When I was a high school sophomore, I wrote an essay that I recall my teacher liking. It was about Lord of the Flies. I’m not quite sure of its whereabouts now, but I vaguely remember that it was about the boys’ descent into violence and what the book revealed about human nature through that. William Golding had made animals out of those marooned boys.
Recalling the contents of the essay now makes me wonder if every instance of the word “animalistic” (I am quite sure I used that word liberally, among others) is even appropriate in light of what animals are actually like. Though the word’s definitions are arguably fairly neutral in simply denoting something feral, it still often connotates ferocity, and as a result, is not many steps away from “violent.” The Merriam-Webster thesaurus gives us this example: “with animalistic fury the boxer tore into his opponent.”
Is that violent connotation really deserved by animals? Not really.
Upon entering CTW last fall, I felt a surge of freedom that the literary analysis and SAT practice essays of high school seemed to lack. I was pleased with this newfound flexibility, though my enthusiasm waned the more essays I wrote, until spring quarter rolled around. In the fall quarter, we were taken through the topic of factory farming; in the spring quarter, the Columbine shooting. Of greatest interest to me, however, ended up being an expedition into the relationship between humans and animals in regards to violence, leading me to write an essay on it. I was not on a crusade of animal rights, though what I learned made it easy to condemn entities such as the factory farm.
It began with an interest to explore the concept of violence while talking about animals. As a biology major, I was interested in being able to relate my topic to something within my major’s breadth, though there was a bit of struggle in the initial stages of writing. Originally, the broad question was, “what is violence?”. I answered this with a dictionary definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster: “exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse.” When I got around to reading an essay brought to my attention by Professor Leither, philosopher Mary Midgley’s “The Concept of Beastliness”, the essay’s direction became clearer. (One moral of this blog post is to do your research when in doubt.)
Midgley’s essay noted many oddities in how humans viewed and treated animals, such as double standards. The idea that animals (some more than others) are belligerent or violent is a common notion; after all, the violence-implicating connotation of words such as “animalistic” must come from somewhere, along with wolf’s notoriety as the big bad. Midgley acknowledges this, especially for the wolf, which she gives much attention to in her essay. A particular example she included stood out to me:
“I have read a chatty journalistic book on wolves, whose author described in detail how wolves trapped in medieval France used to be flayed alive, with various appalling refinements. ‘Perhaps this was rather cruel,” he remarked, “but then the wolf is itself a cruel beast.”
Wolves, however, as Midgley explains, are actually quite agreeable animals, as revealed through studies of their behavior: they are loyal partners, courteous individuals, and sensible predators that rarely kill when unnecessary. In comparison, she points out how Victorian hunters looking to kill for sport feared bloodthirsty jungle animals that were more concerned with their well-being than picking a fight. She goes on to write that “[man] IS an animal.”
Midgley’s essay was from 1973; a good four decades has passed since. I looked at studies from 2000 and later that focused on wolves from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Białowieża Primeval Forest in Poland and found that, as far as killing for sustenance goes, wolves not only have significant deterrents for excessive killing (it is dangerous and costly—this holds true for other predators as well, such as chimpanzees and lions), but are economical consumers, making use of 91% of their ungulate prey. All seemed to align with Midgley’s evidence. Wolves and other predators must kill because they must eat, and trying to kill excessively could backfire and result in death.
I then conferred with my ecology professor from winter quarter, Professor Janice Edgerly-Rooks, and she corroborated those ideas, not just for wolves but the animal kingdom as a whole. She stressed that many phenomena that involved injury and death, such as predation, defense, and competition, were all a “consequence of adaptive behavior.” Siblicide in birds, for example, is fueled by limited food resources: the death of the weaker birds means greater fitness for the remaining birds and more successful parenting from the parents as well. Actual violent behavior that resembles that of humans is rare in nature.
