By Lucy Cooke


The Unexpected Truth About Animals is a fascinating history of anthropomorphism and the co-opting of fabrications about animal behaviour to support moral and religious sermonising. It's a lighthearted book but one with crucial background for how we see other beings.

The audacity of the men who wrote falsehoods about these animals is astounding. One ordered local people to bring him animals from the forest and then promptly described the sloth as "the stupidest animal that can be found in the world". But he was looking at a sloth on the ground, not in the trees where they live. He might have noticed the curling toes and the hair parted down the tummy and figured perhaps the sloth he was looking at was a fish out of water, if only he weren’t so fixated on using the animal to demonstrate a deadly sin.

The stories about what has been written about these animals shows our raging speciesism in its origins.

If you feel an urge to explain anything that looks like contempt for or superiority over other beings as being "scientific" or "to avoid anthropomorphism" this book is invaluable in demonstrating that our tendencies to display such contempt began in utter falsifications, often from people who had never even seen the animal alive.

Our insistence that every other being is woefully inadequate and unintelligent compared to humans is not rooted in fact; it started with barely disguised prejudice and preaching and continues in misunderstanding and ego.

How about Artistotle writing that barn swallows hibernated naked during the winter? This "great thinker" had never observed anything like a naked swallow but over the next two thousand years others built on this idea and that's where we got the more ridiculous notion that they spend the winter like fish in a pond. Perhaps we were sore that birds could fly and we (at that time) couldn't.

It's easy to look back with the benefit of modern knowledge and scoff at what people used to believe, but there's something else going on here.

These aren't beliefs of people doing their best with the equipment available to them at the time. Many are just fairytales presented as fact. The man that wrote that you could generate a mouse from inorganic material using the skirt of an "unclean woman" (a belief that endured for a surprisingly long time) had clearly never achieved any such thing; he was making it up to serve some moral preaching about women's sexuality.

The disparaging names and offensive descriptions given to so many creatures were based on nothing more than, at best, brief observations.

And what about pandas? We've created a version of pandas in captivity that is evidently entirely different to wild pandas. Then we have the audacity to say that pandas are useless, incapable of survival, badly equipped and woefully evolved. Yet pandas have been around three times as long as humans have (and I haven't seen any pandas filling the oceans with plastic or pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere).

The way we talk about pandas is a bit like someone who has run a 10K (and managed to shit all over themselves and the spectators while they were at it) smugly declaring that a lifelong marathon runner has got her technique wrong. The response, really, should be: Who the hell do you think you are?

Cooke concludes that anthropomorphism (attributing human traits to animals) was a serious problem. But for me, this book prompted a revelation. The concept of anthropomorphism is flawed: who says which attributes are "human"?

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