Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
193 pages, paperback. $20.00.
Lantern Publishing & Media, www.lanternpm.org
The slimmed-and-trimmed 2021 edition of An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature, published 28 years after the first edition, is dated only by author Jim Mason’s new introduction, in which he acknowledges the many changes in the world occurring since 1993––some positive, in particular growing ecological awareness, but others negative and even more alarming now than then.
For example, Mason mentions, “Since I wrote Animal Factories with Peter Singer in 1980 (revised in 1990), this method of producing meat and dairy has gone global,” with catastrophic consequences for animals, habitat, and human health.
In addition, Mason acknowledges, “other elements discussed in the original version of An Unnatural Order have changed. Paleoanthropology has revealed further complexities and nuances to how human beings came into contact with our animal cousins and how we formed a relationship with those animals whom we came to domesticate. Awareness has increased over the use of certain words––“tribe,” “Eskimo,” “animist,” “pioneers,” and “Indian,” among others––to describe the confrontation of indigenous peoples and their lifeways with European colonial powers and ‘Western’ civilization.
“The ecofeminist approaches to anthropology, environmentalism, archaeology, ethics, women’s studies, geography, and so on that I utilized in writing the first edition of An Unnatural Order have subsequently become integrated into the many varied disciplines and sub-disciplines that form human-animal studies,” while “A new generation of environmentalists is recognizing that industrialized agriculture, especially of farmed animals, is dramatically reducing the continuing viability of wilderness and wildlife.”
Promise outweighs peril
While reciting a litany of ecological threats that were already evident long before 1993, and have mostly not receded, Mason is overall much more optimistic now than he was then.
“The emergence of cellular and genomic technology has not only ushered in genetically modified organisms, patents on life, and worries about genetic pollution,” Mason writes, “but it has also presented possibilities such as ending animal experimentation and developing new plant-based and, soon, cultivated [cell-cultured] meat products that may, within a decade, transform our diets and reduce the number of animals we raise for food. The end of intensive animal agriculture could potentially free land for rewilding and reforestation, and conserve topsoil, protect watersheds, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“As in all technological development,” Mason concedes, “there are risks of hidden environmental costs, inequitable distribution, monopolization, and unforeseen social and health consequences. But it may be that the promise outweighs the peril.”
None of the above, though, is really what An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature is all about.
An Unnatural Order is neither a summation of the present, nor a prescription for the future.
Rather, An Unnatural Order backtracks through human history to try to give us a more accurate understanding of how we came to be amid our present predicaments than is offered by most versions of history, from the Bible to quasi-historical docudramas.
Mason’s chapter headings are in themselves a succinct summary.
The first half of An Unnatural Order, focusing on the process and direct effects of animal domestication, offers “Dominionism Identified”; “Before Agriculture: A World Alive & Ensouled”; “Animals: The Most Moving Things in the World”; and “Agriculture: A New Relationship with Nature, A New World Order for Living Beings.”
The second half of An Unnatural Order begins by introducing “misothery,” a word Mason himself coined from Greek roots to describe human fear of animals and, in particular, of being animal-like, as animals ourselves.
“Misothery” has gained enough scholarly use over the past three decades to rise well above the silliness and self-conscious effrontery of most intellectual attempts to redefine language, entering the category of terms which have genuine utility in summarizing things that otherwise might take paragraphs to explain.
An Unnatural Order chapters headed “Misothery and the Reduction of Animals and Nature,” “Misogyny and the Reduction of Woman and Female Power,” “Racism and Colonialism: Dominating Lands and Others,” and “Rituals of Dominionism––Then and Now” explore how humans have extended the tactics and attitudes associated with domesticating animals into our relationships with fellow humans, from home and hearth to global politics.
Elongated time line
Broad-ranging theories typically fall apart when time and discovery erode whatever ideas initially held them together.
Meticulously researched across a wide range of scholarly disciplines, An Unnatural Order holds together, decades after Mason formulated the underlying thesis.
Yet archaeology, geography, and even astronomy have stretched the time line for many of the transitions that Mason describes by three thousand years or more, while establishing that human technological progress may have been arrested and even set backward several times by cataclysmic disaster.
This has rendered Biblical history perhaps more literally accurate than was supposed by generations of scholars, including the feminist theorists upon whom Mason heavily relies.
In the beginning was whose word, for what?
