Reading into Animals: Reflections on “Characterizing Animals in Science and Fiction”


Characterizing Animals in Science and Fiction was held November 28, 2016 at Columbia University

Speakers: Harriet Ritvo (MIT), Jonathan Losos (Harvard), Alexandra Horowitz (Barnard)

Moderators: Matteo Farinella (PSSN), Lan Li (PSSN)

Post by: Lan Li

I grew up with fish.  They existed in their world, and I existed in mine.  Our relationship was maintained by certain degree of distance.  But this distance could easily collapse.  In classic Chinese literature, rabbits could take on human forms, just as humans could turn into monkeys, rocks, and tigers.  My family members often referred to each other based on their corresponding animal zodiacs.  For instance, I was born in the year of the dragon.  Therefore, I am a dragon.  My fingers were too claw-like to play piano, so I learned zither.  Humans were embodied metaphors for non-human animals (and rocks).  Not the other way around.

In addition to my work as a historian, I’ve been spending a lot of time sectioning and staining bat tissue to learn about techniques of mapping innervation, so, this event gave me pause.  I paused to consider what it meant to isolate delicate fragments of bat spinal cord and gaze at its fluorescent cells.  Like non-human animals in literature, animal bodies and body parts straddle multiple dimensions of scientific practice.  This practice of reading and legibility extends across fields in history, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary biology.  Within these fields, the act of reading is also a process of transformation.  You change the thing once you encounter and interpret it, a point that Ian Hacking eloquently made in his chapter, “Do We See Through a Microscope?

Neither Matteo Farinella nor I specialize in animal studies, but we were curious to venture into this conversation from perspectives across the sciences and humanities.  To be sure, animals studies is a rich field populated by far more talented historians and anthropologists who draw on frameworks like feminist STS (Science, Technology, and Society studies).  But for us, this was a modest beginning.


Photo credit: Jozef Sulik

We were lucky to have invited historian Harriet Ritvo (MIT), cognitive psychologist Alexandra Horowitz (Barnard), and evolutionary biologist Jonathan Losos (Harvard) to guide us through their work with animals in literature, in laboratories, and in life. Whether domesticated, imaginary, or genetically modified, we can never quite know these animals. In a way, as with other humans, their minds are just beyond our own comprehension.

Harriet Ritvo, a pioneer of animal studies in the history of science, shared a new paper on animal characters in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  At one point, the Cheshire cat explains to Alice that they are both mad. But dogs are not mad.  Which is a pretty mad thing to say in 19th century English literature because dogs rabid from either viral infections or over-grooming were a legitimate menace to Victorian life.  And while the Cheshire cat distorts Alice’s perception of the world, the Gnat elevates her expectations of reality.  Who needs a butterfly when there are bread-and-butterflies?  In fiction, through the example of Alice’s encounters with creatures of Wonderland, the animals that she meets dictate the terms of their relationship and reveal her own assumptions about animals.  The barriers and power dynamics between the human and non-human are constantly negotiated.  One can never quite claim dominion over the other.

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, further addressed the uncertainty of this dominion through her work on anthropomorphism and dog cognition.  Though humans can assume ownership over animals, such as dogs and cats, owners cannot assume to “know” their pets as much as they like.  Horowitz’s findings of human-animal interaction rather reveal human desires through a close analysis of dog behavior.  When pet owners described their dogs as having a “guilty look” through downward cast eyes and drooped ears, their dogs might not be as guilty as owners presume.  For instance, dogs innocent of bad behavior were more likely to exhibit the “guilty look” when accused of disobedience.  Rather than give away the situation, the dog used the conditioned “guilty look” to mediate her owner’s reactions rather than confess to a crime.

Jonathan Losos, a leader in the field of evolutionary biology, extended questions of domestication across animal types.  While Losos’ lab primary studies wild lizards, he shared insights from his new freshman seminar on the science of cats.  Through investigating the social and scientific phenomenon that is the house cat, we can begin to appreciate how cats are a constellation of animals.  Cats and cat classifications aren’t what they appear to be.  For instance, recent genetic studies demonstrate how popular cat names that refer to a geographic origin don’t always map onto maps of genetic relatives.  And data from tracking cat behavior come at odds with what owners assume is a regular day in their cat’s life.  Like dogs (and the creatures of Wonderland), cats exercise a great deal of agency–both as a single animal and as a constellation of animals.

This cross-disciplinary conversation offered different ways of clarifying the assumptions we bring to the animals that we live with, study, worship and eat.  The leap of assigning meaning among humans and non-human animals at once emphasizes difference among species and acts on a desire to articulate similarity.  For me, “Characterizing Animals in Science and Fiction” addressed this leap by comparing the ways in which studying and portraying animals shapes human imagination.  The historical shifts among these assumptions further reflect cultural shifts across literary and legal landscapes (i.e., elephants on trial for “murder”).  With recent films like Zootopia and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the symbolic importance of animals—both real and imaginary—demonstrate how animals serve as a lens through which we articulate experiences of a world limited by our senses.


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