A billboard in New York recently displayed the slogan “We are all animals.” If you couldn’t guess, it was a PETA billboard, apparently trying to suggest that our close kinship with animals makes it unacceptable to eat or take advantage of them. But if we were truly animals, it’s not clear why we would be expected to have an ideal of kindness towards our inter-species kin: We could just as easily say, “We are all animals, so like wolves we should hunt and eat caribou without qualms.” The opposite slogan would be a more coherent argument for veganism: “We are not animals, so we don’t snap the necks of our living prey like falcons, nor do we eat our own young like beetles.”
The ancients were not so muddled in their thinking. They understood that those who are descended from animals will resemble animals for both good and ill. Think of Enkidu, the sidekick in the Epic of Gilgamesh, who was raised by beasts and inherited from them the horns of a bull and the ferocity to wrestle with a king and slay a monster. Or consider Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, who was suckled by a she-wolf in infancy. As an adult, Romulus led a pack and killed his own brother, just like a wolf might. PETA reminds us of our closeness to animals, believing that it will make us altruistically tender, but it’s at least as likely to make us selfishly brutal.
The people who have the most admirable relationships with the animal kingdom tend to be those who understand that—contrary to what PETA asserts—there are large, crucial differences between humans and animals. The legend of Saint Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio tells of a remarkable positive example, many centuries after Romulus was raised by one. When Francis lived in Gubbio (so the legend goes), a wolf had been terrorizing and devouring the town’s citizens. Francis neither fought the wolf (as some aggressive animals would have), nor submitted to its tyranny (as some meek animals would have). Rather, he approached it unarmed and spoke to it:
The saint thus addressed him: “Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing…for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer…but I will make peace between them and thee… thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?” Then the wolf, bowing his head, made a sign that he consented.
Francis addressed the wolf as a “brother” and sought to persuade him, rather than compel him, with the gentle authority of an older sibling. This mode of address was not merely an affectation, but came from Francis’s deepest beliefs about the relationship between humans and nature. Consider his prayer giving thanks for the moon:
Praised be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars,
In heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair.
The moon is Francis’s “sister” because it was created by the same Father who created humans. But that Father, according to Francis’s beliefs, also gave laws that restrain our most brutal natural instincts. As an older brother with brotherly authority over the wolf of Gubbio, Francis sought to persuade him to obey the laws of their shared father. Romulus, by contrast, was not a brother, but a “son” to the wolf who suckled him, and therefore sought to imitate rather than reform destructive wolfish behavior. Both thought of themselves as related to animals, but Francis believed what Romulus did not: that as humans we are set apart from nature rather than descended from it, and our distance above it implies an extra authority and responsibility over it. Francis’s beliefs led to a humane outcome where Romulus’s led to a bloody one.
Like most good ideas, this one was expressed by Chesterton more than a century ago:
The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.
It may seem like an unimportant metaphysical distinction, but understanding whether Nature is properly our authoritative mother (as Romulus and PETA would agree) or properly our unruly sister (as Francis believed) makes all the difference in how we treat our world and ourselves.
Today, there are many who treat nature as a mother, and others who treat nature as a sister. But the attitude that has become dominant in this century is a new one that Chesterton did not foresee: to treat nature as an infant daughter. This new development is nowhere more apparent than in the infantilization of household pets, who, even in their physical maturity are now often referred to as “fur babies.”
Today, more than 50 percent of American dog owners consider themselves “pet parents” rather than “pet owners” and are comfortable being referred to as “Mommy” or “Daddy” in reference to their pets. Pet ownership has gone up 20 percent in the last 33 years among Americans, with pet birthday celebrations practiced by 77 percent of owners and pet-related Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations practiced by a small but growing 10 percent. For many young, childless, urban Americans, “parenthood” to a dog or cat is the only regular interaction they have with the animal kingdom, and they seem to relish a parental status (in this sphere at least). Romulus the son and Francis the older brother have led to would-be doting parents of the natural world.
The new phenomenon of enthusiastic pet parenthood has brought with it its own excesses and pathologies. To take one trivial example, total spending on pet clothing and costumes has reached billions of dollars annually, even as trainers have warned that the constriction caused by many costumes gives dogs great anxiety and fear. Much more seriously, more than one in 10 pet owners reported that the high cost of pet ownership was causing them to put off having children. As pets become surrogate children, human children—more expensive, more demanding, more difficult, less obedient—become less common and the world suffers for it.
