Little Anthropomorphic Birdhouse in Your Soul

Birds will be building nests over the next two weeks in this part of the world. Indeed, a pair of house wrens has moved into the birdhouse affixed beneath the eaves of our home. It’s fun to sit on the front porch and watch them get everything ready for the big event. I was out on the porch the other day reading as they flitted in and out of the birdhouse with bits of dried grass and straw. Ironically, I was reading Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural World, a masterful overview of the changing attitude toward nature in England from 1500-1800.

Thomas is one of that vanishing breed of scholars who have personally and exhaustively read everything written on a particular subject. He also eschews computers in favor of index cards and a filing system! His book traces human understanding of the natural world from its ancient and theological foundations in the late Middle Ages through the growth of the natural sciences in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. What strikes me is how anthropomorphous the view of nature has always been.

In one section on taxonomy, Thomas describes the ways animals and plants were classified by early modern naturalists. Some classified them by their degree of usefulness to humanity, with the major categories being tame or wild; other naturalists classified animals by their physical beauty or personality traits (bravery, loyalty or gregariousness, etc.). Songbirds, like my two little house wrens, were sometimes classified by the sound quality of their calls: melodious, melancholy, vivacious, etc. The framework always began with human traits or the animal's relationship to humanity.

Thomas also mentions the degree to which theological dogma resisted any close comparison of humans to animals. The study of anatomy through the dissection of human corpses was particularly frowned upon by the church because it uncomfortably revealed the similarity between the internal organs of humanity and other mammals. The obvious similarity of bodily functions also made early modern thinkers uneasy. Thomas recounts a passage from Cotton Mather’s diary in 1700:
I was once emptying the cistern of nature, and making water at the wall. At the same time there came a dog, who did so too, before me. Thought I; what mean and vile things are the children of men… How much do our natural necessities abase us, and place us… on the very level of dogs!
Mather resolved in the future to fix his mind on “thoughts of piety" during his toilet to remind himself that he differed from the brutes (which in the actions themselves he did very little).

At the same time people were thought-policing the boundary between humans and animals, they were paradoxically looking to the animal kingdom for justifications of human social arrangements. The thrift and industriousness of bees and ants was appealed to in 18th century tracts about the poor. Indeed, honey bees were clearly indications that monarchy was the form of government favored by nature, and, if favored, obviously ordained by the creator.

The rhetorical appeal to nature as evidence for cultural norms is still around today. One hears the argument that same sex gender orientation “is not natural,” with natural used to mean morally in line with some universal standard. Many people today would turn my little house wrens into an argument for marriage and family (despite the fact that the conjugal relations of wrens more closely resembles serial adultery).

In my freshmen honors seminar, the students begin the semester by writing their initial view of human nature and its relationship to nature. It’s astonishing how closely their views parallel the pre-scientific, anthropomorphic idea of nature as a static, universally-ordained hierarchy with humanity at the top where God's universe intended them. Talk about being homers for your own kind. Any fair estimation of successful species on this planet would rank bacteria higher than humanity. They are far more numerous, more resistant to extinction, and they thrive in a much wider variety of climates.

Sometimes you hear various pessimists talk about the onset of a new dark age, but just as often I think to myself that we haven’t really left the dark ages, middle ages or Renaissance behind. They are right there in the classroom staring back at me every single day.


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