Dominion or co-existence?

-CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikipedia Loves Art, shootingbrooklyn

The Peaceable Kingdom, 1833-34, Edward Hicks. Attrib: Wikipedia Loves Art, shootingbrooklyn, CC BY-SA 2.5.


Whose view of animals has more appeal? The ancient Jews or Henry Beston’s?

The Old Testament leads with "let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."(Genesis 1:26, KJV)  These old thoughts still represent how a good part of how the world views animals. The emphasis is on a dominance hierarchy – animals exist to serve humans.

Beston, in his essay Autumn, Ocean, and Birds suggested that "We need another and wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and see thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken forms far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."(Henry Beston, Outermost House, page 24-25)  

Regardless of which view you favor, humans are still animals that need other animals as a source for food and much else. Yet would we better protect our earth and its vast bestiary with the first attitude or the second? Would mining the earth’s living things for our survival be less fraught if we see other species as other nations, as beyond a human-dominated hierarchy?

Beston studied the natural world, and his attitudes are in the best way scholarly, open to all of the unknown possibilities of his subject. His thoughts echo many native cultures, which explicitly acknowledge the rightful place animals have in the world and the mystery of their existence, cultures who colonize and kill animals for their survival, but take care that the animals continue to exist as mystical beings in their own right.

With co-existence as a starting point, the need for humans to survive is coupled more directly with the need for us to acknowledge and understand the living world, the biosphere, and our place as part of it, not as the dominating power over it. Anyway, there is much more of our ecosystem that is out of our direct control – for example, we are colonized with huge numbers of microorganisms without which we cannot survive. A more humble human outlook regarding animals, a more co-operative view of other living organisms simply acknowledges the truth of human life – we do and must continue to co-exist with other life for our own best future. Explicit recognition of co-existence allows us to put away old, narrow and ultimately limiting ideas of dominion.

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