Except for religious fundamentalists, many of whom can barely be accused of thinking at all, most serious authors since Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On The Origin of Species (1859) have taken the accounts in the Book of Genesis to be largely metaphorical and allegorical, and therefore have presumed those accounts to be largely constructed (or re-constructed) by many generations of tellers and re-tellers to serve whatever the needs of their time for a foundation myth upholding the contemporary order.
As the times have changed, this approach alleges, the stories have changed.
Nonetheless, there is growing evidence that much of the Book of Genesis, and other ancient “allegorical” literature, may have been simply the attempt of ancient journalists to accurately describe events of which they had little or no scientific understanding, and could therefore only ascribe to acts of God.
In this light, the natural disaster remembered as the destruction of the Garden of Eden may have been an actual disaster that obliged the development of agriculture, when cultivating food became essential because wild food, of plant origin or otherwise, was no longer easily found.
The natural disaster remembered as the Great Flood may have been a second actual disaster, which, a thousand to several thousand years later, obliged a turn toward animal husbandry.
Horses & human cultural evolution
Apparently beginning in the Middle East, animal husbandry subsequently spread, little by little, around the world, into almost every human culture.
How and why animal husbandry spread is central to An Unnatural Order. Mason emphasizes the role of domestication of the horse, in particular, and the subsequent use of horses in enabling the conquest of settled agrarian cultures by nomadic herders.
Mason argues, as well, that nomadic herding tribes over time came to pattern their familial relations after that of horses, for example in practicing polygamy and exiling young men into “bachelor herds” who continually waged war on neighboring tribes, especially those who were settled, agrarian, and therefore vulnerable to mounted raiders.
But stretching the time line within which these conquests occurred exposes gaps in Mason’s theory.
Invasion vs. commerce
For starters, military history demonstrates that while highly mobile forces, from nomadic cavalry to Vikings in longboats to modern air power, are often able to wreak huge destruction on the unprepared, the ability to destroy is not to be confused with the ability to occupy and influence.
The entire recorded history of Afghanistan, for instance, is a history of the inability of highly mobile conquerors including Genghis Khan, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States to lastingly transform the entrenched Afghan culture with any amount of firepower.
Invasions much more often succeed through commerce, including intermarriage.
Mason in An Unnatural Order cites many examples, including Biblical examples, in which mounted herding cultures did succeed in sacking cities, massacring settled peoples, and taking possession of their assets, including enslaving the survivors, raping the women, but neglects to take into account that neither Rome nor any of those other eventually sacked cities was built in a day.
Often hundreds of years elapsed, during which civilizations built around cultivating food crops survived, thrived, and repelled any number of attempted invasions, before mounted barbarian herders were able to overrun their defenses.
Just as Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972 updated the Darwinian theory of slow, gradual evolution by introducing the geologically better supported theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” the application of a “punctuated equilibrium” theory to human cultural evolution both better explains and somewhat complicates the issues associated with animal domestication.
“Punctuated equilibrium” in paleontology, Wikipedia tells us, is “the hypothesis that evolutionary development is marked by isolated episodes of rapid speciation between long periods of little or no change.”
Applied to human cultural evolution, “punctuated equilibrium” is the idea that sometimes all hell breaks loose, for whatever reason, causing human society to rapidly change or die out.
Strong men & mighty warriors
Whether the cause is natural disaster or violent invasion by hostile neighbors, the times when all hell breaks loose tend to favor the roles of strong men and mighty warriors, who are either able to physically intervene to re-establish security and safety for their people, or lead the rare successful conquest and subjugation of another people.
These strong men and mighty warriors tend to be remembered with enduring monuments, wrought in stone; but their roles are brief. Disrupted societies cannot build enduring monuments. Relatively stable civilizations do.
The defining feature of stable civilizations is that women are safe––for generations––to fulfill their traditional roles, bearing, raising, and acculturating children; producing and preparing food; and attending to the sick and injured.
The partnership of men and women in building and maintaining stable civilizations may be quite unequal and unjust, indeed often has been, and in many societies remains so.
Yet the relationship of men and women in any society is a partnership, not just a matter of one gender wholly dominating the other by a continual exercise of force in endless conflict which would leave neither much opportunity to do anything else.
Within the partnership of men and women, violent and difficult as it sometimes is, women have historically had influence enough to mostly prevent domestic and societal conflict from demolishing the accomplishments of generations in constructing homes, barns, walls, and everything else that keeps most women, most children, and most men relatively safe, fed, and healthy, most of the time, despite whatever the violent inclinations of some of the men (and, at times, some of the women.)
