ADAM'S TASK: Calling Animals by Name by Vicki Hearne

ADAM'S TASK: Calling Animals by Name

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This unclassifiable gem will quickly irritate the ""experts""--the behaviorist scientists who study animal behavior--and ingratiate everyone else. A series of essays on animals' relation to human sign-systems (as in training animals to human voice commands or determining the comparative ""intelligence"" of animals), Hearne's book insightfully examines the metaphysics of domestication and communication. Hearne, an assistant professor of English at Yale, has also been for many years a trainer of horses and dogs. She will provoke the behavorists by her deliberately anthropomorphic stance in many of these essays; she defends, for instance, the use by professional handlers of such descriptive terms as ""noble,"" nervous,"" and even ""crazy"" when applied to animals. Devotees of the sentimental, however, should also steer clear of Hearne, who--like farmers, stockmen and indeed most animal trainers--habitually views animal behavior with a cool and even clinical eye. Animals are not simply--or simplistically--charming to her: they are nothing short of epistemologically significant. Hearne uses copious allusions to philosophers of language (Wittgenstein) and also to poetic masters of language (John Hollander) as she offers case histories of the problem horses and problem dogs she has worked with; quite persuasively, she notes the differences between ""trainable animals"" (horses, dogs), domesticated-but-untrainable animals (most cats, who wisely, she says, ""avoid the stupidities of straight lines""), and wild animals such as chimps and wolves. Wild animals, says Hearne, may well come to ""love"" their human caretakers but will never have a loyal dog's profound ""commitment to the forms and significance of our domestic virtues."" Hearne thinks that failures in the behavior of domestic animals--including aggressive behavior in pets--are really failures of training. This is a familiar enough point, but Hearne is unique in seeing as the essence of training the communication to animals of human language and human ""stories."" In the miracle of an animal's ability to respond to a name bestowed by a human being, Hearne quite convincingly situates the relevancy--and poignancy--of the animal world's relationship to our own. Some of these essays have been published separately in such magazines as Harper's and The New Yorker. They gain by group publication, as every page discloses fresh evidence of Hearne's rare combination of philosophical ingenuity and poetic grace.

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 1986
ISBN: 1602390029
Publisher: Knopf