Saturday, July 21, 2012

Nature Fakers, and Beast-Fable

Wikipedia's featured article yesterday was about the Nature Fakers controversy of the early 20th C, which I had never heard of but found interesting. I recommend the entire article, but this is the argument in summary:

Scientific naturalists deplored the explicit tendency of many amateur observers and writers about nature to attribute human volition, virtue, and sentiment to animals. For their part, those writers insisted that such humanness of animals was in fact true - that instinct was overrated, and that the incidents they reported had in fact been observed in the wild.

I side strongly with Muir and the other hard-headed naturalists in this, and have long maintained that this anthropomorphising tendency in literature, especially for children, has created generations of eco-idiots, who vaguely believe that squirrels have rich social lives and fish name their young.

On the other hand, this is the era of Beatrix Potter, and of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In The Willows, the latter of which I love. Beast-fable, is in fact one of my favorite forms of fiction. How did those writers (and Jack London) escape the wrath of the scientific naturalists?

I think there is a clarity in those writers right from the start, that these are not real animals, but humans in animal clothing. Grahame does not assert that water rats actually navigate boats nor toads drive motorcars. Animals are chosen because particular elements of human character can be distilled and exaggerated. CS Lewis wrote about this at some length, pointing out that talking animals occupy a comfortable in-between world between childhood and adult responsibility: meals appear without anyone apparently working very hard to supply them, but Badger and Moley have complete freedom of action without parental oversight - only the tugs and pulls of societal pressures and expectations need trouble them. Thus, aspects of English social life at the turn of that century can be highlighted and absorbed by children through their very bones, without didacticism.

I sense the difference as enormous between the beast fable and the assertions of the Nature Fakers, attributing learning and even instruction of the young to the animal kingdom. This type of thought persisted among sentimental Christians for decades - it was an important part of the materials of Bill Gothard's "Basic Youth Conflicts" series. Those materials were not quite so extreme as Seton's and Long's writings about animal nature, but they went rather far down that road.

We should be fair to Seton and Long and the other Nature Fakers. There were no video cameras then, and observation of nature depended greatly on word-of-mouth reports and who one trusted to see clearly. We see what we wish to see, and it was not so surprising that they perceived birds pulling threads from cloth for their nests and teaching this trick to their young as possible.

Tolkien and Lewis both use talking animals in their works, but the lines are drawn very clearly - except for the misstep about the fox talking to himself earlu in LOTR (which I perceived as jarring and wrong from first reading), sentient beasts such as eagles are much the exception, and evil animals such as spiders and dire wolves have a craftiness that is an intelligence, but alien to human thought. Lewis is quite explicit in his demarcation between Talking Animals and more standard beasts. The former have characteristics of animal-behavior, but are at root, fantastical humans. Mr. Bultitude in That Hideous Strength, in contrast, is pure bear, with nothing approaching human thought.

Which brings us to Watership Down or Rabbit Hill, which clearly cross the line beyond beast-fable into nature fakery, and yet somehow still work. Adams goes out of his way to tie the rabbits' actions into observed lapine behavior and known natural history. Their use of boats or prophecy are portrayed as the limits of their small-brain understanding, so that one might almost believe that the rabbit one sees by the side of the road might yes, dimly, know what is coming in the future or be able to direct other rabbits onto a floating piece of wood.

Almost, but not quite. Ultimately, we know that there is no real bunny theology, and Elahrairah is understood only by humans. We much appreciate him, and see our own lives more clearly from watching him trick Rowsby Woof. But we don't believe any real rabbits were involved. We know it is a projection.


james said...

Fair up to a point. Claiming that wolves killed by biting to the heart is over the top--no way they actually observed that.

james said...

Anthropomorphizing after a fashion, from over at First Things: Feeling Crabby?