Today Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson will be talking to us about his new book, Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Human Evil, released this month by Bloomsbury Press. Jeff has been writing about animal emotions for 20 years. His books, When Elephants Weep (1996) and Dogs Never Lie About Love (1998) have each sold over 1,000,000 copies. Jeff is one of the most brilliant people I have ever had the honor of knowing and working with. His intellect is both passionate and wide ranging. Last year, when I visited him at his home in Auckland, New Zealand, he commenced to spend 3 days ranting at me about the flaws in Hannah Arendt’s concept of evil. (Apparently the fine people of New Zealand don’t have strong feelings about this topic.)
Of all Jeff’s books about animals, this one seems to get to the heart of the moral boundaries that separate humans from animals. Jeff begins with an observation that illustrates the puzzle that this book will seek to solve. He says: “There are two major predators on the planet with the most complex brains in nature: humans and orcas. In the twentieth century alone, one of these animals killed 200 million members of its own species, the other killed none. Why?”
ANDY: Jeff, we wrestled with the title of this book for years. And I think we are both pretty happy about it. There seems to be some irony in it though. Can you explain what you mean by “beasts”? How do expressions we use about animals show our basic misunderstanding?
JEFF: Too often, in order to insult somebody, we say that he behaved like a beast, or an animal. I was reading Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, about the terrible gulag prisons, and came across this: “I have often thought about the tragedy of those by whose agency the purge of 1937 was carried out… Step by step as they followed their routine directives, they traveled all the way from the human condition to that of beasts.” Think of all the times we describe humans in order to demean them as some kind of animal. So we call someone vermin, a worm, a snake, a wolf, a blood thirsty beast (my favorite), an ape, a bitch, or a pig.
ANDY: As in many of your books, you try to contrast the peaceable kingdom of animals with the horrors of human behavior manifested throughout history. But there are numerous examples of animals doing violence to humans and to each other. Perhaps you are overstating your case.
JEFF: They do violence to us and to other animals, for sure. But not to the extent that we do violence to them and to one another. The disparity is just mind boggling. I don’t see animals as saints (human saints are not saints either), but they don’t seem driven to, for example, exterminate all members of a different clan of tigers, elephants or crocodiles.
ANDY: Whenever I tell people about your thesis, they always bring up the example of chimpanzees as animals that seem to engage in gratuitous violence. Isn’t this contrary to your ideas?
JEFF: Yes, to some extent. In the book I go into this in some detail. Jane Goodall is the first person to notice the violence of chimps and she would also be the first to acknowledge it is simply not on the scale of human violence. I guess it’s so shocking because so unexpected. We expected chimps to be more like, well, bonobos! They are a different species of chimpanzee, just as closely related to us as the other, but completely peaceable. They have been studied, but not yet in the same detail as the more violent chimpanzee. They are led by females, and this may be why (I mean why they are less violent AND why they have been less studied!).
ANDY: One of the themes you talk about here and in previous books is that animals, unlike humans, have no sense of “other”. To a dog, another dog is just a dog, not a different species. But for humans, the idea of “other” has created all sorts of horror. I’m fascinated by your anecdote about “the last Kantian in Germany”. Can you relate that to us?
JEFF: Yes, it is one of my favorite anecdotes, and it’s true. And it’s deep. Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French philosopher and survivor of the Holocaust, was in a labor camp for officers on the outskirts of the city of Hannover. When they were marched out of the camp they were treated with contempt, and looked down upon as “vermin,” not even human. With one exception: a stray dog who found his way into the camp. Each day, when the prisoners returned to their camp in the forest, the dog would greet the line of men with great excitement and friendliness. He was always delighted to see them. He was there in the morning when they were assembled, and “was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight.” “For him,” Levinas notes, “there was no doubt that we were men.” Levinas immortalized the dog later with the title of the last Kantian in Nazi Germany. This dog, like the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and all dogs, understood that humans are an end in themselves, and not a means to an end.
ANDY: This book audaciously takes on the nature of human evil by contrasting our behavior to that of animals. But you also give the devil his due. Humans have a kind of compassion that we don’t find in the animal world. Why is that?
JEFF: I don’t know, but it’s true. No animal has become a doctor specializing in humans, or built a hospital to take care of humans. We can mobilize hundreds of other humans to search for a lost dog. Individual dogs will search for us, but they wouldn’t implore other dogs to join them. I’m sure everyone can think of examples of this human quality of compassion, including, of course, thousands of people in the animal rights movement. Some of us, raised as carnivores, go vegan. No other predator species in the wild has ever foregone meat for moral reasons!
ANDY: Jeff, one last question. At the end of the book, you take on the ideas espoused by Steven Pinker in his controversial work, The Better Angels of Our Nature. He argues that human violence in the modern world has declined. You disagree. Will you comment?
JEFF: I have an appendix in my book where I address this question at some length. Apart from his distorted version of prehistory, surely it is odd, in a book arguing that violence is decreasing all over the world, that there is little or no mention of Srebenica, the Rwandan genocide, Pinochet in Chile, the junta in Argentina (or Brazil or Greece); no entry under colonialism, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe; and only one mention of Mussolini and two of apartheid, and with virtually no discussion of the violence in places such as Guatemala.
ANDY: On March 9 at 1 PM, Jeff will be appearing at Book Passage in Corte Madera in conversation with Daniel Ellsberg. This is an event you don’t want to miss. Two towering intellects who have spent their lives trying to understand how evil manifests itself in human history. You really need to be there.