Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson



c.2014, Bloomsbury                            $26.00 / $30.00 Canada                      224 pages


What a dirty rat.

That guy’s such a dog, cheating on his wife like some tomcat. He’s a pig. And her? She acts like she doesn’t know, the dumb cow. He’s nothing but a shark and she’s too chicken to confront him. She should never have trusted the big skunk, the slimy snake. She’s a silly goose to think she could.

In the English language – and, says author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, in French, German, and Spanish, too – we often display our displeasure through animal epithets. But are we just being catty? Read his new book, “Beasts,” and you’ll see how you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Call someone “a beast” sometime, and people know what you mean. You’re likely indicating aggression, brutality, or even danger, and it’s not necessarily complimentary. But is it fair?  Masson says no because, truth is, “Beasts… have few of the failings we, as a species, have.”

For instance, humans wage war, usually because of “artificial and arbitrary distinctions” of race, language, tribe, or culture – which is something animals don’t do. It’s true that animals fight but, recent chimp studies aside, they don’t generally “perpetrate mass violence against” their own kind. Infanticide in animals serves a “clear evolutionary purpose”– unlike it does for humans. And though it may seem like cats with mice are capable of it, animals are not cruel and they do not practice torture.

But getting back to war: our propensity for it might be because we love hierarchy. We like to think we’re superior to others we perceive as lesser, which gets us into trouble when faced with someone who’s unlike us. We wage battles over religion (which is “intimately connected to war”), something animals don’t do. We fight like… well, like cats and dogs – even though cats and dogs usually get along quite well.

But is it all bad news?  Not really: we (and our canine friends) are the only species that care about “the well-being of other species…” We’re open to acknowledging altruism, and seeing that animals have cultures they share. And we’re finally beginning to recognize any negative aberration in animal behavior as the effects of trauma we’ve perpetuated.

As an animal lover from way back, I was excited when “Beasts” crossed my desk. I wasn’t raised by wolves, but there were few times in my life without a dog. I’ve seen lots of good from lots of animals – and I saw lots of controversy in this book.

But there’s also plenty to think about here, too. Author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson argues that animals are kinder and more tolerant than we are, and that we could learn a thing or two from them. Animal lovers (and maybe others) will surely agree – but the quarrel will come with his words on domestication and all that it entails.

Though I wouldn’t consider this to be a sit-and-read-for-fun book, “Beasts” is great if you love animals or studying humans – or both. Pay close attention, pause for pondering and, much like an elephant, you’ll never forget it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this weblog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of PBG Lifestyle Magazine.

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