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BEASTS by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson


What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Pub Date: March 4th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-60819-615-9
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Masson (The Dog Who Couldn't Stop Loving: How Dogs Have Captured Our Hearts for Thousands of Years, 2010, etc.) explores evolutionary history and the animal kingdom for the origins of human violence.

The title of the author’s latest philosophical treatise gets to the heart of the paradox of human cruelty. When compassionate, humans are said to be humane; when violent, they are often compared to ferocious beasts. Even the famous ancient Roman saying, “Man is a wolf to [his fellow] man,” attempts to characterize the human tendency to turn on a fellow creature via the metaphor of the predatory wolf. By looking at behavioral examples here and from elsewhere in the animal kingdom, Masson demonstrates a problem with this beastly association: Evidence suggests that wolves rarely turn on one another. Likewise, orcas, whose brains are much larger and whose life spans parallel ours, do not attack their own kind, and 170 years of field research has revealed only 10 to 20 chimpanzee-on-chimpanzee killings during that time. By contrast, Masson offers the example of the Battle of the Somme, where, by battle’s end, “both sides sustained 1.3 million casualties.” Masson persuasively presents his pacifist, staunchly pro-vegan agenda: Only humans “create artificial and arbitrary distinctions—different race; different language; different religion—for which we are willing to kill and die.” Though the author is quick to admit that no other animal is as likely to come to the aid of another species as humans, he also shows that no other species is as eager to kill for sport. He supports Jared Diamond’s theory that this unrelenting aggression may be traced back over 10,000 years to the advent of agriculture, which introduced multiple levels of social inequality and led to the domestication of animals; this, Masson argues, “has perpetuated a culture of cruelty and abuse. We watch animals who are our prisoners with no awareness of the suffering we have caused them.”

A compelling, unsettling, provocative examination of the relation of beast to man.