'Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil': wisdom from the wild kingdom

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson offers a unique perspective on cruelty, compassion and the human condition

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Why are humans so violent, cruel and vengeful? Not every one of us, and not every minute, but many of us and daily ... read this newspaper today or any day to scroll the roster of evil deeds.

In particular, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson wonders if our savagery is shared by other apex predators. Do orcas and crocodiles, wolves and lions wage war, commit murder and rape, abuse their offspring? Do they torture members of their own and other species?

By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
 Bloomsbury ($26)

Mr. Masson answers his rhetorical questions quickly, knowing non-PETA readers don't enjoy books this full of painful information: "If there is one insight I feel a reader should take away from this book, it is that no serious evidence supports the idea that other animals besides humans engage in mass killing of one another."

The word "bestial" insults other animals. In a swift survey of the available literature, Mr. Masson shows that no other species kills gratuitously unless the killing animals have become deranged (usually by human contact). But there's hope for humanity.

Unlike many philosophers, from the Old Testament on, he doesn't believe humans are wicked from birth. Instead, Mr. Masson thinks our species learned how to be cruel when we shifted from hunter-gatherers to farmers and domesticators of animals. He's not the only one to subscribe to this theory -- Jared Diamond, among others, damns the moment we turned our spears into plowshares.

Apparently, a surplus of food doesn't make humans healthy, wealthy and wise; it makes us possessive, violent and paranoid. Even Jane Goodall saw this among the Tanzanian chimps she had fed bananas. The surplus food changed them for the worse.

Chimps given bananas began to fight with each other, their aggressive behavior escalating until even Ms. Goodall had to acknowledge that this species she loved had "a dark side."

Cultivating plants and domesticating animals go hand in hand. With the possible exception of the wolves that became dogs, no species prefers domestication to wildness.

Domestication means enclosure and violent death. People who work in slaughterhouses suffer from intense stress, while people who eat meat practice amnesia. Rare is the person enjoying a steak, a rack of ribs or a drumstick who wants to imagine the life story of the cow, pig or chicken whose dismembered body part lies upon her plate.

Mr. Masson's running plea for us all to become vegetarians does make sense, and I must admit it's convinced me. I'm someone who's been on the fence for a long time, knowing but trying to ignore the realities of factory farming every time I eat meat. Mr. Masson has pushed me in a greener direction.

Humans don't need meat for survival and never did. It's fast and satisfying protein, but enjoying it requires a suspension of compassion: "Perhaps the roots of indifference are to be found in our willingness to eat what was once a living, feeling animal. If we gave that up, would we reconnect with feelings we have suppressed, repressed or never known?"

Altruism, mercy and empathy number among the feelings Mr. Masson thinks we'll rediscover. He believes "our species has suffered a kind of PTSD since the origins of agriculture and domestication of animals."

As the former director of the Freud Archives, he reminisces about his many conversations with Anna Freud. Like her father, she didn't believe humans were capable of real altruism, a theory that renders any hope of change moot.

Mr. Masson believes we can change: "We would in my ideal world (and why not strive for one?) stop eating animals, stop experimenting on them, stop wearing them, stop exploiting them in any way, and certainly stop comparing them to us negatively."

Slavery degraded the slaveholders as well as the slaves, and animal-rights advocates invariably compare our treatment of animals to slavery. If liberating animals would stop human violence, who wouldn't be for it? My own hope lies in the further development of lab-engineered meat. If I could have my bacon and burgers without killing animals, I'd be one happy carnivore!

For I do agree with Mr. Masson that we are the apex predators of the world, as cruel and bloodthirsty a species as ever lived. (His "Appendix VI: The Problem With Pinker on the Problem of Human Violence" nicely debunks Steven Pinker's 2011 book "The Better Angels of Our Nature," which claims that, historically, violence has declined.)

Where I fear Mr. Masson has gone awry is in his assertion that the advent of agriculture made us brutes. Instead, I remember the fall series of lectures on human evolution sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh's Anthropology Department. I had the good fortune to be invited to dinner by Jeffrey Schwartz, the main organizer, when David Lordkipanidze, the head of the scientific team that found ancient hominin skulls in Dmansi, Georgia, delivered the final talk.

When I asked why Neanderthals and other hominins disappeared in every area where Homo sapiens appeared, the two men exchanged chagrined and knowing looks. "Do you think our species killed them off?" I asked. The answer was silence.

Susan Balee volunteers at the Animal Rescue League as a dog walker and fosterer of dogs and cats.

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