Animal Stories

by Joan Harvey

We are all the animals and none of them. It is so often said that poetry and science both seek truth, but perhaps they both seek hedges against it. —Thalia Field

Konrad Lorenz, still charming, circa 1981.

A handsome bearded man leads a row of eager young ducklings who mistake him for their mother. Many of us recognize this image, warm and charming, gemütlich even, as that of ethologist, Konrad Lorenz. Thalia Field, in her book Bird Lovers, Backyard, in a section titled “A Weedy Sonata,” leads us to Lorenz the way I came to him, the way I remember him from childhood: “…the imprinting idea reveals this white-bearded man in work pants and waders, a row of ducklings strolling behind him….Picture: Konrad Lorenz on his steps, feeding a baby bird from a dropper. Martina the goose waiting to go up to sleep in ‘her bedroom’ at the top of his house. A family portrait in progress.”

Recently Leanne Ogasawara, in her 3 Quarks Daily essay on Leonardo’s painting Salvator Mundi, concludes that in evaluating the provenance of an Old Master, it is wisest to trust the scientists, a position with which I’m inclined to agree. But in the discussion that followed, others raised the need for a “fresh eye,” suggesting that artists and philosophers and laymen should weigh in for a more balanced view, one less prone to innate bias. Today, with more women in science, with research in neuroscience leading to an explosion in ideas about what consciousness is, with neuroscientists concluding that animals too are conscious, there is recognition that we have drawn false borders where there may be none. Previously agreed on methods and theories have been increasingly questioned both from within and without a number of fields. There is a general re-visioning of assumed truths, of the canon left by mostly white men. Of course the best science is always open to correction as more information becomes available.

My mother, a passionate animal lover, who often preferred animals to humans, and who had six kids in a row, somewhat as if she’d produced a litter, had Lorenz’s book, King Solomon’s Ring, on her shelf, though I no longer remember if she gave it to me to read, or I just found it myself. And what I remember, what everyone remembers from the book, is this man, embodying both the maternal and paternal, leading a flock of baby geese around, feeding them, acting as their substitute mom. Imprinting.

On the ponds behind our house, huge flocks of mallards turned up every day at the same time, quacking and waddling almost under my mother’s feet to greedily eat the handfuls of corn she tossed out. Perhaps we too, her gaggle of children, identified with these avian crowds, pushing eagerly to get our fair share of attention and food.

Thalia Field, a poet who writes often about science, and in particular the relation of scientists and animals, is someone who opens our eyes to how science, speaking as if it is the truth, has in actuality often used story—and often false story—to prove its points. Of course, this is not always the case: “Biologists mostly work and write quantitatively, to loosen language’s messy involvement.” But when the results are interpreted, as they have to be, danger slips in. And the stories we tell about animals affect the stories we tell about humans, just as the stories we tell about humans influence those we tell about animals.

Field’s questioning of science’s approach to animals is perhaps most fleshed out in her troubling tour de force, Experimental Animals, on the great French physiologist (and vivisectionist) Claude Bernard. Using a collage of historical documents, Field vividly shows the extraordinary cruelty of vivisection, in which household pets were routinely stolen for experiment. The pain the animals suffered was mostly ignored in the desire for increased knowledge. Field’s book also gives voices to the women, including Bernard’s wife, who fought against the practice of slicing open animals while they were alive. In her memoir Living With a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “By the 1980s, science was beginning to move toward an acknowledgement of animal subjectivity and emotions, but for the most part educated humans were stuck with the Cartesian view of animals as automatons, driven entirely by instinct and reflex…. If I had thought anything else, how could I have cold-bloodedly vivisected so many mice in order to ‘harvest’ their cells for my experiments?”

Both Ehrenreich and Field speak of the dissociation of research from the living animal. “In the great live theater in which zoo-animals and lab-animals play parts, the keepers maintain tight control of breeding, birth, death, feeding, socializing. Authenticity and authority require constant manipulation of cage-homes” (BLB 71). Lorenz kept his animals on his father’s estate, and in a mansion complete with marble halls and painted cherubs. Field points out the false equivalence between the artificial nature of his animal experiments and the natural state the animals might otherwise live in. “On his lawn he could pretend to be a naturalist while using his flocks to prove his basic theory: that behavior emerges independent of environment, and degenerates through race mixing (domestication)” (BLB 68).

