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9 May 2016

The Dolittle delusion: what motivates human beings to live like animals?

Wearing a custom-built goat exoskeleton, sucking down worms like a badger – two new books describe extreme adventures in becoming beasts.

By Mark Cocker

The English-speaking world has long had a love affair with literature that attempts to describe experience from the point of view of another species. Henry Williamson is perhaps the best-known British chronicler of the beast’s inner world: his early forays, particularly Tarka the Otter (1927) and Salar the Salmon (1935), are considered classics of the genre.

Another notable transatlantic expression of the form is by the Canadian journalist Fred Bodsworth. Last of the Curlews (1955) is about the intimate lives and loves of a pair of birds called Eskimo curlews, which were hunted to extinction during the 20th century. It deploys something of Williamson’s formula – forensically detailed evocations of place, blended with scientifically accurate descriptions of animal behaviour – to elude the accusations of anthropomorphism that are so often levelled at books of this kind. Like Williamson’s Tarka, Bodsworth’s novel sold millions around the world, has never been out of print since first publication and was turned into an award-winning film.

The evergreen popularity of the two, which also share, incidentally, the ambi­guous border territory between so-called adult and children’s literature, prompts an important question. Why should grown men and women wish, Dr Dolittle-like, to converse with the animals and gain imaginary access to their inner lives? The question seems all the more compelling when we ­reflect, with the historian J W Fortescue in the original introduction to Tarka, that “we are and must continue profoundly ignorant concerning even those who are nearest to us”. So, why bother with beastliness?

Thomas Thwaites thinks he has part of the answer. In a new book, GoatMan, he describes the discovery of a Palaeolithic art object in the Swabian Alps in 1939. It was carved from mammoth ivory and, when reconstructed 30 years later, proved to be a human figure with a lion’s head (it was the centrepiece of the British Museum’s 2013 exhibition of Ice Age art). It is about 40,000 years old and one of the earliest sculptures found anywhere on Earth.

Thwaites argues in his original, engaging if rather quirky book that the merging of human and animal identities, as expressed in the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, illuminates a perennial aspiration of our kind. Much of the enterprise was motivated by functional considerations, a way perhaps to predict animal behaviour and improve hunting success. Yet not all of these energies can be so easily explained. It took a modern sculptor three months of uninterrupted ­effort to replicate the lion-man piece using Palaeolithic tools.

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The energies turn out to be important in ways that are not practical, but that spread from a broader, deeper impulse within us and that go to the heart of our earliest religious practice. They persist in modern shamanism. They bear upon our contemporary concerns for animal welfare and even upon environmental politics. They are, in short, at the core of our humanity.

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The author of GoatMan, however, is no shaman, nor is his quest for his totem animal quite so elevated. Rather, it came about when he sought funding for a design project, concerned with fashioning an artificial exoskeleton and prosthetic suit that would convert a typical human biped into a four-legged herbivore. His original idea had involved becoming an elephant, but even on the drawing board that scheme proved impractical. So when the grant-giving organisation took a shine to his idea, Thwaites persisted, but switched from elephants to goats, and then offered to walk across the Alps on all fours.

If his venture is comic in shape and the book’s underlying tone whimsical and chummy, there is something satisfyingly daring in the way he sets about exploring the nuts and bolts of goathood. Thwaites provides a detailed survey of the animal’s physiology, its structural differences from our species, its adaptation to arid montane environments as well as the history and impact of goat domestication.

Most impressive of all are his attempts to get to grips with the caprid digestive tract, aided by a professor at the Structure and Motion Lab of the Royal Veterinary College in London. Hands-on participation in the post-mortem dissection of a dead goat is illustrative of the author’s admirable and gutsy approach to the whole project. It turns out that a goat’s genius resides in that complex stomach, which has four separate foreguts and a symbiotic flora – various bacteria, fungi, protozoa and so on – that can convert indigestible plant cellulose and lignin into sugars (the flatulence of domestic livestock also produces more greenhouse gases than all the world’s road vehicles, ships, planes and trains combined).

In Thwaites’s drive to go goat, he even fashions an artificial equivalent of the creature’s foregut, into which he can spit grass that he has pre-masticated. He initially planned to turn grass into something vaguely edible by adding enzymes that replicate goat digestion and cooking the mess under pressure, and thus fuel his transalpine trek in true goat fashion.

All this suggests the impressive exploratory spirit underpinning GoatMan. Yet, for all its concern to assemble the technical details of goat biology, the book never goes beyond the external facts. Thwaites makes little effort to construct either a psychological pathway or a vocabulary that would allow access to the inner life of his goat. Nor do we ever encounter a person who has taken a holiday from his human nature. Thwaites is just a man in a goat suit.

