Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why We Like Animals

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN has a special "Collector's Edition" on sale titled "The Science of Dogs and Cats." (Try to find it in your local store; it's quite substantial.) Articles cover the latest research on topics such as how dogs and cats evolved from wolves and wildcats, the inner emotional lives of cats and dogs, canine and feline communication, whether animals display true empathy, whether they have anything that could be called "ethics," and whether they have a "theory of mind" (modifying their own behavior on the basis of what they think other creatures know or believe), among others. The piece on the Toxoplasma parasite especially intrigues me; that's the organism that makes infected rats attracted to the odor of cats instead of scared away from it. The effect works on the same part of the rat's brain involved in the sexual drive. A real-life biological analogy for one of the familiar fictional tropes I apply to my naturally evolved vampires—that vampires exert an irresistible allure to make victims eager to be preyed on!

"Dogs are unique in the animal kingdom because they have figured out how to join the community of an entirely alien species"—what a cool concept! The first essay in the publication (something between a thick magazine and a thin trade paperback) explores "Pets: Why Do We Have Them?" My first reaction was along the line of "duh," as this question seems to me like asking why we like to eat or breathe. As the tagline of the article says, "People have an innate interest in other species." The familiar reasons are discussed: Pets reduce stress, as proven by objective measurements such as blood pressure. Many domesticated animals trigger affection because they fit into the "cuteness" pattern of large, round heads, soft contours, and wide eyes, like human babies. Some people value pets' capacity for "unconditional love" and actually regard their dogs as "role models for a better life." As a fantasy fan and writer, however, I like to believe there's an even more fundamental motive for our attachment to animals.

C. S. Lewis says in the chapter on "Affection" in his THE FOUR LOVES, "The higher and domesticated animal is, so to speak, a 'bridge' between us and the rest of nature. We at all times feel somewhat painfully our human isolation from the sub-human world. . . . It [an animal] has three legs in nature's world and one in ours. It is a link, an ambassador. . . . Man with dog closes a gap in the universe."

Lewis's friend Tolkien in "On Fairy Stories" puts the same thesis even more eloquently, when he considers why talking animals and magical comprehension of animal speech play such a prominent role in fairy tales. He remarks on the profound human desire "to converse with other living things," a wish "as ancient as the Fall," rooted in "the sense of separation of ourselves from beasts.” He says, "A vivid sense of that separation is very ancient; but also a sense that it was a severance: a strange fate and a guilt lies on us. Other creatures are like other realms with which Man has broken off relations, and sees now only from the outside at a distance, being at war with them, or on the terms of an uneasy armistice. There are a few men who are privileged to travel abroad a little; others must be content with travellers' tales."

As I see it, the same desire to know the mind of the Other impels us to imagine talking with animals as well as communicating with trees, machines, or nonhuman aliens.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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