Anthrozoology: Embracing Co-existence in the Anthropocene

A book by Michael Tobias and Jane Morrison stresses need for universal coherence

Posted Jan 13, 2017

Coexistence and coherence in the rage of inhumanity 

"We either recognize the miracle of other sentient intelligence, sophistication, and genius, or risk enshrining the shortest lived epitaph of any known vertebrate in earth’s 4.1 billion years of life."

We are living in an epoch called the Anthropocene. Many people call it "the age of humanity," but I prefer to call it "the rage of inhumanity." A new book by ecological philosophers and animal liberation scientists Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison called Anthrozoology: Embracing Co-Existence in the Anthropocene just crossed my desk, and I haven't done much else than dive into it for the past few days. Their latest book is an eclectic and interdisciplinary journey that demands that we change our ways. It's description reads:

Courtesy of Michael Tobias and Jane Morrison
Source: Courtesy of Michael Tobias and Jane Morrison

This groundbreaking work of both theoretical and experiential thought by two leading ecological philosophers and animal liberation scientists ventures into a new frontier of applied ethical anthrozoological studies. Through lean and elegant text, readers will learn that human interconnections with other species and ecosystems are severely endangered precisely because we lack — by our evolutionary self-confidence — the very coherence that is everywhere around us abundantly demonstrated. What our species has deemed to be superior is, according to Tobias and Morrison, the cumulative result of a tragically tenuous argument predicated on the brink of our species’ self-destruction, giving rise to a most unique proposition: We either recognize the miracle of other sentient intelligence, sophistication, and genius, or risk enshrining the shortest lived epitaph of any known vertebrate in earth’s 4.1 billion years of life.

Tobias and Morrison draw on 45 years of research in fields ranging from ecological anthropology, animal protection and comparative ethics to literature and spirituality - and beyond. They deploy research in animal and plant behavior, biocultural heritage contexts from every continent and they bring to bear a deeply metaphysical array of perspectives that set this book apart from any other. The book departs from most work in such fields as animal rights, ecological aesthetics, comparative ethology or traditional animal and plant behaviorist work, and yet it speaks to readers with an interest in those fields. 

A deeply provocative book of philosophical premises and hypotheses from two of the world’s most influential ecological philosophers, this text is likely to stir uneasiness and debate for many decades to come.

I reached out to the authors and they agreed to an interview. Brace yourself for a most interesting, deeply thoughtful, and wide-ranging journey.

Why did you write Anthrozoology?

JM/MT: Because our species has, for most of its documented existence, lived in full denial of our material inflictions, the consequences of which in the 21st century are monstrous. We’re destroying the biosphere through cruel and criminal behavior that is global. The level of our distractions are overwhelming, and all about ourselves. We have to somehow transform this narcissistic bubble called Homo sapiens. Now how we do that, and towards what end? This is complicated. The book argues that unless we liberate ourselves from a 200,000 year-long biological hegemony that we have assiduously tried to maintain by dominating all other creatures, we will self-destruct, and soon. And while doing so, bring the rest of the Creation down in flames with us, with the exception of the smallest scale biotic communities, like mosquitoes, or bacteria, or viruses.

The field of anthrozoology represents an enormous constellation of disciplines converging, obviously, on interactions between humans, anthro, and other species, zoology, if you will. These are not just disciplines, but both theoretical and empiric facts and/or suppositions, scientific, linguistic, emotional, psychological, spiritual… stemming from the direct observation by humans. But all of these observations are weighted by human bias, human language, all things humans. Reverse the playbook so that we are the subjects of study and observation, and an entirely different set of rules and imaginative realities emerge, verging on the mystical, the artistic, and certainly delving into what we generally refer to as conscience and spirit. Go back to the Late Paleolithic Period, to the cave paintings 17,000 years ago at Lascaux or 35,000 years ago at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, for example, and you see the exquisite and complex images of interspecies mingling. Yes, as far we know they were painted by humans, not other species. But beyond our ongoing admiration of such works, and a definite lack of consensus on what precisely motivated the artists, we sense a deep-seated relationship between people and a near endless array of other herbivores and carnivores, from hyenas and rhinos to bovines, horses, dogs and birds. An authentic biophilia. A wilding, long before the notion of re-wilding. Virtually no sense, by the way of the vegetation, although at other sites throughout the world, there are indeed bits and pieces of painted Paleolithic landscapes.

