Mark Rowlands's book on what it meant to have a wolf as his constant companion is both a striking and a frustratingly limited work of philosophyby Alexander Fiske-Harrison / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands (Granta, £15.99)
Mark Rowlands has produced a well-written book on a fascinating topic, containing within it diversions with all the profundity characteristic of his profession. Yet, when I put the book down, I was left with the feeling of an opportunity missed.
Rowlands is a British philosopher, currently holding a professorial post at the University of Miami. After an unusually brief doctoral degree at Oxford, he found himself teaching at the University of Alabama, drinking hard and playing hard, in part, one senses, to numb a sense of dislocation and alienation which pervades his writing. It is undoubtedly for this reason, along with a certain Nietzschean aesthetics and an excess of testosterone, which drew him to an advertisement for 96 per cent wolf-hybrid puppies in the local paper. Having been assured by the owner that they were actually pure wolves , the purported 4 per cent dog blood, i.e. one great, great, great grandparent, being a deceit to fit it through a loophole in state anti-wolf legislation, Rowlands took his new purchase home and named it Brenin. (It’s worth noting that dogs are now generally regarded as a domestic sub-species of the wolf anyway.)
From here we get the comical and affectionate chapters one expects from a bachelor rearing a puppy of unusual strength, including a fascinating study in how to train an animal which has not been selectively bred for obedience. Rowlands quite rightly, in this reviewer’s opinion, dismisses the claim that wild animals should not be kept as pets as long as the keepers knows how to keep them. Life in the wild maybe natural—whatever that problematic word is taken to mean—but it is also nasty, brutish and short. Brenin lived to eleven, wild wolves are lucky to make it to seven, and by all account these were happy years free from the deprivations, diseases and internecine strife which punctuate a wild existence.
That said, Rowlands takes seriously the fact that he has intervened in the natural order of things and alters his own life to compensate. Luckily for him, the life of an itinerant young philosopher allows for this. Brenin accompanies him to lectures with the sole caveat on his teaching syllabus of: “Caution: Please do not pay attention to the wolf. He will not hurt you.” He goes to Rowlands’ rugby matches and to bars, to sorority houses and a strip-joint—this last a fitting place for a wolf, or maybe two.
The first half of the book also treats us to the author’s well-informed, if arm-chair, theorising about the difference between man and wolf. Rowlands is a self-confessed loner when it comes to humans, and this is the psychological starting point for his theories. Taken in combination with his love for his “wolf-brother”, it results in a set of conclusions which sometimes resemble the first commandment of Orwell’s animal farm: four legs good, two legs bad. Tying together his readings of evolutionary history, animal behaviour and his own expertise in moral philosophy, he draws a dichotomy between the sheer viciousness of which man is capable, derived from the evolution of the capacity for deceit in the social groups of our ape ancestors, and the rough honesty of the wolf-pack.
That there is a great deal of truth in this generalisation is undeniable, and Rowlands is too canny to not highlight the failings of any such generalisation in terms of either its ethical implications or empirical basis. However, this totemic homage to Nietzsche, with its inversion of the standard stereotypes—ape-like now stands for decrepit scheming, wolfish for open nobility—derives from a rather slanted reading of natural history.
To begin with, his notion of “ape” is a combination of man at his worst and certain behavioural studies of our chimpanzee cousins, but it ignores the more peaceful and highly sexualised bonobo, the vegetarian and massively strong gorilla and the lonesome man of the forest, the Orang-Utan. Equally, his descriptions of lupine behaviour are highly selective.
One image which kept leaping to my mind whilst reading these passages is a photograph by the biologist Rolf O Peterson (pictured, below). In the centre of a snowy landscape is a single wolf, lying abjectly on the ground, around him the circling paw-prints of the other ten members of his pack. They must have circled many times for the snow is flat, and then departed, their tracks going off to where they are now resting some distance from this lone victim. The caption reads, “A pack may single out an individual ‘scapegoat’ for special abuse.” For, as Peterson’s colleagues, David Mech and Luigi Boitani, wrote in their seminal compilation Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation, “killing by other wolves is one of the commonest causes of natural wolf mortality.”
In a more general sense, Rowlands is singularly unimpressed by man’s self-promotion on the chain of being by virtue of his reason, self-awareness, language and civilisation. Indeed, he seems to see morality itself as a product of our capacity for deceit, our calculating nature and our fear of one another. One has to ask from what Archimedean point he thinks we can judge our moral system good or bad? Certainly not his own, which all too often seems to be the aesthetic standpoint of visceral admiration of wolf physiology and locomotion. If you combine misanthropy and lycophilia, the resulting hybrid, lycanthropy, is indeed interesting, but philosophically quite sterile.
This is not to say that much of the philosophising about time, death and our relationship with animals is not enlightening. From Alabama, Rowlands moves through rural Ireland, London and the South of France, his pack now swollen by a German shepherd and a wolf-Alsatian cross. The stories of his day-to-day existence are nicely told and towards the end of Brenin’s life, very moving (it is notable that the care and love lavished by Rowlands on his dying wolf are singularly human traits).
However, what we never see or, better, smell, is what the world is like from Brenin’s point of view—which is a disappointment from a philosopher not just of morals but also of mind. Wolves, like dogs, live in a perceptual world in which the sense of smell is more dominant than that of sight. Given that odours take a far slower and more tortuous course from object to perceiver than light does, we are offered no speculations as to how this might affect the lupine/canine sense of space and time. Rowlands rightly points out that in lacking any advanced conceptual apparatus of future and past wolves live more in the moment than humans do, but he ignores the fact that in another sense their perception is much more historical. Every olfactory perception tells them a story of what was where their noses currently are, along with whatever currently is upwind. In his urge to become the wolf, Rowlands has to some extent projected himself onto his beloved pet. He acknowledges at the beginning of the book that he cannot think like a wolf, but for such a capable philosopher and readable author not to have made the attempt is indeed an opportunity missed. As much as this reviewer enjoyed The Philosopher And The Wolf, I cannot help but wish it had included a section on what it is like to be a wolf.
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