Book of the Week: Animal Rationality

 Cover Animal Rationality

Animal Rationality: Later Medieval Theories 1250-1350 by Anselm Oelze (Brill, 2018)
. [Open Access]


I happened upon this book a few days ago, a pleasant surprise. Oelze demonstrates how deeply the roots of modern ethology and comparative psychology lie in medieval thought, and especially scholastic thought. It turns out that even the most timely topics in modern comparative research had already been raised by scholastic theologians and philosophers such as Avicenna, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Albert Magnus, John Duns Scotus and John Buridan, &c. These researches not only concern certain capacities that are still as much of interest today as they were then (such as rationality, judgment, memory and foresight), but also the question of what sets human cognition apart from non-human animal cognition—a crux of modern comparative and evolutionary research.


For those interested in how methods of science have been brought to bear on understanding animal rationality, I recommend Niko Tinbergen’s Curious Naturalists, which presents firsthand descriptions of his field studies that contributed to his winning the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology. Those interested in exploring more popular (as opposed to scholastic) medieval literature on animals may like to read Physiologus, a collection of animal tales that was among the most read books in late antiquity. I recently prepared this bilingual edition of the book: It features the 5th century Classical Armenian text with word-by-word grammatical tags and a facing English translation by Robert Bedrosian. Robert’s translation, which excludes the moralisms that constitute a key part of the medieval text, brings the book more in line with J. L. Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings.


A note on animal welfare, which now mistakenly tends to be viewed as a secular movement associated with a global warming agenda, certain misanthropic tendencies, and petty acts of vandalism. The fact is that few individuals in modern times have contributed as significantly to promoting animal welfare as Anna Sewell in her 1877 novel, Black Beauty. I note that Sewell was from a family of Quakers, a group that contained some of the most prominent figures involved in the US abolition movement (as I have briefly discussed elsewhere). In a 2018 talk at the Vatican, the Orthodox theologian, His Eminence, the late John Zizioulas, broached this topic within the broader context of man’s communion with nature. This excerpt in particular struck me:


The Gospel is not only good news for humanity, but for nature as well… 


The human being contains in itself all of creation, having received the call from the Creator to unite it in itself and refer it back to him in gratitude and thanksgiving… Humanity and the rest of creation form a single body. Nature is a sacrament. The inseparable ontological link between humanity and the rest of creation makes nature acquire the function of the means or tool by which the human being exercises its ec-static capacity of communion with God and with other beings. This means that the human being can communicate only via nature… 


In our time, this of course tends to be more or less doubted, with the development of digital communication, and perhaps with artificial intelligence and so on. And this I think must be seriously considered in connection with ecology. The spread and domination of communication which bypasses nature can have serious ecological consequences for humanity, as it tends to dissociate it from nature.

In the Christian tradition, humanity uses natural material for communion with God and between human beings themselves. As is evident in all the sacraments of the Church, it is not without significance that we are baptized with water, offer the eucharist in the form of bread and wine, are anointed with oil, exchange the kiss of peace by embracing one another with our bodies, etc. The world becomes in this way a sacrament; that is, a material or natural reality which carries the capacity of communion…

This may be news to some in these reactive times, but one can, in fact, choose to commune more closely with nature without having some grand political agenda and irrespective of his political leanings.


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