Charles Foster does a better job of inhabiting and invoking the otherness of animals in Being a Beast. In achieving this alone, he makes a welcome contribution to the nature genre, which is so often a description of the author’s own emotional life. Foster tried that narrative model but rejected it; as he argues: “I walked round with a mirror in front of me, describing myself into a notebook and calling it nature writing.”

What makes his book successful is that he has pondered the issues of our shared psychology for years. He is a veterinary surgeon with a professional understanding of the endocrine system that undergirds the emotional lives of both beast and man. He is also a trained lawyer, with a penchant for medical ethics. Thus, he has a great deal of related technical expertise and puts it at the disposal of his foray into animal identity. The book is a treat simply for its blending of these separate, specialised vocabularies.

Foster divides his text into five parts as he tries on the identities of different creatures: the badger, otter, fox, deer and swift. Without detailed explanation, he assigns each of his animals to one of the five elements of life. That his badger corresponds to earth and the otter to water is logical, but why should a fox be emblematic of fire? Or the deer made to serve as a second symbol of earth? We never learn.

Nor does Foster explain his own biases, though he does at least openly confess to a prejudice against otters. It seems that this is mainly on the grounds that the species consumes 40 per cent more food than other animals of comparable weight. According to Foster, otters are “tyrannised by horrific thermodynamic arithmetic” and he dismisses Willamson’s portrayal of Tarka as a joyful creature. There are joyful badgers and swifts, he argues, but otters are just “snarling, roaming, twitching bundles of ADHD”.

The great animal love of his life, the one in whose psyche and spirit he immerses himself most completely, is the badger. With one of his six children, Foster goes to dig out a surrogate sett on a friend’s Welsh hill farm. There, father and son live underground as badgers would – sleeping in a hole in the ground and wandering the woods on all fours. Consuming the food of the totem beasts is a stock means of inner identification. As a badger, he takes to sucking down worms “like spaghetti”; as a fox, he grazes on craneflies laying their eggs (“Think of a ticklish rice-paper garnish that turns to vanilla slime”).

One of the most telling parts of his being a badger is a prolonged attempt to navigate blind by sense of smell, which replicates the prime sensory experiences of the highly myopic brock. Foster and son become connoisseurs of the distinct odours possessed by various parts of their territory. The elaborate vocabulary he devises to pin down each elusive fragrance (“orange rubbed on leather to your left and mushroom risotto with too much Parmesan to your right”) is a bit like the pressure cooker that is intended to turn Thwaites’s pre-chewed grass into fodder for himself. It is an expression, on the one hand, of their extraordinary commitment to explore the life of another creature; on the other, it often collapses the whole enterprise. For, in these sophisticated metaphors, as in Thwaites’s complex cooking kit, we see not the authors’ basic animal natures but their intricate humanity. It hints at the impossibility of making a complete psychic voyage into the other while also narrating the process to an audience. In short, you can possibly be the other; but you certainly cannot tell it.

If I have a disappointment, it is that both authors try to resolve the problem so often by playing it for laughs. At times each book comes to resemble a more conventional work centred on the misadventures of the eccentric, which is a very limited, very English stereotype. You sense them feeling for the next gag and shaping the text in the interests of the joke, rather than opening it out to get at the full intellectual possibilities.

Not to suggest that wearing a goat suit and walking the mountains, or digging a sett and slurping worms, isn’t funny. Both are. But there is a greater depth to the questions that the authors raise and that only Foster attempts to tackle seriously, making his the richer work.

He argues that if we give up trying to stand in the shoes of nature, and vice versa, we become “wretched bypass builders or badger baiters or self-referential urbanites”. Let’s face it: the consequences are far worse than that. This a planet where four-fifths of fish stocks have been harvested to or beyond sustainable levels; where half of the world’s temperate forest has been felled; where, according to the WWF fund for nature, half of all wildlife has been lost in four decades; where there are a billion more people every 12 years. The only thing that can reverse these processes is that we imagine our world as more than ourselves, and find a way to value those other parts of life.

In a sense, what doesn’t matter is that we attain some credible metempsychosis with the beast. For how can we really know what it feels to be a lion, or a goat, or a badger? We probably cannot. But what counts is that we make the effort and act in the certain knowledge that the badger possesses consciousness, exactly as we do. Technically it is called “theory of mind”. And the more we have of it, Foster points out, the better we “appreciate the interconnectedness of things” but also the better human beings we become. In short, being a beast allows us to become more truly ourselves.

GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human by Thomas Thwaites is published by Princeton Architectural Press (208pp, £14.99)

Being a Beast by Charles Foster is published by Profile Books (246pp, £14.99)

Mark Cocker’s books include Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (Vintage)

This article appears in the 04 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred