Mar 28, 2011

What I Don’t Know About Animals by Jenny Diski

What I Don’t Know About Animals by Jenny Diski

What I Don’t Know About Animals is a difficult book to describe: it’s stuck somewhere between a memoir and a nature book, while at the same time being something entirely different from either of those. Jenny Diski writes about the history of her relationship with animals – from her impressions of the idea of them when she was a child (in the form of book characters, plush toys, trips to the zoo or TV shows) to her relationship with her cat today, by way of LOLcats, a serious case of arachnophobia, or elephant watching in Africa.

But reminiscing is not what What I Don’t Know About Animals is all about: Diski’s effort to understand humankind’s relationships with the species with which we share the planet includes both field research and thoughtful examinations of difficult questions. She visits a sheep farm in spring and witnesses its owner’s efforts to keeps lambs alive, even as they know these lambs will meet their death only a few months later; she examines vegetarianism and veganism and her own rejection of them; she considers he own inability to include a visit to an abattoir in her research; she learns how to ride a horse; and so on.

I particularly liked Diski’s honesty and willingness to acknowledge her own shortcomings without excuses, defensiveness, or any kind of self-righteousness. She knows she’s far from perfect, but she’s ready to consider difficult questions all the same. I also liked how she doesn’t attempt to exclude herself from any of the problematic aspects of our relationship with animals: this isn’t a book that points fingers at others, but rather a thoughtful, ponderous work filled with far more questions than answers.

What I Don’t Know About Animals also includes a fair share of history of science and of animal research. I felt that she was unfair to behaviourism at first (claiming that subjective experience is untestable and therefore must remain outside the real of experimental science is not the same as denying its existence), but later on she says:
I went to talk to Donald Broom, the world’s first Professor of Animal Welfare at Cambridge University’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. Although he’s a behaviourist, he told me that he didn’t discount the emotions or feelings of animals at all. Behaviourism, he said, was misunderstood by those who thought its practitioners took no account of the experiences of the animals they tested in labs. The point was that with animals being so variously different from human beings, it was difficult to assess their welfare needs unless they could be properly tested. Certainly, animals had emotions and feelings, it was quite wrong to suggest they didn’t, but we can only reliably (as opposed to intuitively) know what these are by measuring their physiological effects.
Which is fair enough. Her visit to Professor Broom’s lab raises a lot of questions about the issue of animal testing, and Diski’s complex feelings on the matter match my own quite closely. She doesn’t feel that we have the right to use other species for our benefit, but we make the choice to do so for the benefit of our own – to research serious illnesses, to test vaccines, to potentially save lives, or to simply increase knowledge. Whether or not this is at all ethically justifiable is of course a complex and divisive question. Personally I draw the line at unnecessary cruelty: if we’re going to do it at all, we should do it with as little fear, pain and discomfort as possible. Diski does mention Temple Gradin, who uses a similar argument for the meat industry, but I find that the cost/benefit balance is quite different in that case.

For Diski (and for me), it’s not a matter of who’s a worthier life form, who has the “right” to inhabit the earth, but of intraspecies solidarity exerting a stronger pull in most of us than interspecies solidarity. I reject the idea that this is inevitable or ‘right’, but I can see why it happens. Of course, as with everything else there are no set rules, and there might be frequent exceptions if people have to pick between humanity as an abstract concept and concrete, real animals they know and love.

I would have liked to see What I Don’t Know About Animals do a more in-depth explorations of the frequent sense of entitlement with which humankind relates to animals. Early in the book Diski says she means to write from a secular perspective and rejects a faith-based position of ownership/stewardship over other species, but in the end the book didn’t explore these ideas in much detail at all. But considering it goes in other interesting directions, I can’t really complain. A few more interesting passages:
Dolittle has to prove himself sane in court (and fails) on account of his desire to communicate with non-human animals, and though he is rescued from the madhouse, he is never more than that typical, harmless and faintly ambiguous eccentric with which literature and showbiz like affectionately or sentimentally to toy. I take Dolittle’s fancy perfectly seriously, as a proper and not at all mad longing. I recognise the longing in myself and I think it presents a general ache that we popularise and render quaint because we know it to be unachievable. Dolittle’s desire is an expression of our own. If we could talk to the animals, if they could talk to us. The massive black hole in our understanding of the creatures with whom we share the planet, as vast and compelling a mystery as the universe, is intolerable, not just because we can’t talk to the animals, but because it reminds us of how we can’t really know any other consciousness, not even those of our own species.

