Of Man and Beast

November 9, 2005

"To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons," writes Aldo Leopold in his Sketches Here and There. "To see America as history, to conceive of destiny as a becoming, to smell a hickory tree through the still lapse of ages — all these things are possible for us, and to achieve them takes only the free sky, and the will to ply our wings. In these things, and not in Mr. Bush's bombs and Mr. DuPont's nylons, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts."

Leopold — a brilliant writer who completed his opus, A Sand County Almanac (links to a full review), in 1948 — was writing of the recent extinction of the passenger pigeon. More specifically, he was writing of a statue that he and others had erected in his Wisconsin County, a bronze of that famous bird. If you want to learn to better appreciate Gaia; if you feel the need to see unstinting acceptance of evolution in these science-dark times; if you ever wanted to see ecology in action; if you love reading the English language in its richest natural expression… then I recommend you look to Leopold.

'Abdu'l-Bahá, in Some Answered Questions, explains the difference between animals and man thusly: "… the animal perceives sensible things but does not perceive intellectual realities. For example, that which is within the range of its vision the animal sees, but that which is beyond the range of sight it is not possible for it to perceive, and it cannot imagine it." This sounds to me like a basic formulation of the theory of mind.

I take it as a given that I can substitute "… range of its hearing the animal hears …" and so forth. But what about apes who have been shown to exhibit characteristics of "mind?" Are these man or animal? Do they fit neatly in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's taxonomy? Technically no. But I'm not really bothered by that. His goal was to speak generally of the "difference existing between man and animal," not to state exact scientific facts.

Leopold does not make the exception any more than 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and in neither case am I worried. I love and respect animals, but to deny that humans generally have some element of superiority over the rest of the animal kingdom would strike me as senseless banter. And with that I shall cease my own rambling.