What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Beasts by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson


I was in Hood River, OR last weekend for a wedding and my wife and I meandered into a book shop.  I happened upon a book called “Beasts: What Animals Have to Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil.”  Since I am a theologian who has a vested interest in good and evil, I grabbed the book and read the inside cover, which said, “There are two supreme 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 has killed none.”

Jeffrey Maussaieff Masson

Click to see Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s website.

My curiosity was piqued.  Why were whales killing themselves?  Why had nobody told me?  What could I do to stop all these homicidal killer whales out there?  I might have to request a transfer to Orca Church of the Nazarene so I can start saving and sanctifying this violent species.

So I eagerly bought the book and spent a few days reading through it.  It turns out whales are not homicidal after all.  In fact they live quite peacefully, though they are predators that feed on millions of smaller fish.  Instead it is us humans who killed 200 million members of our own species.

Jeffrey Masson concludes, “There is something different about humans” and he spends 10 wonderful chapters illustrating it.  At times preachy, at other times humble, Masson takes us on a tour of the “wild”-erness, introducing us to wolves, elephants, bears, and crocodiles.  It turns out none of these creatures are nearly as “wild” or as “violent” as their stereotypes imply.  Wolves have only killed two people in North America in 200 hundred years and one of those accounts is heavily disputed.  Bears are huge and mean but their violence is never directed towards each other and when it is directed towards humans, they usually have a good reason (like hunger or defense).

In nature you will not find the gruesome brutality that describes the human race.  We bomb our own people.  We beat our own mates and children.  We spend millions of dollars to develop weapons that we use to conquer other tribes and destroy or enslave them.  We often slaughter children and rape women in the process.  And we just don’t do it to ourselves, we usually exercise brutality against other animals as well, for no reason or purpose other than we like to kill.

In sharp contrast, Masson argues that when brutality is found in the “wild” it usually is because a traumatic event has occurred among the animals species.  Then Masson asks the million dollar question, “What traumatic thing happened among humans to make us so violent?”

He concludes it has to do with the development of agriculture and domestication about 10,000 years ago.  When we learned to domesticate animals and grow our own crops (on our own land), it turned us violent.

I find that conclusion far too simplistic.  I do think domestication and agriculture probably had something to do with increasing our violent tendencies but as a theologian I would argue what Masson is searching for is akin to our doctrine of original sin.

At its heart, this Christian doctrine, believes something traumatic did happen to the human race in our infancy.  The Scriptures use the story of Adam and Eve to illustrate it as an open act of rebellion against God that sent us into a wilderness life.  Genesis 3 is also far too simple a narrative but therein lies its beauty.  The reality is at some point humans became incredibly different from the animals and that difference led to us becoming a brutally violent species.

In the later chapters Masson tempers his argument and describes the good differences between humans and the other animals.  He mentions that in the “wild” you will not see animals protecting other species.  But humans will chain themselves to trees in front of bulldozers and PETA works tirelessly to fight against the brutality committed in slaughterhouses.  You don’t see anything like these “organizations” among animals.  They will defend their own kind but leave the others to die.  In fact, the only place we find hospitality in the animal world is among domesticated dogs, who have been taught over the centuries to protect their human masters (though my dog seems to have unfortunately skipped that class in canine school).

In the end, Masson finds much hope amidst the despair that is the human race.  He believes that our good angels might win the day in the end.

I share that same hope but I call it grace.  God is working among us to redeem us and purify us and restore us to harmony, even in the middle of great violence and war.

It almost makes me want to chain myself to a tree and go swimming with orcas and running with bears.  .  .almost.


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