From her cozy initial introduction to Lorenz, Field’s story takes a sharp turn. We quickly learn that Lorenz was a committed Nazi and anti-Semite, who wrote to a friend in 1938, “We all cheer like little children over the Anschluss.” (BLB 66). He signed the letter Heil Hitler. Although I didn’t realize it as a child, Lorenz was from Vienna, where my mother, the daughter of an Englishman and American woman, lived the first seven years of her life. When the Nazis marched into Austria, and were welcomed with open arms in the Anschluss that Lorenz cheered over, my mother, though not Jewish, was sent to America. Yet later, like so many, she had no reason not to buy the warm picture of Lorenz and his animal children. Lorenz was apparently so charming that even his colleagues forgave him his Nazi collaboration. He never apologized.

Field’s essay is far more complicated, though, than a basic exposé. It’s a kaleidoscopic, damning dismantling of the false picture Lorenz presented, and that the world bought, of himself as a brilliant scientist. It is also itself a demonstration of how story infiltrates the way we think. She moves fluidly between literature and science, history and fiction, pointing out the use of false stories to create false “science.” Through a subtle build-up of facts, definitions, questions, stories, she undermines the whole way Lorenz theorized.

Lorenz’s 1973 Nobel paper was titled “Analogy as a Source of Knowledge.” From the idea of convergent evolution, in which “unrelated species develop similar forms in response to environmental challenges” (BLB 64) he theorized by analogy that “cultural behavior can be fully and directly inherited.” From this he concluded “Passing on a preference for certain clothing…was functionally analogous to inheriting bone structure. It wasn’t learned, it was genetic-instinctual” (BLB 65). According to Field, “Lorenz considered the theoretical move from morphological to behavioral analogy to be his greatest achievement” (BLB 65).

Field: “Can we imagine analogy, or even the feeling of sympathy between creatures, providing the source for knowledge—some uncontaminated epistemology—allowing people to share an animal’s world? Definitely. But, one by one, analogies also reveal the mirror’s opaque side, the confusion within this perceived agreement” (BLB 87). And she also makes explicit how her own juxtaposition of different texts creates its own form of analogy.

Very early in the piece Field mentions that 1973, the year of Lorenz’s Nobel Prize, was also the year of the Watergate scandal. At this point in the piece we’re not sure of the linkage, other than chronological. But it becomes clearer as we read. We associate the cover-up of a darker, hidden truth behind each. Field goes further: “With so many government, family, personal scandals (cover-ups of cover-ups, white-washings and lies), no wonder the most common behaviors confuse us the most. What analogy helps us understand analogy?” For example, although Nixon thought abortion might lead to too much sexual permissiveness, on tape he says “. . . there are times when abortion is necessary. . . like when you have a black and a white. . . (garbled). . . or a rape” (BLB 90).

In his Nobel essay Lorenz writes “The same individual geese on which we conducted these experiments first aroused my interest in the process of domestication. . . I was frightened—and still am—by the thought that analogous genetical processes of deterioration may be at work with civilized humanity” (BLB 64). Animals, according to Lorenz, were weakened through hybridization and domestication. Also people. “I believe man has an inborn abhorrence of humans who have degenerate instincts. This abhorrence has also certainly a species-preserving value, since in humans degenerate mating drives and similar brood-care reactions go along with each other, as, e.g. with my greylag/domestic goose crosses” (BLB 84). Field answers: “We can’t help but wonder what Lorenz would make of biologists’ current estimates that over 65% of goose and duck species regularly hybridize in the wild. It’s also interesting to consider what he would have made of the fact that most Europeans have some Neanderthal DNA, unlike most Africans.

Hybrids are dangerous. Mixing is dangerous and degenerative. Dogs of the northern “lupus” type are far superior to the southern “aureus” (jackal) dogs, analogous to Aryan and Semitic peoples. Of course the dog division both Lorenz and the Nazis made into northern and southern types was completely false. In response Field makes her text—collaging fiction, history, quotation, poetry, and theory—itself a hybrid, dangerous and degenerate.