But this human thing, this bias, has infiltrated everything we seem to think and do with regard to other species, including the designation itself, species, which in Latin is a rather dumbed-down little word for nothing more than a “particular sort, kind or type.” Imagine such a word, in the minds of Linneaus, Wallace and Darwin, Spencer and Cuvier, stirring such a revolution, contested theories about fitness and evolution, the one and the many, altruism and empathy versus the selfish gene; debates that continue to reverberate without any singular definition, let alone thorough understanding, that actually describes the real world. 

In this new book of ours we wanted to try ultimately to set the record straight and begin a conversation that did not favor, nor hold in any unique regard, we humans. Rather, it gives an equal footing, and more so, to what we call the Others, a virtual infinitude of Others. The book roams from the now extinct Rocky Mountain Grasshopper to Antarctic Blue Whales, and hundreds of other types of organisms, on every continent, all of them individuals, unique biographies, communicating fervently with each other and with the world in which they live. One concept we explore in depth to convey the extraordinary richness of that biological Internet of infinite chatrooms, so to speak, has long been known as the biosemiosphere.

Most poignantly, perhaps, the book’s ultimate message hinges upon a parrot to whose remarkable life story most of the last chapter (the longest in the book) is devoted; a very special avian we came to know quite personally over the course of decades, and one who taught us so very very much, and to whom we are eternally indebted. This personage, going extinct on a tiny island off the coast of Mexico, truly drives the narrative and is at the emotional and scientific core of what we believe to be a crucial message that lives and breathes throughout the book: That our love and reverence of other organisms, yes, other species, and our humble efforts to somehow non-invasively engage with them, may be key to solving the crisis of the Anthropocene which, most noticeably, has translated into the Sixth Extinction Spasm in the history of life on earth, a biospheric Holocaust occurring 24/7.

How do each of your interests merge to form a coherent book?

JM/MT: We’ve been best friends (and also married) for some 27 years, working together for over 30 years. Most fortunately, we work at the same thing. We are both smitten with, ennobled by what we term DDS, the Doctor Dolittle Syndrome, and this book is but one expression of that mutual passion, an urgency to share our love of science, natural history and art, with others, but with a singular hope that people will commit themselves to loving other Beings, unconditionally. Hopefully, that is a coherent message in an age that thinks nothing of courting incoherence. Fortunately, we know that there are hundreds of millions of people similarly afflicted with DDS, so we do, indeed, suggest many pathways of ecological optimism and non-violence activism in the book, as in our lives together.

What are your major messages?

JM/MT: Love thy neighbor comes very close. But perhaps Isaiah 11.6 comes even closer, namely, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Although we feel compelled to suggest an alternative ending, in which the little child (if by child Isaiah is referring to a human) will follow them.

We are deeply stirred by the current observational Renaissance that is occurring in all of the realms of natural history and animal rights in a digital age. You yourself once wisely noted that enough anecdotal evidence starts to build up into a science. You’ve got that totally right. And it is happening at the same time that we are destroying the world. These two phenomena consume feeling, thinking people day and night; they are absolute obsessions. Working together in the trenches of conservation biology and animal liberation, we can all effectively challenge traditional scientific paradigms, and bend the laws of moral tension that grip the Anthropocene and our species’ unique culpability for it, towards a new gravity that submits with love on the biological abyss, while holding firm to the throw-weight of one’s conscience and convictions. Your vote, your purchasing power, your resolve to be the change you wish for. These are just some of the rungs of that ladder that need quickly to be climbed; as we endeavor to move towards a fairer, kinder world; where trillions of animals are not slaughtered needlessly, every year by humans; or hundreds-of-millions of trees slain. Where climate change invokes a vast ethical change in time to halt the worst of it, if possible.