Anthropomorphism always worries me. That remaking of otherness as a replication of self – visually, morally or allegorically. The ‘cuteness’ that we see in animals, which has nothing to do with them but only with the onlooker, distresses me. I observe my own automatic humanising assumptions towards the young of other species, the ‘feelings’ which I suppose when I see an animal in pain or alone or dying, and try to keep it under control. I dislike or disapprove of the colonising aspect of finding easy connection with animals, while at the same time aching for it and identifying it in my relations with animals. The balance of the affect is always ‘There are somewhat like me’, rather than ‘I am somewhat like them’. We deny dignity and selfhood, whatever that might be to whatever creature it is, by making sentimental assumptions about why, what or how an animal is experience. Animals are not there for us to relate to, I want to insist grimly when folk coo or laugh at their behaviour, but it’s what we (and I) want to do most with animals, as well, of course, as eat them and utilise their fur and skin and other parts for our clothing, accessories, scent, cosmetics and medicines.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

17 comments:

  1. This has always been a hot topic in my life, and one I've never really formed definite opinions on. I hate the idea of experimenting on animals, but I am thankful for many of the advances which have been made because of it. As for eating meat...I seem to be on a seven year pattern: seven years of being a meat-eater, seven years of being a vegetarian, seven years of being a meat-eater....and so on.

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  2. Trisha, I'm the same way: I hate it on principle but know I wouldn't be willing to give up the medical advances we've made because of it, for example. I've recently turned vegetarian myself, and while I'm happy with my decision I know there's a lot in my current life circumstances that makes it easy but is likely to change in the future. For example, many of the ingredients I've been using in my cooking lately are either not available in my hometown in Portugal or are way beyond my budget. When I move again my options will be severely limited, and I don't know how I'm going to get around that.

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  3. I had never heard of this book before, but think it sounds like something that is just my speed when it comes to the whole animal debate. I read the passages you highlighted with interest, and am thinking that I am going to have to check out this book. Thanks for always reading and reviewing the most interesting books, and sharing your thoughts about them in such an accessible and interesting way!

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  4. The book on Harry Harlow's experiments (Love At Goon Park) goes into the ethical question extensively as well, because monkeys were so damaged by the experiments that did however prove how important it is to have a caring adult in your life. It was the clear the author was conflicted too!

    I have worked at a couple of animal research labs, and it seems to be that like Abu Ghraib, really, the attitude of the person in charge makes a big difference in how the "captives" are treated. Also, in the first lab in which I worked, the experiments were medical, but in the second, many of them were testing make-up and fabric softener and that kind of thing, and I thought that was a rather horrific reason to mistreat and then kill animals. (Their skin and fur was abraded, and then they were "treated" with the substance, and then killed and autopsied to check for bad effects.) And by the way, the lab was an outsourcing place for animal experiments, so that the actual companies whose products were being tested could claim that THEY did not do experiments on animals....

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  5. Zibilee: Aw, you're too nice! It's what book bloggers are for, right? :P

    Jill: Grrr - the hypocrisy of companies that make those claims just drives me crazy. And in my ideal world we'd definitely keep animal testing to the essentials - medical issues, not fabric softener! Must see if I can find Love At Goon Park.

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  6. This post is very timely for me. I'm writing a paper on an artist who does a lot of paintings of humans in animal masks or animals that behave like humans, and now I have some great ideas for questions. :)

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  7. I sometimes feel that I walk around wearing blinkers because it makes it easier not to acknowledge the cruelties that occur. They upset me too much. I understand that animals have helped us progress in medicine, I just hate to think about it. Does that make me shallow?

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  8. This sounds like a great book and one that I should read. I have a degree in zoology and always tried to explore my relationship with animals. I worked in medical research after college and had a hard time reconciling my feelings on it.

