural influence, the philosophical tradition originating in ancient Greece, was also adamant about the status of animals. Some Greek philosophers did hypothesize something very like a "mind" for wild beasts, but Aristotle was the most important of the philosophers in this field, and for Aristotle man was the only creature possessed of reason, consciousness, and a soul. According to the indispensable Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour, the great thinker discussed, to one degree or another, 540 different species of animals in his writings. He was the first great naturalist, and his ideas about the natural world were the most important from any source for fully fifteen hundred years. As we shall see, Aristotle had some modern-sounding ideas on this subject, but he could also be amazingly uninformed and naive. He apparently accepted at face value the fable that the mother bear literally licks her progeny into the proper bearlike shape. Certainly the philosopher who rationalized human slavery had no illusions about any concept of "animal rights" as entertained by many of us over two millennia later.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Inside the Animal Mind by George Page. Copyright © 2001 by George Page. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.