Giving animals human motivations: that’s Life

Like so many nature series, David Attenborough’s latest show is visually stunning but built on childish storytelling.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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It is often remarked that anthropomorphism, the tendency to ascribe human characteristics to non-human entities, is an infantile foible. It is often, quite literally, childish – for boys and girls are most given to this propensity.

I was taught at an early age not to confuse human behaviour with that of animals. When I was a kid, we had this horrible and deranged cat called Suzie. One day, I walked into the kitchen and found Suzie on the table, licking butter from a bowl. She turned her head and regarded me with horror, before leaping to make a sharpish exit. ‘Mummy, mummy!’, I cried. ‘Suzie feels guilty for eating our food!’ Not so, mum retorted: ‘She was just frightened because she knows she shouldn’t be on the table.’

I’m not saying my parents were of the Father-Christmas-doesn’t-exist-so-get-over-it school, and my infantile reveries were mostly indulged. Childhood is a wonderful fantasyland, where the boundary between reality and fiction is routinely blurred. But, come adolescence and adulthood, one must leave this illusional realm. The failure thenceforth to distinguish between that which is real and that which is not is the sign of a soft mind at best, a madman at worst. Anthropomorphism is thus also a symptom of immature or defective thinking. It is not a coincidence that one of the common symptoms of acute schizophrenia is the belief in the sufferer that animals are talking to them.

David Attenborough’s latest nature documentary series, Life, has been compared in some quarters to a ‘snuff movie’, on account of its preoccupation with the way in which it depicts animals and plants doing beastly things to each other in order to survive (1). The first episode had poisonous frogs, bellicose hippos, cheetahs hunting down ostriches, and so on. It was somewhat pointillist and haphazard, and didn’t have the customary slow, structured narrative for which Attenborough is known, which can perhaps explain and excuse accusations of it being biological pornography.

Yet Life was visually exquisite. And even if Quentin Tarantino was to make a nature documentary with anthropomorphic tendencies – ‘And the lion, feasting on the gazelle, must be thinking: “Mmmm! Goddamn! This is some serious gourmet shit!”‘ – even a moron would come to appreciate that animals don’t kill each other for the sheer fun of it. Animals are gangsters in a literal sense, in that many species hunt in gangs or packs, but they aren’t gangsters in the familiar sense of the word in that they don’t carry machine guns round in violin cases, peddle drugs and talk gibberish in Baltimore.

Animals aren’t bullies and sadists. Most of all, they aren’t murderers, because murder does not and cannot exist in the animal world. Animals do not have the capacity for morality that facilitates the entire concept of murder. Animals kill mostly for food. Most humane people’s initial reaction to seeing that gazelle successfully flee that pursuing lion is one of relief. But if that hunter doesn’t get her dinner, she (and her family) will die horribly of hunger. Either way, one of them has to die.

To compare programmes such as Life to a snuff movie is erroneous. This misapprehension stems partly from the fact that our culture’s weakness for anthropomorphism is a symptom, and cause, of our unwillingness to face the fact that life is essentially tough going. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, and being a squeamish vegetarian of 13 years, probably not one to talk. The psychologist Oliver James thinks that levels of depression are so high in Western society because our expectations are just as high, and unrealistically so. I’m inclined to agree. Personally, I think the worst culprits are romcoms. I admit that, aside from Top Gear, they are one of my secret guilty pleasures, but who hasn’t had the gloomy sensation, as the credits roll, of reflecting: ‘Why can’t my love-life be like that?’ Our attitudes towards animals reflect an associated malaise: a belief that life is perfectible and that we can all train our dogs to live on lentils and chick peas.

I don’t mind other vegetarians or vegans who find such nature documentaries nauseous. Their reaction is probably an aesthetic one: they most likely just don’t like seeing animals suffer and being killed. Fair enough. But I have no time for meat-eaters getting all particular about these kind of shows, nor for that matter omnivorous anti-vivisectionists, hunt saboteurs, people who think only furry animals with large child-like eyes such as seals deserve to be protected, or those who use the issue of bullfighting as an excuse to despise Johnny Dego. I hate to repeat a cliche, but how do they think that their lamb joint arrived on the supermarket aisle? Did Mr Sheep go to Switzerland to kill himself for your benefit?

The nature programme as a genre is itself partly at fault. As fascinating as Life is, it lent itself to inevitable anthropomorphism. Such documentaries do so because they have to have a narrative. The animals are given location, purpose, motive. The action unfurls, the denouement is reached. The octopus and the penguin and the frog look after their offspring in this manner. One sex-maniac male hippo sees off another to protect his harem like this. Cheetahs strike down upon their prey with great vengeance and furious anger.

Whether makers of nature documentaries have unconsciously drawn from the narrational staples of good literary or cinematic fiction, or whether the impulse to turn connected series of events into a story is innately human, is a moot point.

Whichever, infantile minds do it best. Some time back in the early 1980s, I perceived a hungry feline called Suzie. She lived in a flat in West London, and was much-loved by her owners. But one day she was starving, and made a dashing raid to the table where the butter was, only to be discovered by the Pat-Man. Remorseful at her indiscretion, Suzie ran away. This is what, in retrospect, I thought I saw then. My mum just heard the story of a thieving scaredy-cat.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer.

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(1) Watch Life on BBC iPlayer

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