With this knowledge in mind, I compared the predatory wolf to what I was fairly well-read on from fall quarter: factory farms. Factory farms are similar to predation through killing organisms for the sustenance of another. However, they differ critically in the manner and context of the killing. First, us, the consumers, are seldom at risk of substantial injury from the food obtained through this system (never mind salmonella outbreaks and the like for now). The animals are so controlled by the system that even the those who do the actual killing are probably more likely to be at risk of harm from the contraptions and technology used to kill the animals than the animals themselves. Second, factory farms are significantly powered by profit, not hunger. My class’ collaborative essay notes that practices such as animal antibiotics are kept in place to maximize the number of animals that can be used for profit. Third, there are regular practices in the industry where animals are treated poorly for profit or killed for reasons such simply being unnecessary. Male chickens in the egg-laying industry, for example, are “superfluous, and killed by gassing or mechanical mincing, or are discarded and left to die from smothering,” writes University of East London sociology professor Erika Cudworth. The factory farm is definitely not something that is a consequence of survival; one could easily argue that the salmonella outbreaks and immense environmental costs are instead counterproductive to the survival of humans.
Just as Midgley suggested, it seems that the violent image that has been attributed to animals is much more of a long-standing fallacy than anything that has significant scientific support. Most of us have probably heard of issues being excused by having them likened to what happens in nature. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, quotes an anonymous factory farmer that does this in support of factory farms implicitly:
“What do you think happens to animals in nature? You think they die of natural causes? You think they’re stunned before they’re killed? Animals in nature starve to death or are ripped apart by other animals. That’s how they die.”
Indeed, nature is an unforgiving place, but it still fails to measure up to the kind of violence people have imparted to it, particularly animals. Rather, violence is essentially a human concept, even though my fall quarter biology professor said, “there are always exceptions [in biology].”
The qualities that people have projected onto animals is an interesting area to begin criticize humans. Where else have we been looking to the natural world to pardon something that is actually quite rare? Or, alternatively, where have we been vilifying the natural world to make us appear more less vile?
I would one day like to see the connotation of “animalistic” change.
Cudworth, Erika. “Killing Animals: Sociology, Species Relations and Institutionalized Violence.” Sociological Review 63.1 (2015): 1-18. Web. Cudworth’s self stated specialty is “”environment/society relations, human/animal relations and gender”; this essay is about human/animal relations and violence.
Edgerly-Rooks, Janice. Personal interview. 30 Apr. 2015. I had asked Professor Edgerly-Rooks, with whom I had taken an introductory course to ecology and evolutionary biology, some questions about spite and the risks of hunting during this interview.
– – -. Personal interview. 7 May 2015. A follow-up interview in which I asked Professor Edgerly-Rooks about violence in nature and other animals.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. Illus. Tom Manning. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Print. Eating Animals compiles large amounts of statistics, research, and interviews pertaining to factory farming.
Jȩdrzejewski, Włodzimierz, Bogumiła Jȩdrzejewska, and Henryk Okarma. “Prey Selection And Predation By Wolves In Białowieża Primeval Forest, Poland.” Journal Of Mammalogy 81.1 (2000): 197-212. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 4 May 2015. The research in this article pertains to wolf predatory habits in response to prey density.
Midgley, Mary. “The Concept of Beastliness: Philosophy, Ethics and Animal Behavior.” The Animal Rights Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/midgley02.htm>. This article was originally found in the journal Philosophy, vol. 48 (1973), pp. 111-135. Midgley is an English philosopher who has written extensively about animals and ethics.
Stahler, Daniel R., Douglas W. Smith, and Debra S. Guernsey. “Foraging And Feeding Ecology Of The Gray Wolf (Canis Lupus): Lessons From Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.” Journal Of Nutrition 136.(2006): 1923S-1926S. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 3 May 2015. Stahler et al.’s research examines wolf predatory habits using wolves in Yellowstone National Park.
Tennie, Claudio, Robert C. O’Malley, and Ian C. Gilby. “Why Do Chimpanzees Hunt? Considering The Benefits And Costs Of Acquiring And Consuming Vertebrate Versus Invertebrate Prey.” Journal Of Human Evolution 71.(2014): 38-45. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 4 May 2015. This article emphasizes that the hunting of (vertebrate) prey is costly for chimpanzees, which are closely related to humans.
“Violence.” Def. 1a. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2015. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/violence>.