Monday, January 23, 2012

The Others

Paul Shepard (1925-1996) was an original thinker who could soar far from the realm of mainstream thinking and view modern society from a perspective that saw the Pleistocene as the zenith of the human journey, and the high-water mark for the health of life on Earth.  Many professors can’t do this.
Why were we furiously destroying the planet?  Why was our society a crazy freak show?  The Myth of Progress had no sensible answers.  Shepard’s unconventional viewpoint actually provided a rational, but uncomfortable, explanation.  He documented his thinking in a series of books.  The Others: How Animals Made Us Human explored the many ways in which our development was influenced by evolving in a wild ecosystem, and how our growing isolation from wildness was harming us. 
Animals taught us hunting skills like tracking, stalking, and ambush.  They taught us how to sing and dance.  We wore their skins and feathers, and made tools with their bones and horns.  We ate them, and they ate us.  They were central archetypes in our spiritual world.  Our mental powers were largely shaped by paying intense attention to wild animals — their sounds, smells, colors, footprints, droppings.  Hunting made us the highly intelligent beings that we are.  We can’t be fully human if we do not live in wildness. 
The domestication of plants and animals dealt a devastating blow to the ancient harmony, and things have been going downhill ever since.  As the tamed world expanded, the wild world diminished, and the human world drifted farther from health and wholeness.  Hundreds of millions of children now have almost no contact with wildness, or even livestock.  When observing a herd of wild deer grazing in a park, they quickly become bored, and return to their electronic gadgets.
Wild people lived in a realm rich with spiritual beauty and mystery, and they spent their entire lives in paradise.  Tamed people created new religions that focused on salvation and escape.  Death was the ticket to heaven.  Creation was no longer sacred.  Animals became demons, machines without souls.  The world became a filthy and horrid realm of evil.  Tamed people perceived humans to be above and apart from all other life on Earth.  They devoted their lives to destroying forests, wildlife, fisheries, and soils.  They became masters of warfare, enslavement, and exploitation.
Shepard confessed to having been a dog owner, and he wrote almost two sentences about the positive qualities of dogs.  But more than 100 pages were devoted to explaining the negative aspects of dogs and other domesticated animals — they were deficient animals, monsters, biological slaves, and so on.
Evolution was a slow motion game.  Normally, if lions gradually became two percent faster, then gazelles would also become two percent faster.  Ecosystems collapse if predators can easily kill anything, or if prey can escape from any attack.  Shepard came to the surprising conclusion that the domestication of dogs was the crucial turning point: “The history of ecological catastrophe begins with the hound.” 
“Wolves didn’t decide to become dogs and don’t want to be dogs.”  In the early days, wild humans and wild wolves hunted together as informal partners.  Their cooperation benefitted both, so it became a habit.  Then the habit deteriorated into a master and slave relationship.  With this new alliance, the predator team suddenly made a big strategic advance, unsettling the ancient equilibrium with the prey team.  Since then, the disequilibrium has been snowballing, leading to our era of mass extinctions.
The domestication of dogs taught humans a dark lesson.  By utilizing confinement and coercion, wild animals could be transformed into dim, neurotic, submissive slaves.  By and by, we eventually proceeded to domesticate a number of other species.
Huge, powerful, and intelligent wild aurochs were domesticated into fat, stupid cattle.  Shepard had no compliments: “If the auroch was the most magnificent animal in the lives of our Pleistocene ancestors, in captivity it became the most destructive creature of all.”  “More than axe or fire, cattle-keeping is the means by which people have broken natural climaxes, converted forest into coarse herbage, denuded the slopes, and turned grasslands into sand.”
Shepard was especially horrified by the taming of horses.  The trio of horses, humans, and hounds turned into a powerful killing team, greatly increasing the effectiveness of hunting.  They also revolutionized warfare, enabled the creation of sprawling empires, and fueled sizzling growth in the casket making and grave digging sectors.  Horses stimulated big advances in soil mining.  They helped farmers eliminate forests, expand cropland, and feed an exploding population.  Thus, enslaved horses and dogs “became weapons against the earth.”
Throughout most of history, dogs have not enjoyed a good reputation.  “Over most of the planet the dog is a cur and mongrel scavenger, feral, half-starved, the target of the kick and thrown rock, often cruelly exploited as a slave.”  But the Industrial Revolution expanded the middle class, which took great interest in keeping pets as status symbols.  Disney has done much to alter our perception of animals by presenting them in an infantilized and humanized form — living toys.  In recent decades, pets have become a huge and profitable industry.  High priced four-legged fashion accessories are the latest thing.  When we bring animals into our world, we destroy them.
Shepard was disgusted by ever-growing cruelty to animals, but he had little respect for the animal rights movement.  It would be wiser to aim higher and focus on ecosystem rights.  “The ridiculous code of medicine that prolongs human life at any cost and advocates death control without birth control has damaged life on earth far more than all the fox hunters and cosmetic laboratories could ever do — perhaps beyond recovery — and leads us toward disasters that loom like monsters from hell.”
He believed that humans have not yet been domesticated, because our genes are nearly identical to the genes of our wild Pleistocene ancestors.  Thus, the genes that enabled our grand adventure in tool-making and world domination were forged by hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and gathering.  Imagine what humans might become if we were able to spend the next 200,000 years sitting indoors on couches, engorging on calorie-dense food-like substances, suffering from anxiety and depression, whilst feasting on entertainment services.

Paul Shepard, The Others — How Animals Made Us Human, Island Press, Washington, 1996.

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