Field’s essay shows us how much of Lorenz’s “science” was literary, a fiction based on his own biased projections. Lorenz claimed “‘military enthusiasm’ was the one ‘true autonomous instinct’ without which neither art nor science nor love would exist. Wolves, Lorenz went on to ‘prove,’ display compassion in giving mercy before killing one of their own. Pigeons, he ‘proved,’ do not” (BLB 82). But, as Field writes, “Upon closer observational experiment, his work with pigeons was proved erroneous and his reading of the wolf’s dominant and submissive positions was shown to be reversed.” Meanwhile Dutch/American ethologist Frans de Waal has shown how primate behavior can be either altruistic and empathetic or aggressive, and that the environment determines which behavior predominates.

In 1942 Lorenz worked as a psychological evaluator for a group of Polish/German children, mischlings. “His job required him (with his background in domestic and hybrid wild geese) to discern the psychological make-up of the children— looking for traits of national character—assuming that hybrid people become detached from pure parental values. … sufficiently ‘German’ mischlings could be resettled in the new Germanizing east, and those without patriotic profiles (‘instinctual cripples’ as Lorenz once called them) were sent to concentration camps” (BLB 70).

Lorenz of course was not the only one who espoused social Darwinism and hid his participation with the Nazis. Perhaps Lorenz is still much loved and read, while his history and mistakes are ignored, because of his famous charm. The charm of our memory of him, the charm of a handsome man leading baby geese, the charm of the animal stories in his writing. Austrians, especially the Viennese, are famous for their charm. Charm puts a spell on us, and blurs our vision. Charm can be used aggressively to disarm attacks. We see only what the charmer wants us to see. Unless someone breaks the spell.

I first read Field’s essay many years ago, and initially I thought it had remained so vivid in my imagination only because of the shock of a hero taken down. But on my recent rereading of Field’s piece I realized that I had intimate knowledge from childhood that a different man, also coincidentally a charming Austrian, was not the hero he was made out to be. And I too am a mischling. So I’d read Field’s work through the double lens of childhood betrayal, first by the Austrian man I knew, and then through her unmasking of this warm image of Lorenz I’d carried with me from childhood. It makes sense that the hidden dark underside of Lorenz would resonate with me. Autobiography? Imprinting? No doubt this, besides the brilliance of her writing, is why Field’s essay has cast a shadow for many years on my mind.

Part of the story Field tells is how as a teenager Lorenz’s closest friend was Jewish, a better student than he, who found him books and introduced him to scientists he hadn’t heard of. The friend was murdered at Sobibor. During wartime Lorenz eagerly sought jobs that Jews were no longer allowed to hold. And after the war Lorenz continued the work his friend had begun, barely giving him a mention. He turned all his interest and attention to animals. Field, though, is generous. She concludes, “But maybe in all his writing about all his animals he was simply asking—to any friend he’d ever had—‘Here Am I—where are You?’” (BLB 92)

In the final section of Bird Lovers, Backyard, Field writes about a contemporary of Lorenz, Heini Hediger, who, Field says, “didn’t tell animal biographies and he avoided analogy.” Hediger saw that animals in captivity don’t behave like animals in the wild. “In his last book, Understanding Animals, he publicly disagreed with Lorenz on the exclusive role of genetic heredity in evolution, positing that semantic changes in an animal’s niche—something more like learning or culture—were at stake.”

In a recent piece in the New Yorker, the late Oliver Sacks concludes: “Science, good science, is flourishing as never before. . . . I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.” It’s hard to argue with this, but the crucial concept here is “good science.”

On the other hand, Field in the Believer: “Where a person (species?) begins and ends includes all the verbiage that has spun into and out of us—gunked us up—or provided relief. I often think people seem like walking, talking, motley philosophies, trying to assert ourselves. . . .”

Field studied with a Buddhist nun for many years. She had, she says, to surrender her whole concept of “me.” What she demonstrates in her writing is a quality of listening and attention that begins to get beyond the old stories. A poet’s attention to language can reveal the places where the lies hide. We’re all blind in some ways, but we can also do our best to try to be attentive without projecting our own autobiography, as I do here, onto the world.

Or, to give Field the last word:

The fecundity of annihilated logic is endlessly magnificent somehow.


Sources in order of their occurrence:

Thalia Field, Bird Lovers, Backyard (New Directions, 2010)

Ogasawara, Leanne (2019, Februrary 4). “On the Trail of Leonardo.”

Thalia Field, Experimental Animals (Solid Objects, 2016)

Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God (Twelve, 2014)

Sacks, Oliver (2019, February 11).“The Machine Stops.”

Madera, John (2011, January 11). “Microinterview with Thalia Field.”