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

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

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620400746
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/10/2015
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 576,952
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 2.10(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, an ex-psychoanalyst and former director of the Freud Archives, is the author of numerous bestselling books on animal emotions, including Dogs Never Lie About Love and When Elephants Weep. He lives in Australia and Europe with his family. Visit his website at


Auckland, New Zealand

Date of Birth:

March 28, 1941

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


B.A., Harvard, 1964; Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1978, Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard, 1970

Read an Excerpt


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

By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson


Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60819-615-9


Crocodiles and Us

This concept of human identity positions humans outside and above the food chain, not as part of the feast in a chain of reciprocity but as external manipulators and masters of it: Animals can be our food, but we can never be their food. The outrage we experience at the idea of a human being eaten is certainly not what we experience at the idea of animals as food.

—Valerie Plumwood

Valerie Plumwood, a prominent ecofeminist who taught at the University of Montana and the University of Sydney, wrote in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature about what she called the "hyperseparation" between the self and others, especially other animals. Her view is that by setting humans up as masters of nature we have manipulated ourselves into becoming a species of warriors, at war with other species, rather than simply coexisting with them:

The idea of human prey threatens the dualistic vision of human mastery in which we humans manipulate nature from outside, as predators but never prey. We may daily consume other animals by the billions, but we ourselves cannot be food for worms and certainly not meat for crocodiles. This is one reason why we now treat so inhumanely the animals we make our food, for we cannot imagine ourselves similarly positioned as food. We act as if we live in a separate realm of culture in which we are never food, while other animals inhabit a different world of nature in which they are no more than food, and their lives can be utterly distorted in the service of this end.

Plumwood believes we are misguided to view ourselves as controllers of a tamed and malleable natural world, as she puts it, with no more violent beasts for us to overcome. If this self-assessment bears any relation to the truth, moreover, it is only because we have become the violent beast. Instead of having other animals in our jaws, we have one another. We also perpetrate mass violence against our own kind. Warfare is organized fighting, which involves a willingness to submit to authority, a risk of injury and death, and premeditation, and it has lethal violence at its heart.

Waging war has become a bad habit; other people do it and encourage us to try it. We have become so accustomed to it that we find it normal. In some sense, it defines us as a species: we are the animal who is engaged in near-constant warfare. Do animals engage in anything like this?

Consider the crocodile. In 1985, something happened to Valerie Plumwood that is relevant to this discussion. She was in Kakadu National Park, near Darwin, in the Australian Northern Territories. She was alone in a small canoe in a place called East Alligator Lagoon (an odd name for a country that does not have alligators), looking for caves with indigenous rock art. She had been warned by the rangers that there were many crocodiles in these remote waters and that she should not be gone long or stray too far. Under no circumstances must she enter the main river.

For hours she searched the maze of shallow channels in the swamp but did not find the channel leading to the rock art site. Rather than return defeated, she decided to explore a clear, deep channel closer to the river. But the channel only led back again to the main river, the very place she had been warned not to enter. She began to think she should have sought the advice of the original owners of Kakadu, the indigenous Gagadju. They would have told her to stay away.

Plumwood had the sensation of being watched.

She became intensely aware of the precariousness of her own life—indeed, of human lives in general: "As a solitary specimen of a major prey species of the saltwater crocodile, I was standing in one of the most dangerous places on earth." We are just another animal, prey sometimes, predator at others. But humans are not used to being seen as prey. That is why her account is so profound.

Perhaps lulled by the magical beauty of the birds and the water lilies, she did proceed into the main river. Ten minutes downstream, she noticed what she thought was a floating stick. But it developed eyes. It was no stick; it was a crocodile. "How interesting," was her first thought, like a tourist being shown the local wildlife from the safety of a boat. But her little canoe was not safe. Suddenly, the crocodile rammed it hard, coming at it over and over. She had the stark realization: "I am prey." There can be no more horrible thought. She made the split-second decision to leap into the branches of a large tree growing on the bank of the river, knowing her only chance of escape was if she could make it into the tree. She stood up, ready to jump from the canoe.

At the same instant, the crocodile rushed up alongside the canoe, and its beautiful, flecked golden eyes looked straight into mine. Perhaps I could bluff it, drive it away, as I had read of British tiger hunters doing. I waved my arms and shouted, "Go away!" (We're British here.) The golden eyes glinted with interest. I tensed for the jump and leapt. Before my foot even tripped the first branch, I had a blurred, incredulous vision of great toothed jaws bursting from the water. Then I was seized between the legs in a red-hot pincer grip and whirled into the suffocating wet darkness.