    I would love to read another individuals perspectives on animals that is not completely judgmental and poses questions. It looks like you found a great book and I really appreciate this review.

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  9. Heidenkind: Sounds like a very interesting paper, and I'm glad you found my post useful!

    Vivienne: I think it just makes you human. We all walk around wearing selective blinds. No one is constantly engaged with all of the world's troubles, regardless of how much they might actually care. I guess in the end we all pick our battles - we commit ourselves to some causes and just decide there were others we can't cope with.

    Dragonfly419: I hope you find the book as engaging and thought-provoking as I did! I can't imagine how difficult it must be to reconcile your feelings with what you are expected to do in a situation like that :\

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  10. Diski has been on my radar since I read a few posts on her personal essays over at Of Books & Bikes, but I didn't know about this particular book, which sounds like it explores some very interesting questions. That passage about anthropomorphizing animals is a particularly tricky one, I think, especially since domestic animals have been bred by humans for centuries for exactly the purpose Diski describes - cuddling, cooing, etc. It's not like a pug or a pomeranian exists in "nature," much like a milk cow doesn't. So, we've plainly artificially selected for dogs & cats that are at least amenable to that behavior (not to mention ones that look "cute" to us, which has resulted in some pretty horrific over-breeding for sure). Do they like it as much as we do? It's hard to say objectively. Although on an emotional level there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my dog likes to cuddle. :-)

    I often feel like kind of a "cheat" vis-a-vis animal cruelty, since I've been a vegetarian my whole life but my primary motivation is that I find meat disgusting, not my awesome strong feelings about kindness or environmental sustainability. If I felt about meat the way I do about crusty French bread, I seriously doubt I would still be eating veggie. :-P

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  11. I am always interested in hearing the different arguements. I certainly don't know it all. I do know that I am against unnecessary cruelty, and humane testing. I guess that all becomes subjective though, doesn't it. What I think is humane is not necessarily what the next guy thinks. I do eat meat. I was raised on a farm and these were the facts of life. There is no way I could live any other way.

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  12. What a good idea for a book!

    Emily's comment is in line with some of my own thoughts. It's been very strange for me to have ended up with a people-centric cat--very different behavior from the ones I grew up with. The fact that he wants to be near me most of the time, keeps careful tabs on me, and "talks" to me (we had a whole conversation this morning when I accidentally woke him up by coughing loudly) sometimes makes me worry I'm imposing something undignified/unnatural on him since I have no way of knowing whether he enjoys our silly meow/English dialogs as much as I do or what they "mean" to him. Mostly I get the feeling we each alter the other's behaviors--mine less me-like, his less catlike--for good or ill.

    Do you ever run into National Geographic Magazine? The article a few months ago about the Russian study on the genes of domestication through the breeding of domestic silver foxes was fascinating.

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  13. This sounds like a relevant read for me right now, as I'm struggling to decide what kind of eater I want to be: back to a veggie or continue eating meat in moderation. Thanks for sharing this review, Nymeth.

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  14. It's really interesting to me how humans relate to other species: how we determine which are pets, which are food, which are test subjects etc. There's so much compartmentalization! This looks good, thanks for sharing.

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  15. Oh I want to read this SO bad! It reminds me of a class I took in college called "Comparative Psychology" and it was one of my favorite classes....Though I thought the idea of it was strange at first. It was about learning about human behavior from animals. We had to pick an animal and study it for 6 hours a week at the zoo learning everything we could about it. I picked kangaroos and I can now tell you everything you want to know about them after spending so much time with them :p They're really fascinating animals. The cool thing about that class was that you started to learn mating behaviors, signals they give each other, ways they control their body temperature...things you'd never notice before. It actually made me want to be a vegetarian afterwards...though we don't eat kangaroos, it gave me a lot more empathy for the life of animals. I've thought about going vegetarian again for the same reason, but I can't stay away from bacon or steak T_T

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  16. Thanks so much for this review. I really want to read this book. Animals are so important in my life, have always been and I'm always glad fro thought provoking books.

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  17. This is a great review. I have never heard of this book but i'll be adding it to my list of must read before the year is out! Cheers!
    Check out my blog, The Secret Life of Books http://lily-bookhaven.blogspot.com/

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