Medieval Bestiaries were fantastically popular and influential. They were so predominant that ripples from their impact still affect us today after roughly a thousand years. Bestiaries were based on the belief that morality could be divined by studying nature, particularly animal behavior. They offer a tantalizing contemporary design despite a past full of crucial impediments. The medieval versions are fraught with fabrications. Behavioral observations typically relied on lore, often tainted by the need to affirm some batty moral dictum of the era. Even worse, they produced inapt corollaries that often undermined the authors’ professed sacred scripture.
Rehabilitated by today’s robust sciences, this bestiary illustrates intricate connections between physiology and behavior with the help of animals that have graciously exhibited their everyday escapades to explicitly expose our evolved nature. In this work, clear parallels arise between animal behaviors and modern political traits which are taken up one creature at a time. The root causes of our own political divisiveness emerge as we journey through biology and neuroscience following the lead of animals behaving (and misbehaving) naturally. This voyage not only guides us to many political solutions, but arms readers with a framework to devise their own solutions for restoring sanity to civilization.
Here is an interview with author Karl Hodges:
There’s a history of bestiaries, from the medieval catalogs of wild creatures to some 1970s satirical attempts at ‘political bestiaries.’ Where does your book fit into that tradition and how is it unique?
My work is quite different from these. Sure, I couldn’t help but dredge up some medieval bestiary quotes, but that was mostly to point out how often the fables told the direct opposite of today’s more careful observations, not to mention their frequent contradictions of the faith traditions they emanated from.
There’s also some satire, after all, who doesn’t want to think of their political rivals as animals? By the way, there’s a beast model for everyone. I don’t give passes. The closest thing to satire, however, came about through no one’s fault. I was at a loss for finding a good model for the Libertarian personality, since nearly all animals are social species, and by the numbers, this party’s members are not. So, I took the advice of two friends, one who grew up on a farm, and another who is an authority on lab animals. They both agreed that a good example of a solitary animal is a boar. There isn’t much common knowledge about porcine behavior, after all, if people discover how smart pigs really are, Oscar Myer and Jimmy Dean could go out of business.
How is it unique? This bestiary is unique in that it rigorously applies peer reviewed science that employs techniques that weren’t available until the past two decades. These findings are presented in a practical, approachable style that develop fresh insights while debunking commonly held misconceptions. The ideas I present follow the research tightly, but may have been sidestepped by others because of political pressures and risks, both real and imagined, in society and today’s academic institutions.
This bestiary is also different because I use a very wide range of animals as stand-ins for our ancient evolutionary forbears. I use these to get to the roots of some of the more elusive behaviors. Too often other authors seem to be uncomfortable discussing creatures older than Homo erectus, so they fail to establish these connections.
How did you decide to express your ideas through this metaphor?
I chose the bestiary model because it fit neatly with the path I was taking after the first inspiration — to look for the evolved influencers of our political behaviors through animal models. As one definition has it, a bestiary is:
A medieval collection of allegorical fables about the natural history, habits and traits of animals both real and imaginary, each fable followed by an interpretation of its moral significance.
There were many appealing aspects to this model, beyond letting the reader know that I was going to explore the hidden nature of human morality. Perhaps the most useful aspect was how it lent itself to organizing such a massive amount of information.
I’m keenly aware that the fields of study most other writers might focus on can get dry. To get past that, I lean on the natural affability of animals, their endearing charm, to help get points across. It’s also better to know what behavior this neuro peptide or that lateral horn of the sympathetic nervous system ultimately produces, rather than delve into minutia and tiresome detail. Lucky for us, many animals graciously stepped forward to demonstrate these to skilled human observers.
Oakland Zoo docent Loretta Breuning, author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and other neuropsychology books, claims that we can look to our fellow mammals to understand and perhaps predict human psychology. Would you agree with that?
I absolutely agree, mammals and beyond right down to fish! I look to animals because there are way too many things that can’t be explained when one attempts to apply classical learning theory and logical thought processes to our political insanity. That’s what I mean in the subtitle “the inner beasts that spawn irrationality”.
When you stop and think about America’s political situation, logic and reasoning just don’t seem to be in play. In my circle one of the most common questions I hear is “how the heck can anyone think that way?” Still, I’ve limited my focus on irrationalities to a single chapter, in consideration of those of us who have irrationality exhaustion syndrome.
Many feel deep frustration that there isn’t an argument they can come up with that will cause any change in some people’s views on global warming, evolution or assault weapons. I tell these folks not to even try argument, seems that prominent groups on the right too often ignore passages in their favorite book, so basically even God doesn’t have a good enough argument. Let’s try a different approach, maybe look under the hood to see if we missed something important.
If we accept that there is too much irrationality, we might also agree that something else may be more powerful than learning and reasoning. In the world of behavior, that pretty well leaves us with instincts and emotions. To understand these, we need to understand biology — and for that one must look through the lens of evolution.
I think many will appreciate the connections I’ve unearthed, as well as the many fresh concepts in The Bestiary of American Politics that result from this approach. In particular, one vital myth this book debunks is “man’s sinful nature.” It includes studies that celebrate humanity’s potential. While other species may also be cooperative, curious, caring, altruistic, industrious, hardworking and gregarious, few rise to our level. None are as honest.
Which ‘beast’ was the most fun for you to create and describe?
While I didn’t create any beasts (I’m not that talented), I loved exploring how existing animals behave. I’m not certain which part of the book was the most thrilling. I can still vividly recall vacationing in a water-tower cottage in Mendocino County when I was struck with the realization that the parallels between baboon studies and John Jost’s meta-analysis of conservative personality traits were so tight. It was unearthly! It was like I was hearing a deep gong ring on and on, as many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle kept dropping into place.
On the other hand, the endearing vole beasty may be the most enduring. Too insignificant to even get a mention in medieval bestiaries, it is a central creature in this work thanks to a study by of Izhar and Eilam. This research team did horrible things to these unsuspecting social living rodents, but the results perfectly paralleled how Americans changed after that fall of the World Trade Towers on 9/11. The vole beast came as close to exposing a unifying theory as anything in this work.
Would you say your book has any particular bias or message? If not, how did you ensure that your personal political positions didn’t creep into the project?
My book certainly has bias — let’s face it, everything humans do will contain bias. Mostly, this work attempts to come at the issue in full honesty. Sometimes I think I’m alone among authors as I reject the idea that it’s perfectly OK for so many people in a modern society to eschew findings of peer reviewed science, to maintain strictly closed minds, and get to enjoy a cadre of “alternative facts.” I think it’s fair to point out that this is a problem.
We know from surveys as well as laboratory experiments that inducing fear in a subject rapidly closes that person’s mind and almost as quickly turns them toward a syndrome of traits held in common between authoritarians and conservatives. I won’t make the argument here, but it’s possible these people are actually victims of fear induced manipulation. Do I prefer to nod my head and suggest that they have a perfectly valid alternative viewpoint, or do I start to become concerned when that viewpoint appears to be at the heart of the denial of climate change, our nation’s high level of violence, racism, and our inability to get out of this pandemic alive?
As far as my own positions creeping in, I’ve attempted to keep the work data driven, but in the end I couldn’t help but reach a clearly biased conclusion — that coming to terms with the wonderful creatures we really are will best be brought to fruition if we can enjoy a stronger, more pure and all-encompassing form of democracy.
Karl Hodges’ The Bestiary of American Politics is available here or on request from your local independent bookstore!