At that instant, Plumwood's world was turned topsy-turvy. She told herself that this could not be happening, that it was a nightmare from which she would soon awake. "This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed the world for the first time 'from the outside,' as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death."

Worse was to come, for the crocodile did what crocodiles do when wanting to subdue prey. Few of those who have experienced the crocodile's death roll have lived to describe it. It was, for Plumwood, "essentially, an experience beyond words," one "of total terror." She knew that

the crocodile's breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim's resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive. The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs.

But it was not over: "I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll."

She survived this second bout of whirling and surfaced, still in the crocodile's grip, next to a branch of a large sandpaper fig tree growing in the water. She grabbed the branch, vowing to let the crocodile tear her apart rather than throw her again into that spinning, suffocating hell. But when she tried to climb into the tree, the crocodile seized her again, this time around the upper left thigh, and pulled her under for a third time. When she resurfaced she was again near the tree branch. She was able to hoist herself up, and then, inexplicably, the crocodile suddenly let go of her thigh and she was able to reach the muddy bank above the tree. (Crocodiles tire easily, and this was his third attempt at subduing this stubborn woman.)

Plumwood was so exhausted, however, and the bank was so slippery, that she began to slide down toward the waiting jaws. She jammed her fingers into the mud and was able to pull herself forward. Her life depended on doing this a few more times, and she did. Severely wounded, bleeding profusely, and in a driving rainstorm, she managed to crawl two miles through mosquito-infested tropical swamps, losing consciousness several times before being found by the ranger who had warned her of the dangers of the river in the first place. The nurses who attended her in the hospital say her injuries were among the worst they had ever seen. So I cannot entertain the hypothesis that the crocodile was being gentle, and must admit Plumwood's survival had nothing to do with the crocodile reconsidering his behavior.

When describing the attack, as Plumwood did many times over the next years, she became aware of something confounding to any human. She remembers thinking: "This can't be happening to me, I'm a human being, I am more than just food!" She found it to be "a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat." She was in an "alien, incomprehensible world" in which, as she put it, the "narrative of self" had ended. She explains what she means by this phrase: she could not let go of herself entirely, and she wanted to tell her story. "During those incredible split seconds when the crocodile dragged me a second time from tree to water, I had a powerful vision of friends discussing my death with grief and puzzlement. The focus of my own regret was that they might think I had been taken while risking a swim. So important is the story and so deep the connection to others, carried through the narrative self, that it haunts even our final desperate moments."

The more she reflected, the more her philosophy morphed into the notion that we humans are no different from any other species. No species wants to be prey to a predator. Each animal who is a victim is probably as shocked and horrified and terrified as she was. All animals, Plumwood saw, want to be more than prey. Indeed, all animals are more than prey. "I was a vegetarian at the time of my encounter with the crocodile, and remain one today," she explained, and added: "This is not because I think predation itself is demonic and impure, but because I object to the reduction of animal lives in factory farming systems that treat them as living meat." She was responding to the insight that each and every animal has his or her own biography, an important point first made by the distinguished philosopher Tom Regan. This view is now accepted as one of the bedrock beliefs of people who work in the area of animal rights. We have a tendency to believe that human biographies are more important than animal biographies, and it is worth noting that every animal has a past, and a desire to flourish and live a happy and full life.

I can remember riding a train out of Bombay when I was quite young and seeing the thousands and thousands of apartments with people crowded in them, and suddenly thinking: "They are just like me; they have their triumphs and their setbacks, just as I do. Although they are unknown to me and will always be unknown, their life matters as much to them as mine to me." Is this not equally true of every single animal on the planet?

Some Americans seem to believe that American lives are inherently more valuable than the lives of anyone Americans are at war with—for example, Afghans—so we often see reports, with minimal comment, of death by drone of entire families. For people who accept this degree of violence as normal, it is asking a lot to recognize that the lives of other animals are inherently valuable as well.

Alas, the crocodile did regard Valerie Plumwood as living meat. That is, after all, the major difference between humans and all other animal predators: we can make a choice about our diet that they cannot. She refused to allow the rangers to kill the crocodile who tried to kill her, as the animal had no real choice—it was simply doing what crocodiles must do to survive.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had listed the Nile crocodile as extinct in Mauritania in its 1992 action plan, but then in 1993 three young French travelers rediscovered them in five gueltas (rock pools). Today we know there are even more. Scientists from the University of Bonn in Germany conducted a study of Crocodylus niloticus in southeastern Mauritania.

