Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from

What Shall We Do With Our Vainglorious Aspirations?

From Lee Hall/Vegan Place on
May 2024

“The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you did this, More cursed shall you be Than all cattle And all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl And dirt shall you eat All the days of your life. I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your offspring and hers; They shall strike at your head, And you shall strike their heel’…And to the woman He said, ‘I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.”
~ —Genesis 3.14-16

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
~ —Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).

Brooklyn Museum
"The Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks. “Hicks idealized the encounter between British colonists and Indigenous people,” says the Brooklyn Museum, “creating fictions of harmony.”

They told me the story before I knew how to read. The first human beings on Earth were bad ancestors.

Our longing for redemption from the biblical Fall percolates through many generations of writings and arts. There’s Edward Hicks’s famous Peaceable Kingdom, with its echoes of Isaiah 11:6. The painting is contested artistic territory, because of the people in the background. “Hicks idealized the encounter between British colonists and Indigenous people,” says the Brooklyn Museum, “creating fictions of harmony.”

The Isaiah story itself is riddled with idealized fictions of harmony. Lions and wolves lie down beside goats and lambs, evidently starving to live up to the “peaceable” ideal. Or perhaps God would abolish their carnivorous natures?

Either way, it’s doom and gloom for natural predators, who now take their marching orders from a little child. What could lie ahead? Cattle-breeding, sheep herding, wolf-trapping, bull-riding, horse-breaking, lion-taming, snake-charming… Homo sapiens devise unlimited torments for our cohabitants on this planet.

Of course, Aristotle had already taught that some classes of living beings (because of their race, class, sex, or species) are naturally equipped to rule others. Eden’s story, with its intersectional layout of hierarchies, lays bare the human propensity to categorize, detach, rank, and oppress, and places it in religious context.

Say we took it as a challenge. Say we rose to the occasion. Say we set out to become good human primates who share the planet’s finite space with other beings. Say we reassessed the notion that a convenience-focused, risk-free Earth is the creation of peace…and that the tamed are better for it.

Oh, Believe Me, My Cat Runs the House!

I can’t believe you. And respect for other animal communities is not about letting them run the house. It’s about freedom from—not integration into—human society.

I know, I know; animal advocacy is complicit in the domestic ideal. We’ve tried to enhance the standards of petkeeping, hoping to rehabilitate our bad domestication habit. We’ve tried substituting the word guardian for owner, or companion animal for those whose lives we in fact control. We’ve been marketing vegan cat food. The lion shall rest with the kid.

And when the practice of petkeeping is frankly challenged, we’ve balked. Isn’t it symbiosis? A pact made at the campfire? Mutual choice? I mean, my cat runs the house!

Pets rarely existed outside aristocratic households before the late eighteenth century. But recently, through the subtle, systematic violence of selective breeding, we have refined the purposes for which we produce animals—to include amusement, therapy, and protection.

Pets are a relatively new twist on aln old tale, as humans have long colonized other habitats and evolution itself.

Some 50,000 years ago, our human primate ancestors moved outside their equatorial lands, armed with blades and harpoons. Eventually they developed the weapons of mass domestication, overpowering indigenous ecologies with their hoes and their grazing animals.

To this day, we break apart forests, plant vast monocultures, pollute the air, the water, and the land, and develop chemical and nuclear weaponry… We’re driving global heating, exacerbating our assaults on biodiversity.

To acknowledge our impact on Earth’s life is to place all our work, musings, disappointments and hopes into perspective. What does it mean for us to become aware moral actors on our ecological stage? Accepting the role is vital, if we would keep this stage from falling apart.

So, What Shall We Do?

Yi-Fu Tuan noted “the human need to associate with animals and to do so on the principles of domination and control, in Eden and in practical life”:

“The dream that ferocious animals, on the approach of man, would kneel in docility and thus be a fit companion in a perfect world may be among the most vainglorious of human aspirations… Attempts to translate the dream into reality encounter the problem of how animals can be brought into the garden and made to seem a natural and integral part of it.”

Free-living animals become competitors to subdue and erase. In their place, we produce tame animals that accommodate our desires. Is this peace? I know better, now. Peace is lying under a lamppost, watching bats flutter in the evening. Peace is meeting a coyote’s gaze at dawn. Or pausing to watch deer cross a snowy meadow. It’s in the silent moments when we’re awed to have been born on such a planet…

Rethink the Garden?

Wolves do their best to cling to pockets of land on the periphery of human society, but we’d rather have purpose-bred animals grazing there. Wildcats are nearly extinct, due to habitat loss and hybridization with the cats we’ve domesticated and who now “run the house” and the yard, too. In a continual feedback loop, the imposition of domesticated life on the planet creates conditions that threaten the coping skills of the free. That’s where we are. Earth in the Anthropocene is a place where free animals have been stripped of their birthright to evolve in their age-old habitats.

Nor can domestication replace that evolution. It only perverts it. We’re civilizing animals to death as well as driving them extinct.

Well, you might object, that genie has left the bottle. Yes, well, you and I are that genie. For all our high-tech prowess, have we moved any closer to a peaceable world? Why keep pressing forward to an ecological dead end?

I know we’re not used to a framework in which humans simply respect each other and all living communities, but we can aspire to it. And if, somehow, we shift the human mindset, and if, somehow, we survive this time of melting ice caps, storms, droughts, and surging heat… If there’s a chance, surely it depends on the human capacity to become respectful members of Earth’s great biological community.

We might start by taking another look at our Fall.

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