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A catechism of Nature (1): Reason and the destiny of animal life

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. —Genesis 2:19

One of the joys of spending time in the wilderness as a Christian is the acquaintance one makes over time with fellow creatures in the animal kingdom. I have spent many happy days observing wildlife, from shorebirds and waterfowl in south Texas, to baboons and predators and ungulates in the African veld, to flying fish and eclectus parrots in the South Pacific. This observation has been the occasion for some thought on the nature of animality against the backdrop of Christian faith.

Among the truths that obtrude most forcefully on the consciousness of the observer of wildlife is the gulf that separates the observer from the observed, our kinship on the scale of being, under another aspect, notwithstanding. There is an arresting and graphic passage in The Tree Where Man was Born (1972) by Peter Matthiessen, about a pack of wild dogs killing and eating a zebra foal on the plains of east Africa. The most remarkable and counterintuitive facet of the scene is the impassivity of the foal’s mother. It’s a conspicuous warning to mind the metaphysical gap, upsetting our easy proclivity for anthropomorphism:

Once more the mare rushed at the dogs, and once again, but already she seemed resigned to what was happening, and did not follow up her own attacks. … Between her legs, her foal was being eaten alive, and mercifully, she did nothing. … Unmarked, the mare turned and walked away. … Flanks pressed together, ears alert, her band awaited her; nearby, other zebra clans were grazing. Soon the foal’s family, carrying the mare with it, moved away, snatching at the grass as they ambled westward.

I once witnessed a similar scene, only with lions and impala, and in the lowveld far to the south of the Serengeti plains. Animals do have a kind of dignity of their own. But it is their own, further down the scale of being from us and over the horizon of rationality. While it is not the same as ours, it seems necessary to say that the dignity of animals is no less real for its differences. Goodness is all of a kind and flows from a common source. Bonum est diffusivum sui.

St. Ambrose of Milan noted that “there are three things which united together conduce to the salvation of man: the Sacrament, the Wilderness, Fasting” (Catena Aurea on Luke 4). The first and the last of these three conduits of salvation come naturally into sharper relief during Lent. But the middle term, the Wilderness, is seldom considered other than as an abstraction connoting the sort of quiet and solitude one may find in one’s own room with the door shut (Matt. 6:6).

But Jesus and his first disciples appear to have taken the wilderness more literally, spending time in wild places to cultivate communion with the Creator, not least, one may surmise, by beholding his works unmediated. One thinks of the 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, how the Gospels show him regularly seeking out lonely places (Luke 4:42), or how Paul withdrew for a time into the vastness of Arabia after his conversion (Gal.1:17). One thinks too of the withdrawal of Christians into the wildernesses of upper Egypt and Cappadocia and such places during the fourth century, at the foundation of Christian monasticism.

Every dog owner will know that animals have an emotional life. But their emotions, like their dignity, are their own; they are not man’s. In That Hideous Strength (1945), C.S. Lewis described a tame bear’s experience of what, in ourselves, we call appetitive desire.

The appetencies which a human mind might disdain as cupboard loves were for him quivering and ecstatic aspirations which absorbed his whole being, infinite yearnings, stabbed with the threat of tragedy and shot through with the colours of Paradise.

Last week as I was taking my dog, Jeb, for his afternoon walk, I ordered him to heel, as he had trotted too far in front and we were approaching an intersection. I normally give that command when I am standing still, and wait for him to come to heel before moving on. But last week I said it as I continued walking, and Jeb looked at me as though I had two heads. We have gotten to know one another pretty well over the years, and I recognized his confusion and therefore stopped and told him again to heel. He obediently pranced over and took his wonted place on my left. As we walked on I amused myself, pointlessly explaining the situation to him:

I know my movement confused you, but you can heel even when we’re both moving. Movement is one of the excellences we share. In a way, you’re even better at it than I am. Which brings me to another point. Its not that you lack excellence altogether, it’s just that my excellences are of a more excellent kind than yours. But some of yours, considered in themselves, even excel mine. You’re much faster than me, for example.

Jeb glanced up at me. By now he can tell, presumably by the tone of my voice, when I am in a philosophical mood, and he knows to ignore it until I say the word okay, and he is at liberty to pursue his main interests: wrestling, careering about, and squirrels.

Man is the only animal in a position really to understand and care about the pasts and futures of things — including himself, other animals, and nature at the larger scale — or to recognize that existences have an orientation, what Aristotle called a telos or “final cause.” I once saw an entire hillside cleared of marula trees by a herd of elephants. The elephants would push over a tree, eat a few leaves from the upper branches, then push over another tree and repeat the process. Since a single elephant can eat upwards of six hundred pounds of vegetation every day, it’s easy to see the problem, the incompatibility of such behavior with the ends of various existences, including, ultimately, those of the elephants themselves. It’s also easy to see why a Tanzanian cassava farmer might feel differently about elephants than a Dupont Circle liberal.

Just so, it is a matter of complete indifference to a tarpon how his presence or absence might impact the ecosphere or economy of the Texas gulf coast. Like the elephant, he simply goes where there’s an abundance of the sorts of things he likes to eat. No more food, no more tarpon. And in this respect he is no different from his food. The tarpon eats the mullet, the mullet eats the shrimp, the shrimp eats the plankton; and if an industrial plant has killed off the plankton from the seawater of a particular area, the effects ripple up the food chain and thence back into the human economy.

In the early 1990s the cod fishery along Canada’s Atlantic coast disappeared almost overnight due to overfishing. The ecosystem was pushed beyond what it could bear, and the fishery simply and suddenly collapsed. There were no fish left. In 1992 the fishery was closed for good, and the cod population has never recovered. Neither the cod nor their prey nor the ocean itself cared a whit about the collapse. But tens of thousands of people in hundreds of coastal communities suddenly found themselves unemployed, and a way of life centuries in the making came to an end.

God said to Noah and his sons, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” (Gen. 9:1-3)

With great power comes great responsibility. Our reason enables us to approach the boundaries of its own capacity and gesture beyond it, toward eternity. Here lies the mystery of our status as priests and kings of creation. Reason, the thing that separates us from brute beasts, does not liberate us from animality, but it liberates animality itself, for the actualization of a potential that cannot be actualized without reason. Cod do not fall into a depression when they run up against the limits of their codness; they accept it without wonder. And people who see our own species as the chief obstacle to conservation are only half right. Man is at once the chief obstacle and the only possible solution.

Other posts by Will Brown are here. The featured image of a cape buffalo bull was taken by the author in Limpopo Province, South Africa (2015).


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