The people in this area do not hunt the crocodiles—not for food nor for their skins. At least in the province of Hodh el Gharbi in southeastern Mauritania, the people believe that if they kill the crocodiles, their source of water will disappear and bad luck will descend permanently on their villages. Consequently, crocodiles are considered sacred, and harming them is taboo.

According to the German scientists, the children swim in the wetlands where the crocodiles live. The scientists saw women filling water containers with crocodiles basking in the sun right next to them. They also observed men making bricks next to a water hole filled with crocodiles, exhibiting no fear that at any moment they could be served up as lunch. Local farmers grow vegetables next to the gueltas inhabited by the crocodiles. Perhaps they lived with their losses? Not at all: there has not been a single report of any kind of attacks on humans in this area.

There are other traditional cultures where crocodiles are accorded this respect. The small African village of Paga in Ghana also has a tradition according to which the souls of ancestors are incarnated into crocodiles, and consequently the villagers do not harm the crocodiles in any way. There are more than a hundred crocodiles living in the lake beside the village, and nobody has ever been attacked by a crocodile, even though they bathe with them and interact with them as if they were playful pets.

Could it really be that, over time and with experience, crocodiles can learn to live in peace with the human species, much as the orca does? With thousands of years of cohabitation in the same ecological niche, have the crocodiles and the humans come to an understanding, a modus vivendi: "You leave us alone and we will leave you alone"? It is not entirely surprising that a species capable of compassionate behavior toward unrelated young (for this is true of crocodiles) might well decide that we are not to be harmed as long as we abide by the same code. Perhaps these crocodiles have myths about sacred humans, too, and believe that harming us will bring misery into their lives as well.

These are gentle crocodiles. How extraordinary! Coexisting with them, these people in Paga found a way to live in a world in balance. Does this prove that humans can learn to live in harmony with crocodiles, and if so, could that lesson be generalized? What would we look like as a species if we had greater respect for nature?

Still, I must admit that when I visit Australia, if I am anywhere near where saltwater crocodiles or sharks might be found, I will not enter any body of water. The chances of being attacked may be infinitesimal, but I'm instinctively wary of these two apex predators.

But why the fear of alligators and crocodiles and sharks when the odds are so very much in our favor? Well, for one thing, becoming mortally wounded is no way to depart from this world. Crocodiles have the hardest known bite force on earth. Their jaw pressure is at least five times that of the largest lion. And whereas another alpha predator, the orca—the so-called killer whale—has never killed a human in the wild, crocodiles do, even if not often. Why the stark difference between these two species in terms of eating humans? Does it have to do with the fact that a crocodile has a much smaller brain than an orca? The disparity in brain size is a fact, but it is not necessarily relevant.

Crocodiles are more closely related to birds than they are to other reptiles. Crocodiles also live in complicated social environments, more similar to those of mammals than those of other reptiles. For example, a young crocodile who utters a distress call will attract immediate help from completely unrelated adult crocodiles, even if it means risking their lives. If we find this altruistic behavior surprising, it is merely an indication of how reluctant some humans are to recognize the intimate lives of this and other species.

Even so, crocodiles do kill people. Saltwater crocodiles are responsible for the death of approximately one person every year in Australia. The same is true, more or less, for alligators in North America (between 2000 and 2010, the American alligator killed thirteen people).

Like sharks, crocodiles do consume us. But, as I learned of villagers coexisting, even bathing, among crocodiles, I realized that it is not impossible to have a peaceable kingdom even with a species we consider innately murderous, if only people—and perhaps crocodiles, too—could agree to live and let live.


Excerpted from Beasts by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Can the Human Species Wake Up? 1

1 Crocodiles and Us 7

2 "The Other" 17

3 Conformity 26

4 Cruelty 36

5 War 50

6 Killing 66

7 Hatred 83

8 Exploitation 96

9 Indifference 109

10 Wolves 126

11 Kindness? 137

12 A Billion Acts of Kindness 150

Epilogue: Elephant Trauma and the Promise of a Better World 157

Appendix I Human Traits Unique to Us 163

Appendix II Human Universals 165

Appendix III Traits Humans Have in Common with Other Animals 169

Appendix IV Benevolent Traits Unique to Humans 171

Appendix V What Humans Do to Other Animals 173

Appendix VI The Problem with Pinker on the Problem of Human Violence 175

Acknowledgments 181

Notes 183

Bibliography 201

Index 205

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