A Point of View: Behaving like animals

A cat and three dogs

Why does the human animal need contact with something other than itself, asks John Gray.

Many years ago an eminent philosopher told me he'd persuaded his cat to become a vegan. To begin with I thought he was joking. Knowing a bit about cats, I couldn't take seriously the idea that they'd give up their predatory ways.

"You must have provided the cat with some pretty powerful arguments," I said jokingly. "It wasn't as difficult as you may think," he replied rather sternly.

He never explained exactly how the transformation was achieved. Was his cat presented with other cats that had converted to veganism - feline role models, so to speak? Had he prepared special delicacies for his cat - snacks that looked like mice but were made of soya, perhaps?

Beginning to suspect that the philosopher might after all be serious, I asked if the cat went out. He told me it did. That answered a part of my puzzlement. Evidently the cat was supplementing its vegan diet by hunting, natural behaviour for cats after all.

I was still a little perplexed though. Cats tend to bring their hunting trophies back home and I wondered how the philosopher had missed seeing them. Had the cat hidden them out of sight? Or were the cat's trophies prominently displayed but disregarded by the philosopher, marks of atavistic feline behaviour that would eventually disappear as the cat progressed towards a new kind of meat-free life?

The conversation tapered off and I never did get to the bottom of the mystery. The dialogue did set me thinking. Evidently the philosopher thought of the cat as a less evolved version of himself that, with a lot of help, could eventually share his values. But the idea that animals are inferior versions of humans is fundamentally misguided.

Each of the millions of species that evolution has thrown up is different and particular, and the animals with which we share the planet aren't stages on the way to something else - ourselves. There's no evolutionary hierarchy with humans perched at the top. The value of animals - or as I'd prefer to say other animals - comes from being what they are. And it's the fact that they are so different from humans that makes contact with them so valuable to us.

Human qualities

Some philosophers - not many it must be admitted - have in the past understood this. The 16th Century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, loved cats because he knew he would never be able to enter their minds. "When I play with my cat," he asked, "how do I know she is not amusing herself with me rather than I with her?"

Montaigne didn't want his animal companions to be mirrors of himself, he wanted them to be a window from which he could look out from himself and from the human world.

Never more than partly domesticated, cats are never fundamentally humanised. Montaigne found them lovable for precisely this reason, it wasn't that he was suggesting we should emulate cats. Wiser than the philosopher who believed he'd converted his cat to veganism, he understood that the good life means different things for animals with different natures. What he questioned was the idea that one kind of life, the kind humans alone can live, is always best.

It's true that cats don't have some of the capacities we associate with morality. They seem to lack empathy, the capacity of identifying with the emotions of others. This may explain what has often been described as cruelty in their behaviour, toying with captured mice for example. Attributing cruelty to cats seems a clear case of anthropomorphism - the error of projecting distinctively human qualities onto other species.

Cats are not known to display compassion, but neither do they inflict pain and death on each other in order to gratify some impulse or ideal of their own. There are no feline inquisitors or suicide bombers. Pedants will say that this is because cats lack the intellectual equipment that is required to formulate an idea of truth or justice. I prefer to think that they simply decline to be enrolled in fanaticism, another peculiarly human trait.

Dogs seem to be capable of showing human-like emotions of shame, but though they are more domesticated they still remain different from us. And I think it's their differences from us, as much as their similarities, that makes them such good companions.

Image caption Poet Ted Hughes wanted to escape a purely human view

Whatever you feel about cats and dogs, it seems clear that the human animal needs contact with something other than itself. For religious people this need may be satisfied by God, even if the God with whom they commune seems too often all-too-human. For many landscape gives a sense of release from the human world, even if the land has been groomed and combed by humans for generations, as it has in England.

The contemplation of field, wood and water intermingling with wind and sky still has the power to liberate the spirit from an unhealthy obsession with human affairs. Poets such as Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes have turned to the natural world in an attempt to escape a purely human view of things. Since they remained human and used human language in the attempt, it's obvious that they couldn't altogether succeed. It's also obvious that searching for a way of looking at the world that's not simply human expresses a powerful human impulse.

The most intense example of this search I know is that recorded by John Baker in his book The Peregrine. First published in 1967 and recently reissued, the book is seemingly a piece of nature writing which slowly reveals itself as the testament of someone struggling to shed the point of view of a human observer.

Renewed humanity

Baker records his pursuit of two pairs of peregrines, which had arrived to hunt in the part of East Anglia where he lived. Alone he followed the birds for over 10 years. Concentrating the decade-long quest into a single year in order to recount it in the book, he writes of the peregrine: "Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom of the hunting life."

He tells us that he came late to the love of birds. "For years I saw them only as a tremor on the edge of vision. They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us. Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach. They race to oblivion."

Image caption The Peregrine inspired John Baker

In time the human observer seemed to be transmuted into the inhuman hawk. "In a lair of shadow," Baker writes, "the peregrine was crouching, watching me... We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men."

Note how Baker switches suddenly from describing the hawk watching him to describing how "we" flee from humans. Baker found a sensation of freedom in the feeling that he and the hawk were fused into one. Sharing in the "exaltation and serenity" of the birds' life he could imagine that he'd shed his human identity, at least for a time, and could view the world through hawks' eyes.

Of course he didn't take this to be literal truth. He knew he couldn't in the end be anything other than human. Yet he still found the pursuit of the peregrine deeply rewarding, for it opened up a temporary exit from the introspective human world.

John Baker's devotion to the peregrine hadn't enabled him to see things as birds see them. What it had done was to enable him to see the world through his own eyes, but in a different way. His descriptions of the landscape of East Anglia are exact and faithful to fact. But they reveal that long-familiar countryside in a light in which it looks as strange and exotically beautiful as anything in Africa or the Himalayas. The pursuit of a bird had revitalised his human perceptions.

What birds and animals offer us is not confirmation of our sense of having an exalted place in some sort of cosmic hierarchy, it's admission into a larger scheme of things, where our minds are no longer turned in on themselves. Unless it has contact with something other than itself, the human animal soon becomes stale and mad. By giving us the freedom to see the world afresh, birds and animals renew our humanity.

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