How does this book differ from some of your more recent books and films such as The Metaphysics of ProtectionWhy Life Matters: Fifty Ecosystems of the Heart and MindSanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence, your feature film “Hotspots,” not to mention your massive tome, God’s Country: The New Zealand Factor

JM/MT: It is very much a sequel to these recent works, but it really goes into a new direction. By examining many of the great recent works of anthropocenic and biosemiotic literature, combined with our own field work in many regions of the planet, especially our back-yard, we’ve tried to lend a scientific filter to that great 15th century work of art by Antonio di Puccio da Cereto, Pisanello, which hangs in the National Gallery of London, “The Vision of St. Eustace” in which, quintessentially, the hunter is converted to non-violence. Albrecht Dürer translated the image into a haunting etching in 1501 that is unforgettable. It works its way into your soul instantly. The psychology of transforming habits and customs such that, ultimately, we embrace a new human nature is what our new book is all about. We have strived to merge our work in a myriad of disciplines, along with so much personal field-work in an, albeit attenuated and most humbling effort to describe a world that might well materialize, if we all work together at it. That’s core conservation, of course; but it’s also core ecology; core democracy; core global citizenry; and core non-violence. Bottom-line: how can our species change to meet the rich and enduring visions and hopes of all those who love other animals and plants. How can the individual actually manifest change at the species, and population level?

What is your intended audience and why should someone read this book?

JM/MT: For every student and proponent of natural history and the eco-sciences; anyone involved with companion plants and animals; every painter and poet of landscape; for every conservationist, educator, lawyer, politician, innovator, person of faith, of no faith, cynic, skeptic and optimist, this book may well come as a refreshing surprise. To answer “why” our response is quite key: look around. The world, for all of her hidden fertilities, is suffering, dying. You can do something about it. This book lays out some very practical solutions. It’s also quite puzzling, for people who enjoy puzzles, because it will challenge readers to see the world and all those who co-habit the earth quite differently. The data we bring to bear is diverse and fascinating, often out-of-breath in its scope and endless arrays, a bit Joycean in the sense that the stream-of-consciousness follows from a veritable symphonic truth occurring in the soil, in every root system, among every flock, and pod, pack and brood, legion and gaggle, colony and cohort. There are magnificent communications happening all around us, inside us, and many of us are missing out on the music, despite huge Breaking News scientific stories every day about animal and plant communications and intelligence, sentience and sapience; qualia and consciousness at levels we can’t begin to fathom. If we were to set aside for a time our countless distractions and focus on birdsong and bird discussion, or the wind through the trees, or simply take a walk in the woods, or sit and be still… well, you understand. It could change everything, person by person.

Do you have hope for the future?

JM/MT: We always maintain a degree of hope or we wouldn’t be… in the world. 

What are some of your current and future projects?

JM/MT: We’ve been leading up a foundation now for 18 years, with many different international animal protection and ecological outreach endeavors. Michael recently published (also with Springer Nature/Science) his novel, Codex Orféo, based upon a scientific discovery in the forests of Belarus and Poland; and he has another novel coming out shortly with Zorba Press, Ideal Algebra, a very unusual examination of the entire 21st century. And we’re just now finishing a new non-fiction work that looks at the capacity of the individual to affect her/his species. What new social contracts are possible within the biosemiosphere? It’s a philosophical treatise on interspecies relationships. [For more Codex Orfeo and another interview with Dr. Tobias please see "The Psychology of 'Saving the World' in the Anthropocene."]

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

JM/MT: Thank you for caring.

There you have it. It would be utterly ridiculous for me to try to add anything to the preceding text. I hope Anthrozoology: Embracing Co-existence in the Anthropocene receives a broad global audience because the problems with which we're faced and solutions are not restricted to a single area of Earth. Indeed, as the authors point out, we are all connected and coherence is demanded as we move into the future. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018.