The aesthetics of animals

The relationship of humans to animals has always been ambiguous.  Our ecology is of course absolutely dependent on them, and has been since our species emerged, and probably before (both chimpanzees and bonobos hunt mammals on occasion). Early human hunters may well have been endurance hunters: not fast, but running for several hours after four-legged prey until the prey collapses with exhaustion and can be easily dispatched.  
Kodiak bear hunter...

At some point in the midde-late Mesolithic, animals started to be domesticated, with the dog perhaps being the earliest, followed by sheep, goats, cows and so on.  Jared Diamond has listed various characteristics that animals "need" in order to be successfully domesticated, including ability to breed under domestication, more or less lacid behaviour, flexible diet etc: indeed he suggests that successful civilizations were partly built on the availability of domesticatible animals.  Girard, on the other hand makes the provocative suggestion that animals were first kept for sacrifice purposes (see posts below) and only become useful in other ways after selective breeding (dogs were indeed early sacrifices as well as sheep).  Based on Girard's theories of sacrifice, it might be interesting to look at the relationship between domestication and levels of violence (which do indeed tend to be higher in hunter-gather tribes as opposed to agrarian ones).
Whatever the origins of domestication, the relationship of human societies to their animals sometimes far transcends mere utility.  Some African cattle-herding tribes (such as the Nuer and Dinka) have such a close and intense relationship to their cows that symbiosis might be more appropriate to describe the connection.  And in modern times, the rise of the environmental movement has made care for the animal (and plant) world a touchstone of popular morality.  Indeed, even Kant, who did not view animal life very favourably (his philosophy is centred strongly on ration beings, a status he denied to animals) saw this very clearly:  "He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.  We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals".  Ed Wilson has elevated this idea into an evolutionary exploration of human instinctive inclination towards nature, in "Biophilia".
From pet guinea pigs, spiders and snakes through to cattle, whales and polar bears, humans can thus expend huge amounts of effort time and money caring for animals (and indeed plants) that are of no obvious "use".  Why so?  Perhaps Wilson has an important point, although care for animals hardly seems to have a perfect record in early human history: the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, although perhaps partly climate controlled, is surely not entirely divorced from human interference.  
In his remarkable Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense, W. H. Vanstone describes the curatorial aspect of biological science, with naturalists often expending huge effort to document and care for microenvironments such as a single tree, and compares it to certain religious phenomena.  When pressed, many people I think at first rationalise care for the environment as prudence, looking after the interests of future humans, the possibility of extracting new drugs from as yet unknown plants and so on.  But I think these rationalisations dance around the central issue, the clue to which is given by the very "uselessness" of the endeavour.  The other activities that are essentially useless but we invest huge time and effort in are aesthetic, and I think that is why we care for animals and plants so much: our interaction with them is an aesthetic one.  Is a blue whale or a slow loris of "intrinsic value"? Are the Mona Lisa or the Isenheim Crucifixion of "intrinsic value"? These seem, in the end, to be the same question.  The natural world, in all its complexity, danger and fascination is beautiful; and in its moments of horror is sublime.  The most repulsive natural events, with parasitic wasps infecting live caterpillars with their larvae being top of most lists, still compel. Still, it seems a mistake to try to pretend to ourselves that everything in nature is beautiful: we may wish to preserve the ´Tasmanian Devil, but what about the infectious cancer cells that give them hideous and fatal facial tumours?

Let us return to the Kant quotation at the beginning where we see the beginning now of the relationship (if this connection is correct) between aesthetics and morality.  Perhaps paradoxically, given its sociobiological leanings, biology is above all others the moral science: biologists typically care about their subjects, and struggle to preserve them.  Of course, a geologist can care also about a famous, beautiful or interesting outcrop (no-one would like to lose Osmington Mills in Dorset), suggesting a wider extension of aesthetic care to the broader environment.  

Of course, some relationships to animals are clearly neurotic, as in people who interact much better with their anthropomorphised pets than their peers.  And even more disturbing are those instances of people - Adolf Hitler being the famous example, who seemed to have liked animals (at least according to the propaganda photographs of Hoffmann) yet could also watch people being hung with piano wire.  

Hitler the nature lover...

Such juxtapositions jar our sensibilities - but why?  Surely it is because at heart we think that true taste - whether of the company one keeps, the music or art one enjoys, or the pleasures one takes in, and cares for, nature, are necessarily allied with goodness.  Only a truly moral person would take pleasure in all these things.  Such a feeling drives home something that Kant realised but is less appreciated today: aesthetics is intimately connected to morality.  Yet one sees also a similar association with science and religion too.  I think it is a mistake to think that religious  belief in itself provides an explicit rulebook of  morality, less still of science.  Yet mature reflection on all these things yields moral insight, a rediscovery of the viewpoint from which we see these things, and thus of ourselves.  I do not wish to lionise Kant, but he reached towards this view I think in his difficult Third Critique: when we view our world with our aesthetic sense, its complex orderings mirror our own moral orderings, and reminds us of what we want to come about: it is, literally, to see the world and ourselves  transformed.  The Greek word for this is metanoia, a change of mind; a word that could be casually but not inaccurately be translated as repentance. Somehow, this clear aesthetic vision of the world, in all its order and disorder, reveals to us our own moral priorities, their strengths and weaknesses, and thus brings with it, as well as joy, a sense of sadness and melancholy as we see at the end how both should be, and yet are not.


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