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The Conquest of Nature (and What We’ve Lost)

Posted on Mar 13, 2013
ajari (CC BY 2.0)

By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Other peoples in other parts of the world developed different sets of relations with animals worshipped as gods, but in the European theaters of operation, they served as teachers of both natural and political science. The more that was learned about their “analogous and not identical qualities,” the more fabulous they became. Virgil’s keeping of bees on his country estate in 30 BC led him in book four of the Georgics to admire their work ethic—“At dawn they pour forth from the gates—no loitering”; to applaud their sense of a public and common good—“they share the housing of their city,/passing their lives under exalted laws”; to approve of their chastity—“They forebear to indulge/in copulation or to enervate/their bodies in Venus’ ways.”

The studies of Pliny the Elder in the first century demonstrated to his satisfaction that so exceptional were the wonders of the animal kingdom that man by comparison “is the only animal that knows nothing and can learn nothing without being taught. He can neither speak, nor walk, nor eat, nor do anything without the prompting of nature, but only weep.”

To the scientific way of looking at animals adapted by the Greco-Roman poets and philosophers, medieval Christianity added the dimension of science fiction—any and all agents of nature not to be trusted until or unless they had been baptized in the font of a symbol or herded into the cage of an allegory. In the illuminated pages of tenth-century bibles and the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals, the bee became a sign of hope, the crow and the goat both references to Satan, the fly indicative of lust, the lamb and the dove variant embodiments of Christ. Instead of remarking upon the extraordinary talents of certain animals, the holy fathers produced mythical beings, among them the dragon (huge, batwinged, fire breathing, barbed tail) and the unicorn (white body, blue eyes, the single horn on its forehead colored red at the tip).

The resurrection of classical antiquity in fifteenth-century Italy restored the emphasis on the observable correlation between man and beast. The anatomical drawings in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks (of horses, swans, human cadavers) are works of art of a match with The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. He saw human beings as organisms among other organisms participant in the great chain of being, the various life forms merging into one another in their various compounds of air, earth, fire, and water. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1566 portrait of a man’s head anticipates the conclusion reached in 1605 by the English bishop Joseph Hall: “Mankind, therefore, hath within itself his goats, chameleons, salamanders, camels, wolves, dogs, swine, moles, and whatever sorts of beasts: there are but a few men amongst men.”


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The eighteenth-century naturalists shared with Virgil the looking to the animal kingdom for signs of good government. The Count of Buffon, keeper of the royal botanical garden for King Louis XV, recognized in 1767 the beaver as a master architect capable of building important dams, but he was even more impressed by the engineering of the beaver’s civil society, by “some particular method of understanding one another, and of acting in concert… However numerous the republic of beavers may be, peace and good order are uniformly maintained in it.”

Buffon was accustomed, as were Virgil and Leonardo, not only to the company of horses and bees but also to the sight and sound of ducks, cows, chickens, pigs, turtles, goats, rabbits, hawks. They supplied the bacon, the soup, and the eggs, but they also invited the question asked by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836: “Who can guess… how much industry and providence and affection we have caught from the pantomime of brutes?”

How the Animal World Lost Its License to Teach

Not much if the brutes are nowhere to be found. Over the course of the last two centuries, animals have become all but invisible in the American scheme of things, drummed out of the society of their myth-making companions, gone from the rural as well as the urban landscape. John James Audubon in 1813 on the shore of the Ohio River marveled at the slaughter of many thousands of wild pigeons by men amassed in the hundreds, armed with guns, torches, and iron poles. In 1880, on a Sioux reservation in the Dakota Territory, Luther Standing Bear could not eat of “the vile-smelling cattle” substituted for “our own wild buffalo” that the white people had been killing “as fast as possible.”

And as observers, they were not alone.  Many others have noted the departure of animals from our human world and culture.  Between 150,000 and 200,000 horses could, for example, be found in the streets of New York City in 1900, requiring the daily collection of five million pounds of manure. By 1912, their function as a means of transport had been outsourced to the automobile.

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