Friday, August 29, 2008

friday bizarro blogging

John McCain's VP pick Sarah Palin communes with Alaska's charismatic megafauna...

Courtesy of my favorite animal-named feminist blog, Pandagon.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

smart animals

From the BBC, my favorite source for critter news, two 21st-century entries in the venerable "sagacious animals" genre**:

1. "Wild" Australian dolphins develop "tail-walking culture"!
It seems weird to call a dolphin that lived close enough to humans to get trapped in a marina lock, rescued into a dolphinarium, then subsequently released to be closely observed by a team of scientists "wild." We humans sure have strange cognitive needs, don't we?

I never got around to seeing Happy Feet, but I can see this story being captured by Hollywood and genetically modified into a break-dancing cetacean flick. Or an even more anthropocentric version of Ratatouille, in which animals don't just want to become human, but aspire to be the funhouse version of themselves that humans want them to be.

2. Magpies can recognize mirror reflections of themselves!
And apparently they don't mind having random stickers stuck on their bodies as long as they can't see them.

** I'm using the term "sagacious animal" pretty loosely here, to refer to the kind of sometimes scientific, sometimes sentimental, sometimes a bit of both stories about smart animals and their funny ways that you'd find in the news and other popular sources. Harriet Ritvo, author of the wonderfully learned Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in Victorian England, gives a much more rigorous account of the concept of "animal sagacity" in the history of science:
... well into the last part of the nineteenth century "sagacity" was the standard term for intelligence demonstrated by animals. An individual animal or species might be described as "intelligent," but the term "intelligence" itself was generally reserved for strictly human capacities. (Conversely, if "sagacity" was attributed to human beings, it often had an ironic or less than flattering connotation.) The phrase "animal sagacity" in the title of a book or article often signaled an abstract discussion of instinct or intellect, the kind of discussion that might conclude by appreciating the intelligence of apes. But in the more common usage of naturalists, sagacity indicated not the ability to manipulate mechanical contraptions or solve logical problems, but a more diffuse kind of mental power: the ability to adapt to human surroundings and to please people. A somewhat circular calculation made the most sagacious animals the best servants. So dogs might not only rival apes in the mental competition, but surpass them - closest to their masters in mind as well as in domicile.
"The ability to adapt to human surroundings and to please people" - that may not be the official measure of animal cognitive capacities in 21st-century science, but it certainly still seems to be a potent force in the popular/pop-scientific imagination.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

conquest of dogs, conquest of everything

I took advantage of a transcontinental flight to finish about half of Kathleen Kete's The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris, which I've been meaning to read all summer. The book is sadly out of print, but available used. It's chock full of fascinating and often amusing historical details, from popular, highly embellished stories of animal virtue in the press (Grieving dog kills herself after master's death! Dog rescues abusive master! Etc.) to the fumbling attempts of Parisian authorities to enumerate, classify, and tax pet dogs. (My first post on this blog is actually about dog tax, too - though in the much different social world of plantation South Carolina.)

Call me a killjoy, but my antennas are always twitching for connections between dog-keeping and institutions of human-on-human dominance, especially racism and colonialism. So I was struck by these pronouncements from French naturalists that Kete cites:
From the novelist and journalist Aurélien Scholl, quoting the comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier, infamous autopsist of the so-called Hottentot Venus: "[the domestication of dogs was] the most useful and most remarkable of conquests, 'perhaps essential to the establishment of society.'"

A more florid version from Oscar Honoré, author of the 1863 Le Coeur des bêtes: "The dog is probably the first conquest of man, and it is thanks to him that man has conquered some tens of other species of animals without which there would be today neither city, nor road, nor nation, nor maybe mankind itself on the earth."

(For a few more examples, see Kete, pp. 50-51)
So, as a kind of "gateway" objects of conquest, dogs also enable humans - by which these guys probably meant "Europeans" - to vanquish just about everything else in the world. These passages don't refer to the conquest of other humans as such, but it's strongly implied in Honoré's reference to nation-building (and perhaps also in Cuvier's "establishment of society"). It's easy to see the ideological potency in this trope of humans and dogs in league against the rest of the world - of humans turning nature against nature, of nature willingly serving "Man" against nature.

The subtitle of Mark Derr's A Dog's History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent is a contemporary American variation on this theme, with a more cano-centric twist. The frontier thesis triumphalism here strikes me as oddly tone-teaf, given that the book actually includes a substantial, well-researched section on the horrifying use of war dogs in the Spanish Conquest of the Americas that - how can it be otherwise? - is anything but celebratory. But perhaps the title is the marketer's handiwork.