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A New Book Explores The 'Beasts' Inside Us

In his book "Beasts: What animals can tell us about human nature," Jeffrey Moussaeiff Masson writes that "if we engaged in a fair comparison of animals and humans, we would gain a deeper understanding of where our own species has gone wrong. We can learn, too, what can be done about it, even at this late hour." Masson's idea of a perfect world would be one in which humans stop eating, wearing, experimenting on, and generally exploiting animals.

He realizes that's not likely to happen, but in this thoughtful, provocative book, he presents valid arguments pertaining to the origins of violence in humankind, and the lack of similar behavior in wild animals. Instances where animals in the wild have demonstrated what could be called psychopathic tendencies (vengeful killing, rape, cannibalism) have all been traced to some sort of negative human intervention. In essence, we have not only nearly killed off some species, but we've driven a few individuals crazy.

The question of why humans seem so bent on violence takes us back 10,000 years to the advent of agriculture. The domestication of animals for the sole purpose of food, the fencing of territory, and the concern with protecting one's own family against someone else's tribe resulted, eventually, in war.

Seeing animals as only a food source reduced our ability to empathize with other sentient creatures with whom we share the earth. The inability to recognize others as fellow beings, as Mr. Masson shows repeatedly, opens the door to torture, violence, and even genocide. The Jewish Holocaust was based on the premise that Jews were less than human.

But this isn't a book about just beating ourselves up. Mr. Masson reminds us that the existence of altruism in our society is real. There are many of us who would not hesitate to help another human or animal in danger. The only other species who would act unselfishly in order to rescue another would be dogs. (Possibly dolphins and whales, too, but that's still being studied.)

So long as some of us have this capacity for empathy, there is hope. A good starting point in changing the tune of our species might be with our descriptive language. Why do we use the terms "animal," "beast," "wolf," etc., to denote negative qualities, which animals in fact do not possess? It is a sort of linguistic habit we may find difficult to break, but it's a start. Next time you feel the urge to denigrate someone by calling him a snake, for instance, rethink your description. A more appropriate term might be simply "human."