Other animals

Our understanding of (other) animals was shaped by Darwin, but not in the way most people think.

Darwin got the idea of ‘natural selection’ from Malthus, a student of human society, and used it to explain the natural world.

Darwin projected onto the natural world (or ‘kingdom’ as it has come to be called) the cutthroat characteristics of Victorian capitalism. This was noted at the time: Writing to Engels on 18 June 1862, Marx commented:

“It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes [the war of all against all] and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.”

If the idea of nature being ‘a war of all against all’ seems applicable to human societies it’s because that’s where it originated. This Hobbesian view of nature has shaped perceptions of the natural world for the past 150 years.

It entails two important beliefs:

First, ‘man’ is separate from the rest of the animal world. Animals are ranked on a scale of ‘development’. Animals differ in degree. But all humanity is ranked over animality. Humans differ in kind. The existence of other animals, it is supposed, is encompassed within the physical world of nature, ‘out there’, most recently as the ‘environment’.

Second, having projected Victorian capitalism onto nature, it is ‘discovered’ and used to legitimize existing power relations in human society. Just as humans have dominion over animals because we are superior to them, employers have dominion over workers because they are superior to them. Men’s domination of women is—or was—justified in the same way. It’s only ‘natural.’

We can see that much hangs on this Hobbesian view of nature. If that were to crumble, so too would human societies based on this view. So it is widely propagated. Indeed, humans see to derive visual pleasure and reassurance from witnessing nature’s war of all against all. ‘See that’s just the way life is; nothing we can do about it.’

Consider, for example, the wildlife or nature television program or documentary.

Look at yon lion surveying his pride. Over there a snarling alpha male wolf fights to maintain his dominance. See the wolf pack wear down and devour the fleeing moose made weary by the deep snow. Who can forget the wildebeest herd crossing the crocodile invested river?

Predators and prey. Nature red in tooth and claw. Nietzsche’s eagle and the lamb:

To demand of strength that it should not express itself, that it should not be a will to overcome, overthrow, dominate, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, makes as little sense as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength (On the Genealogy of Morals).

It’s a jungle out there. So too in business. Animals have leaders, so we must too. Hence the Dragons’ Den.

To ensure that the television film matches the preconceptions, nature programs have been faked since their inception. They still are, but with more subtlety.

The illusion of ceaseless animal activity, centred on critters killing other critters, is created by editing film images of animals with no spatial or temporal relationship to each other. The telephoto lens creates the illusion of emotional closeness to animals; so close we could almost pet them. But while we may like to think we are emotionally close to ‘wild’ animals, they know for sure that they are not emotionally close to us. Many wild animal tourists discover this to their cost.

Giving meaning to these disparate images is our interlocutor, the narrative voice-over.

First was the off-camera narrator, speaking to the images. Then came the participant-narrator, creating voice overs back in the studio. [‘To control this huge ‘gator is going to take all the muscle we’ve got’. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom classic video clips.] Most recently the narrator looks both the animals and the viewers in the eye, as if to create a sense of intimacy with each. The master of this craft, of course, is David Attenborough.

We see the influence of this view of nature in the Dragons’ Den, a reality television program about pitting would-be against proven leaders (the ‘dragons’). David Attenborough, that authority on ‘real’ animals, made a spoof of it. To an overhead shot of these human leaders walking down a street, he says:

‘Dragons. A family of animals evolving in the primeval swamp … males fighting for supremacy.’ Source

The presumed humour: here we pretend that these leaders are just like other animals, but we know they aren’t really. From another perspective, however, that humans consider themselves apart from and superior to other animals is a bitter kind of humour.

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