The peaceful “partnership” part of human history, however, is much less well documented than the strife. Strife makes for stories, from the Bible to “reality television.”
“Punch & Judy”
People––and great apes––watch a “Punch & Judy” show; they usually don’t watch husbands, wives, and children who maintain positive loving relationships, sharing work and resources through good times and bad.
What this means, relative to An Unnatural Order, is that it is a stretch to argue that women permanently lost stature, independence, and influence either because of, or coincidental with, the domestication of animals. There was, and always has been, both give and take.
If a man has beaten a donkey, that has often been so that the donkey will carry his wife and children. If a man has milked a cow or killed a pig, the reason why is usually to feed his wife and children. If a man has hunted, slain, and pelted a wild animal, the reason why has often been to win a wife, whether by wooing her directly or trading for her with her father.
Fear & dread
Mason quotes the statement attributed to God addressing Noah in Genesis, that “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea.”
But this described the human/animal relationship long before domestication of animals became the human way of life in most parts or the world.
A newly published study by Tel Aviv University researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Minho in Portugal, appearing in the Yearbook of the American Physical Anthropology Association, alleges based on genetics, metabolism, physiology, morphology and archaeology of tool development, that humans were apex predators who ate little plant food until about 85,000 years ago.
The extent to which this is true will no doubt be debated for decades, but early humans clearly did hunt and give animals reason to fear them long before even dogs were domesticated.
Did “earth goddess” culture ever really exist?
It is, further, a stretch of the available evidence to fit a politically attractive argument to contend that the pre-animal domestication “earth goddess”-centered matriarchal human culture postulated by many feminist theorists, cited by Mason, ever actually existed.
The forensic evidence for that theory amounts to little more than the paleoarcheological discovery of figurines of women in various parts of the world which in theory were objects of veneration.
Yet these figurines could as easily be the stone age equivalents of a girl’s Barbie dolls today, or even of erotica passed around among men––albeit that choices of toys and erotica can also tell a great deal about what any given society most values.
Long on ecofeminism, short on ethology
The most serious weakness in An Unnatural Order is the ecofeminist contention, which it does not need to hold up in broad outline, that men only learned through the domestication of other animals the importance of their own sperm in facilitating birth and reproduction.
Before this, supposedly, women were the life-givers, and men, when they enjoyed sex, were just amusing themselves and their partners.
Ethology, however, the science of observing animal behavior in natural habitat, has demonstrated that even male rabbits, promiscuous as they supposedly are, recognize and help to protect their own offspring.
Infanticidal male tomcats kill the kittens sired by other tomcats, not their own. African lions demonstrate the same behavior.
An Unnatural Order, in general, suffers from a surfeit of ecofeminist theory where ethology might more usefully be applied.
Bonobos & chimpanzees
Mason makes no mention of bonobos, the relatively peaceful vegetarian “pygmy chimpanzees,” whose society is matriarchal, for instance, and––though a chimpanzee appears on the cover of An Unnatural Order ––says little about chimps.
Chimps, unlike bonobos, are carnivorous, with a strongly patriarchal social structure, a tendency to wage unprovoked war on other chimpanzee troops, and courting rituals which center on killing colobus monkeys, then trading raw meat for sex.
Neither chimpanzees nor bonobos appear to have ever domesticated any other animal, though ants apparently “domesticated” aphids long before any primates––human or nonhuman––existed.
Based on DNA research, either chimpanzees or bonobos might be described as our closest cousins. The history of humanity may be seen as a long struggle between our chimp and bonobo tendencies, with the traits of either cousin surfacing and becoming dominant in response to whatever our circumstances.
Both bonobo & chimp behavior contributed
Domestication of other animals likely began from bonobo-like nurturing of the infants of other species, beginning with puppies, combined with chimp-like domination of stronger adult animals, not from either set of traits in isolation.
Gavin Ehringer has much more extensively examined the process and effects of domestication of dogs, cats, cattle, and horses in Leaving The Wild: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Cows & Horses, focusing on the question of why these and other animals allowed themselves to become domesticated.
Initially, at least, this too was a partnership: the animals could “vote with their feet” to run away, yet did not.
Despite all the above, and any other possible criticisms coming to mind, An Unnatural Order is among the more thought-provoking books sent our way in many a year, and is very highly recommended to anyone seeking “the story behind the story” told by news reporting, from Biblical times to now.