History of the human-animal relationship is key to nature preservation, Stanford scholar says

In an exhibition of rare books and in her research, Stanford history scholar Mackenzie Cooley reveals how studying the animals in Western culture can improve stewardship of the natural world today. Opening at Stanford on April 6, the "Beasts & Books" exhibition showcases rare books and printed materials from Stanford collections that explore centuries of human life with animals.

From habitat protection and anti-cruelty laws to discourse about hunting and veganism, animals seem to get a lot of consideration in 21st-century Western culture.

Yet we actually understand many animals far less than our ancestors did, argues Mackenzie Cooley, a doctoral candidate in history who studies how living creatures were collected, designed, bred and trained in Renaissance-era Europe.

Having pets as our only reference to the animal kingdom “sentimentalizes our view of animals and thus impedes our appreciation and stewardship of the natural world,” Cooley argues.

Unlike past eras of European history, including the early modern period Cooley studies, contemporary Western societies afford most people little exposure to animals, except as pets. Cooley’s research explores how the changing ways in which people have viewed animals – from wild to domesticated – “offer vital lessons for mindful interaction with the natural world on both a personal and a public level.”

“We need to stop thinking of nature through the lens of our dog or cat,” an animal “bred to be sympathetic to us,” Cooley observes.

While Cooley says modern animal stewardship efforts may not restore a perfect state of nature, a more active understanding about the “history behind the way we consume, interact with and imagine animals can help us think carefully about future choices.”

As Cooley found by tracing manuscript correspondence and printed treatises in Italian, Spanish, French and Latin from the 16th century, “animals have provided people with ways of imagining their own place in the world, as well as the resources to make the world their own.”

As the curator of the “Beasts & Books” exhibit at Stanford’s Cecil H. Green Library, Cooley aims to reveal the wonder and diversity of our historical relationship to animals via rare books and manuscripts from Stanford collections. The exhibit is on view from April 6 to August 22 in the library’s Peterson Gallery and Munger Rotunda.

“‘Beasts & Books’ expands viewers’ horizons by retracing Western culture’s engagement with animals as sources of power, sustenance, knowledge and status,” Cooley says.

The exhibition was prepared in collaboration with Stanford undergraduates from Cooley’s fall 2014 class, History 29S/Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 29S: The Animal Other: Humans and Animals in Western History.

Gathered with the help of her students, through books on myth and fable, literature and natural science; on hunting, horsemanship and animal breeding, “Beasts & Books” traces Western culture’s use of animals to explain the world and shape it to human needs.

“How can we understand the needs and logic of those beings outside the pet realm?” Cooley asks. For her and her students, the history of natural history as preserved in books yields an answer.

Mythical animal forces

Cooley and her students examined such issues as vivisection, hunting, animal rights and the foundational role animal husbandry played in the development of natural science. Students published their investigations in the “Beasts & Books” accompanying catalogue, produced with a grant from Stanford’s Program in History and Philosophy of Science.

Fantastical image of a rhinoceros

Albrecht Dürer’s fantastical and iconic woodcut of a rhinoceros, from Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium. (Image credit: Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections)

For centuries, books were themselves animal products, evidence, Cooley notes, of humanity’s utter dependence on animals. The pages were made of vellum, or processed animal skin; the ink was often derived from tree galls, growths caused by insect infestations; book bindings were of leather.

“People in the early modern era lived in close proximity to animals, and our language preserves relics of that time,” she says. We repeat sayings that Renaissance books repeated from ancient times, that foxes are sly and crows are greedy. Cooley notes that we still may observe that “an elephant never forgets,” despite not having knowledge either of elephants or of the first-century writer Pliny the Elder, who first wrote the aphorism down.

In fact, Pliny coined the term “natural history” for his encyclopedic book of that name, and “Beasts & Books” exhibits two copies from Stanford’s Barchas and Rare Book collections, from 1469 and 1582 respectively.

“In 2007, almost 2,000 years after Pliny wrote that elephants are afraid of mice, MythBusters still felt the need to test the persistent rumor,” notes student collaborator Beatrice Garrard.

The rumor’s persistence, Cooley believes, stems from our continuing desire to have animals as powerful, even mythical, forces in human life.

“Beasts & Books” also finds respect for animals in the literature and practice of hunting through the ages.

Items on exhibit include Pauline Hemingway’s handwritten journal of her African hunting safari with husband Ernest Hemingway, whose writing uses the hunt as metaphor for the human pursuit of greatness.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing on the hunt conveys a respect for animals’ power and danger that is hard to glean from today’s pet culture.

Even if we no longer believe in myth, even if we choose not to hunt, Cooley argues that exploring the powerful ways in which people have related to animals restores depth and nuance to our view of nature.

The animal rights debate

A competitive equestrian through her undergraduate career at Cornell University, Cooley’s own connection to animals drew her to horsemanship in literature, particularly since she sees the activity as a prime example of man manipulating animal.

“Beasts & Books” demonstrates, through Denis Diderot’s 1751 Encyclopédie and other texts, horsemanship’s ties to martial and courtly ritual.

For example, “Beasts & Books” exhibits the 1771 The Art of Horsemanship by English courtier Richard Berenger, who warned of overuse of the bit to hyperextend a horse’s neck in quest of the desired shape. Is such manipulation of equine form a perfection of the animal’s inherent qualities, or an imposition of foreign ones? The debate touches not only on animal rights but on the moral limits of humans’ manipulation of the natural world.

Embedded in the molding of a horse to the human will is a debate between human and animal rights that later writers continued.

Anna Sewell’s 1877 Black Beauty, also on view, is considered a classic children’s story, purportedly the autobiography of a horse. Yet Cooley and undergraduate Josiah Paye note that it, too, is an animal rights endeavor. Sewell wrote it as a manual for groomsmen, to encourage them to treat their equine charges humanely. “It’s an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for horses,” Cooley notes.

Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and antiquary Joseph Ritson also argued for animal rights in their works, on exhibit in “Beasts & Books.” Both vegetarians, they argued that animals can feel and therefore that they should have rights. Shelley’s 1813 essay “A Vindication of Natural Diet,” represented in the exhibit by an 1884 copy, equates consumption of meat with Eve’s eating from the “tree of evil” in Eden. Shelley found the biblical tale of the Fall to be an allegory of the “stress and crime that have flowed from an unnatural diet.”

Ultimately, the texts on exhibit in “Beasts & Books” raise the possibility that animals are fundamentally different than us and thus perhaps beyond human understanding, no matter how advanced our pursuit of knowledge becomes. This, Cooley argues, is in itself an important step in our understanding of “the animal other.”

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu