The next step for beasts

Animals are despicable and pointless. This was the conclusion of thinking people, according to my father. Smutty and conniving, he would say. And those weren’t the worst things about them, just the most obvious, their materia prima. Upholstered poo machines, he called them, although that’s not their worst quality. “Relentless automatons,” he would say, “and that’s not their worst quality! Their worst is indifference. Utter indifference to any concern but their own, which can be as small as a single nut, or the slightest morsel of grime. And if we interfere for even a second, they turn their energies to our immediate destruction via biting, clawing or irreversible poisons with which they go equipped for no other purpose than to paralyse and kill their benefactors, the people around whose lands they bask.” He’d wave his arms. “It’s even become unfashionable to shoot them! This is what we’re up against!”

It may seem an unpopular position today but I feel we cannot deny its truth. We have to hand it to my father there – he got this one right. And owing to its ring of truth, as clear as a glissando from a harp, I have rarely questioned it, although granted I was also discouraged from questioning for other reasons that aren’t important here. I rarely questioned “man’s eternal struggle against the beasts”, as my father often put it. He would run through a list of animals and highlight each one’s infamy, because according to him it’s a feature of the so-called Animal Kingdom that each new creature is dumber, more ridiculous and less civilised than the previous, each coming to corner a uniquely pointless market among its tufted fellows, most often in bizarre and gaudy ways. “And they call it diversity!” he would shout. “Diversity – ha!”

I now see that his position had this merit: it’s a fairly recent phenomenon in history that liberals and fantasists in the guise of artists and writers began to describe animals as actors in a wholesome drama where we play protectors and saviours. A guilt-sink, a notion trapping our guilt just as a swamp traps carbon. A narrative holding animals as characters of affection and respect in a grander natural theatre. Whereas before they had occupied their rightful place as dangerous nuisances and spreaders of disease, engaged in no performance whatsoever save for the furtherance of chaos.

My father’s position simply said that humanity over millions of years has had long enough to assess its surroundings and has done so pretty well; and that – taken as a line from humanity’s beginnings until today – the period within which animals have been regarded with affection is infinitesimal, not even a whole percentage point; and, therefore, the likelihood is strong that it is wrong. This is where my father’s argument stands. This is its foundation. So when he ran through his list of animals to me as a child, always with the same examples, it was to illustrate this position using the same pictorial imagery as the liberals and fantasists in the guise of artists and writers had used to create the current delusion. This is how thoughtfully crafted his argument is.

“Take the snake,” I recall he would say, “scarcely a creature at all, hardly worthy of a name. Just an empty limbless tube that can bite from one of its ends, bite anything it can, bite and kill for no other reason than it comes across something, anything at all, to bite and kill. It exists only for this, for nothing more or less than biting and killing,” he would say, his cardigan pocket writhing with the mashed-up old tissues that serviced his ever-glistening nose. “Any other activity,” he would say, scrutinising a tissue for a patch of dry surface, “such as eating or mating, serves nothing more than this. And then there’s the anaconda, the world’s largest snake! Too pointless a snake to even bite, being so pointlessly large that nothing is game to approach it!”

With this he would shake his head as if promised the world and let down horribly. “Still, and this is the thing,” he’d continue – “even the detriments of a snake fall short of the most pointless. The competition for pointlessness among animals is never ending, simply infinite, make no mistake. Take for example the bêche-de-mer,” and here he would gaze up as if warmly reliving his own encounters with the “cucumber of the sea”, although he had never encountered one, despising the sea as he did. “Take the bêche-de-mer: an animal not only comprised of a simple flabby tube, that doesn’t even bite, couldn’t bite if it wanted to – but whenever frightened it shoots its guts out through its backside and dies. Blasts its own guts out, and hence its life; can you think of a more fruitless thing in the world? It should be made an ambassador for all animals, a flag, a warning, a caveat, if you like, of just how pointless things can get in the so-called Animal Kingdom, which but for the malice and ignorance of children’s writers and their publishers would be seen for just what it is: a pitiful and dangerous illusion fuelled by idle bleeding hearts and anthropomorphist fantasists.”

This was my father’s doctrine. Arising not from a life in the jungles but from a childhood with a cat that disliked him. Still, as he would often say: if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all; and to that extent he was right.

Anyway. It came to mind today as, alongside my computing degree, there’s a module on relevant philosophies. And radical behaviourism today pointed out that we too are animals. Just as automatic and often fruitless.

Just as predictable. Gullible. Suggestible.

So. Off to a lecture now on surplus behavioural data in social media. On connecting the world’s creatures to harvest their idleness.

If my father could see how right he was…

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 26, 2021 as "The next step for beasts".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription