February 2008

Barbara J. King


Animals, Souls, and the War between Anthropology and Evolutionary Psychology

In as many hours each week as can be thieved from teaching, college-committee service, and editing an academic journal, I’m writing another book. Its theme is an evolutionary perspective on animal-human relating; I want to tell the story of how we Homo sapiens co-create, and since the dawn of our time have co-created, our lives in interaction with other animals.

Thursday is “sacred writing day,” the sole sure thing in a week, the glorious immersion that comes with devoting all my daylight hours to writing. Each Thursday, I glide into a focused trance where the universe inverts so that the only things that matter are the ideas in my head. My goals are to sift the ideas with wings from the ones without, and then to stuff my sentences with winged ideas.    

Later on, New York agent and New York editor will weigh in. They will take my words between their teeth, thrash them around, spit some out and transform others. Later still, copyeditors and even marketers will have their say. But for now, it’s just me, my books, and a lazing cat or two in my study.

Best of all is following an idea into a black hole of spin-off thoughts and maybe-connections. There, it either spasms into early death, or acts as magnet and pulls other ideas into a cluster worth exploring. Recently I’ve been fiddling around with the history of religious thought on whether animals have souls. This particular minefield -- so many religious traditions, so many time periods, what is a soul anyway? -- was sparked in part by an article in Best Friends Magazine and in part by Gary Kowalski’s book The Souls of Animals.
Animals, writes Kowalski, “are living souls. They are not things. They are not objects. Neither are they human. Yet they mourn. They love. They dance. They suffer. They know the peaks and chasms of being.” Kowalski is a Unitarian minister and the book is not as secular as that quote may imply. He continues: “In a wonderful and inexpressible way, therefore, God is present in all creatures.”

But wait. Might we look at animal souls outside of God-presence? Is there such a thing as a secular soul? Animals do, I am convinced, mourn and love and dance and suffer -- but does this happen through God? Anyway, why stop at animals? The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us we can find life in a mineral as well as in a dog: the continuum of sentient and non-sentient life extends that far.

My Thursday-mind reels. My writer’s job is to weave stories of animal-human relating, for this new book, into an evolutionary framework. In trying to do this, I stumble back upon Martin Buber. I’ve loved Buber’s I-Thou writings for years. Buber’s “In the beginning was the relation” makes an ideal starting place for explaining that my anthropology strives to understand how humans around the world make meaning in relation with other humans and other animals, and so create ourselves in the process.

The Kowalski book coaxed me toward a biography by Maurice Friedman of Buber’s early years. Through Friedman, readers see how Martin’s life as a boy enables the later life of a religious scholar. As a child, for instance, Martin thrived on moments alone with a horse. He felt the horse’s life beneath his own hand, and felt himself a “fellow conspirator” with the creature.

This connection between Martin and the horse emerged in part from something quiet and open in the boy, a something that in turn had emerged from the relating going on around him. Friedman writes that when Martin’s father, Carl Buber, “stood in the midst of the splendid herd of horses, he greeted one animal after the other, not merely in a friendly fashion but each one individually. When he drove through the ripening fields, he would halt the wagon, descend, and bend over the ears of corn again and again, finally breaking one and carefully tasting the kernels… Carl Buber anticipated one of the most fundamental aspects of his son’s later thoughts: that the man who practices immediacy does so in relation to nature just as much as to his fellowman… the ‘I-Thou’ relation to nature is a corollary of the ‘interhuman’."

I would say rather than anticipating Martin’s later view, Carl helped grow it. All this -- how we relate with our children, how we relate with animals, how we each build our life moment by moment as we make meaning with others -- wants to flower in my writing. I try to let it. Powering my words-on-the-page is a belief that we humans create ourselves through shared emotion with each other and with other creatures, and as a result, are far less shackled by the forces of biology -- genes and ancient-built brain pathways -- than much of current popular science insists.

One recent Thursday, after hours of this sort of thing, I settled down with a novel, to leave tangled thoughts behind and try on a fictional world for size. But look what happened. The book I chose had earned double Bookslut treatment (review and author interview). Ron Currie, Jr.’s God is Dead is a book with an edge, a dark bloody edge, written by a fresh, cerebral voice that leaves you awake and staring at the ceiling late at night.

In one subplot, Currie sends anthropologists to do battle (real battle, not an exchange of academic slings and slurs) with evolutionary psychologists. OK, these particular anthropologists, post-modern as they are, are not my own tribe. Still, I’m stunned into pleasure: the sweep of my little Thursday world, how we humans think about an elemental nature and our evolution as a species and our capacity for change now and forevermore, appears right there on the page, alongside God dying in the Sudan. Currie doesn’t explain why he chooses these particular opponents, he just does, and it works.

We anthropologists, many but by no means all of us, read gene-and-brain reductionists, then lock and load (on the page, in the lecture hall, in the classroom). Maybe our fate will prove more satisfying than what Currie allows in his book. As for my piece of it, more writing Thursdays await -- and there’s always the promise of freedom-heavy summer days.

-- Barbara J. King, who works with the Animal Resource Foundation, is totally psyched about their new spay-neuter animal clinic coming to Gloucester, Virginia. Please see http://www.arfva.org/donate.htm