_The Animals Came Dancing_ --
Native American and European Rationalizations for Killing Wildlife --
Do the Animals Really Care?!
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
January 10, 2003
In The Animals Came Dancing, Howard Harrod surveyed Native American mythology regarding the relationship between animals and humans. It is usually asserted that native peoples and modern societies are worlds apart, and Harrod seems to take that view.
But step back for a moment from the subjects of the book -- "native" and newly immigrant Americans -- so that you can see them simultaneously, from a distance. From this perspective, we are not really so different! On an evolutionary time scale, we are separated by a hair's breadth. We have not been apart long enough to become all that different.
What fascinates me, is that both we and Native Americans are using our imaginations, though in different ways, to anesthetize ourselves to the experience of killing animals and plants for food. In the case of Native Americans, they created the rationalization (myth, story, official explanation, etc.) that "the animals don't really die -- their souls are reborn", that "they give their bodies to us so that we can survive".
Come on! If we are really as similar to animals as we believe (and can now prove scientifically), then they must also be like us in not wanting to die! And in not wanting to donate their bodies to other organisms as food! Surely, people so close to nature as they should be able to see the raw fear in the animals' eyes, and translate their cries into an awareness of pain!
The same goes, of course, for us. Except that our way of avoiding that honest recognition of the horror of killing is, as Harrod says, different. We hide it out of sight, and present the finished food products in sanitized packages.
Therefore, I don't think that the path to protected wildlife lies through any form of rationalization -- old or new. We should finally admit that we need to kill to survive, but we cannot justify it through any rational argument! Our "instincts" (i.e., genes) impel us to eat, and therefore to kill, but every organism that we contemplate killing is a relative of ours (we are 98.6% genetically identical to a chimpanzee, but also some 30% identical to a fungus)! And besides, it has its own plans, desires, and goals for its life, none of which include being eaten by us! (I think that humans are, by far, the greatest rationalizers in the world!)
I agree that we should re-examine our relationship to other species -- but not in the way it is usually done, by talking amongst ourselves. We also need to look wildlife in the eye and listen to what they are telling us, which in most cases is "Go away!" Much of the mythology Harrod presented seemed to be a response to a feeling of love and hunger for nature (in all senses), and a desire to explain that love and hunger. The Indians seemed to be saying to themselves, "How can I explain the fact that I want to eat my relatives, without incurring unbearable feelings of guilt?" Do we really need to explain it and rationalize it, as long as we don't take more than we need? If we really love wildlife, we should be able to look them in the eye, ask them what they want, and listen to the answer.
In particular, do the animals really care what rationalization we use to justify killing them?! Dead is dead! After they are dead, what difference does it really make? And if it makes no difference to the animals (and plants), why should it make a difference to us? I think that a philosophy created without regard to the wishes, thoughts, and feelings of other species is bankrupt. It leads to absurdities like the fact that humans (apparently) think that we own the Earth.
However, such philosophizing (mythologizing, rationalizing) "in a vacuum" is not just unethical. It also leads to absurd conclusions. For example Reuben Hersh, in What is Mathematics, Really?, asserts that mathematics is a creation of human culture. However, that is easy to refute. Show a hungry chimpanzee two bananas. Then turn away from her, hide one banana in your shirt, and hand her the other banana. She will start looking for the hidden banana -- because she can count!
Another example: some people assert that there is no reality outside their mind. That is also easy to refute, again by consulting other species. My cat, Joe, and I developed a language through being mutually responsive. If he was hungry, he would stand next to his dish and miaow. If he wanted to go outside, he would stand next to the door and stare at the doorknob. Because I always responded, this inadvertent signalling system developed into a useful language. One day Joe "asked" to go out. I opened the door and waited for him to go out. However, he looked outside, saw cold and rain, turned around, and came back into the house. Now I know that the rain actually exists, because it was confirmed by a completely independent observer: my cat!
Therefore, I plead that every developer of a philosophical or ethical system, prior to proclaiming its value, first test its validity by "asking" the opinion of other species, through whatever means is available. This is a sure antidote to many absurd notions, such as that humans own the Earth (and hence have the "right" to dominate every square inch of it), or that wildlife assent to being eaten.
Harrod, Howard L., The Animals Came Dancing. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000.
Hersh, Reuben, What is Mathematics, Really? New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Vandeman, Michael J., http://mjvande.info, especially http://mjvande.info/ecocity3.htm, http://mjvande.info/india3.htm, http://mjvande.info/sc8.htm, and http://mjvande.info/goodall.htm.