Scientists Become Beasts
The AAAS endorses two books where researchers act like animals.
Thomas Nagel famously pondered what it would be like to be a bat, but he never jumped out of a belfry. In Science Magazine, published by the AAAS, Carolyn A. Ristau gave good reviews to two books by men who seem to have bats in their belfry. They took out into the wild to act like animals. Ristau begins by pointing to Darwin. His book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals began a tradition of turning people into beasts.
The first book she reviews is Charles Foster’s Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide. Is this how one does science?
In Being a Beast, informed by scientific research on animal physiology and behavior, Foster and his son live, badger-like, in a trench in the woods for 6 weeks, scratching in the dirt, crawling close to the earth, and eating worms that they find there. The swifts inspire his awe, although his attempts to fly with them fail awkwardly. To sense like the bird, he stands naked in the wind atop the moor. The swift’s minute filoplumes would convey essential information on feather orientation to its brain; Foster’s body hair ruffles empathetically. The urban fox engenders his deep respect: choosing to hunt, even though it could survive on pizza scraps. In contrast, humans seem “sclerosed superspecialists.”
Foster has created an enthralling and deeply reflective book. His prose is not merely apt but charming, witty, and poetic, capturing the imagined state and being of animals and of us humans as well. This reader was anxious, reading of the otter living on the metabolic edge. The hypertensive red deer, alert for a wolf, aroused similar emotions.
The second book is by Thomas Thwaites: Goat Man: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.
Thwaites, with a background in biology and a degree in design, originally conceived of the project as one in which he would transform himself into an elephant and traverse the Alps. A Wellcome Trust grant finally materialized, the award committee’s confidence based, no doubt, on Thwaites’s previously well-received project in which he created a toaster from scratch. After visiting real elephants and consulting a shaman, he realized that becoming a goat was more practicable.
Thwaites begins by recounting his first attempt to design prosthetic goat legs, which he hopes will enable four-legged movement and sufficient flexibility to eat grass. He visits a motion study laboratory and offers an engrossing discussion of the mechanics and evolution of human and animal movement.
She doesn’t tell what happened when Thwaites put on his “goat coat” and goat legs and headed out for the snow, but she shows a picture of him “doing his best impression of a goat in the Swiss Alps.” She thinks the books help people to “appreciate the rich and complex experiences of the other beings that live alongside us.”
You can observe animals without becoming one. People do that too much already. When Nebuchadnezzer acted like a cow, he was called crazy. Should these “scientists” acting like beasts be praised in America’s leading science journal? Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.
We think people should imitate angels instead. We have a higher calling from our Creator: “Be holy, for I am holy.”