The change from treating nature as a mother in the ancient world, to a sister in the Christian middle ages, to a daughter today, is not only a feature of our relationships with pets. It extends to wild animals too. For example, the Wolf Conservation Center in New York hosts birthday celebrations in which children are encouraged to make presents to give to the wild wolves. Romulus would have known that wolves mostly only want to hunt and mate, not receive presents that they don’t understand. Francis would have known that wolves need guidance and control, not gifts. Instead, we offer them cloying infantilization.
Beyond the animal kingdom, we can see signs of this changing relationship with respect to plants and the rest of nature as well. Ancient religions worshiped thunder and the sun, revering them as gods or parents and obeying what was perceived as their will. Classical Judaism did not treat the physical environment as a parent to obey. It included a commandment to “dress and keep” the Garden of Eden. Together with the commandment to let the cropland enjoy a restful sabbath once every seven years, the gist of the teaching was that land and crops are ours to care for and nourish with gentle authority, maybe like an older sibling would care for and guide a younger sibling. But today, the growing trend of granting legal “personality” and unqualified, inviolable “rights” to Nature or to particular features of nature like rivers is reminiscent of the way a parent might advocate for her infant child’s right to strict protection without any room for compromise, negotiation, or balance.
The physical environment is not the only manifestation of nature that’s treated as an infant child today. We can see analogous changes in our attitudes towards human nature. The ancient philosopher Heraclitus declared that “war is the father of all and the king of all; and some he shows as gods, others as men, some he makes slaves, others free.” He accepted human nature and its propensity for war not only as a given, but as an authoritative father, whose assignment to slavery or freedom we must respect. Compare this to Robert E. Lee, who said that “it is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” Unlike Heraclitus, Lee recognized that the authority over war lies with us, and we should consider its good and bad points before engaging in it, instead of merely accepting it as a father and king. A natural father has become an unruly little brother like Francis’s wolf.
Compare Heraclitus and Lee to more recent attitudes about war. Stevie Wonder sang this about it:
Someday at Christmas, men won’t be boys
Playing with bombs like kids play with toys.
This is not war as a father—instead, it’s war as the foolish diversion of children. John Lennon, in his own Christmas song, had a children’s choir singing, “War is over, if you want it.” How simple. We only need to desire the end of war and, just like a parent might make strict rules for violent but impressionable children, we can end something that has been rooted in human nature for millennia.
The modern notion that human nature is as infinitely malleable as an infant child is also manifested in the current enthusiasm for gender reassignment procedures and the persistent attempts to abolish any hint of traditional gender roles in any corner of society. If nature is our mother, we must accept gender and all that goes with it unequivocally. If nature is our sister, then we can gently adjust the roles and limitations of gender while still respecting the propriety of innate differences. If nature is our daughter, then we can radically reshape it however we like with minimal effort or regret. From behind the scenes, our metaphysical commitment will dictate our policy choices.
A strange irony related to the modern treatment of nature as an infant child is that it’s a very selective treatment. The spoiling and coddling of treasured household pets has coincided with the rise of appalling conditions in factory farms, where animals not too different from dogs and cats live nasty, brutish, and short lives for our benefit. The tenderness and attention we lavish on the animals closest to us has led to an attention deficit towards the animals that are farther away. Maybe this is another fulfillment of O’Connor’s dictum that tenderness leads to the gas chamber.
The biggest problem with our disagreements about whether nature is a mother, sister, or daughter is that they cannot be resolved based on mere facts. PETA’s assertion that we are all merely animals and nothing else is an article of faith or dogma, just like Francis’s belief that we share a divine Father with animals. Whether “pet parenting” is an admirable expression of love and progress or, as Chesterton would probably view it, a damaging heresy, is a matter of values that will admit no final resolution.
From a practical perspective, the cultural headwinds favor PETA over Saint Francis. Our anti-hierarchical culture shudders at the notion of one creature having inherited authority over the other, as Saint Francis believed he had over the wolf. Our constantly increasing urbanization means that people are less and less familiar with the natural cycle of life and death in the animal kingdom, and are increasingly uncomfortable with the animal death that a carnivorous diet requires. These cultural currents may be too strong to reverse anytime soon. We’ll have to wait and see whether our modern beliefs lead us to paradise, or force us to reap the whirlwind.
Bradford Tuckfield is a data scientist and writer. His personal website can be found here.