Friday, January 27, 2006

PHIL 6000: History and Theory of Cuteness

Still trapped under a backlog of work, though I'm starting to make a dent in it, I think. I'm only taking one course this semester, but it's my dream course: "Darwinian Influences on Psychology," cross-listed to Philosophy from the Psych department. Not surprisingly, we are beginning by reading a lot of Darwin, as well as background on his development of the theory of evolution, including some stuff on Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the same theory at the same time. (The story of how Darwin and Wallace very politely negotiated the apportioning of credit for the theory is a long and interesting one.) Darwin and Wallace both come off as irresistably likeable people, not least because they both had a big, sloppy soft spot for animals. Wallace, like Darwin, travelled the world, and he spent some months in Sarawak (where he lived among the Dyak "head-hunters" and became "convinced of the essential unity of all races of mankind"). During this time he adopted an orphaned infant orang-utan, about which he wrote to his sister: "I am sure nobody ever had such a dear little duck of a darling of a brown hairy baby before."

You think that's cute? It gets better. The entire third chapter of Darwin's Descent of Man, "Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals," is a compendium of cute animal stories meant to illustrate that animals have most of the same feelings and cognitive processes as humans. Darwin seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time at the Zoological Gardens, watching the antelopes, chatting with the keepers, and messing with the monkeys' heads. He also has a large collection of second-hand observations of animal behaviour, including this account of a captive baboon, observed "by Brehm in N. Africa":

One female baboon had so capacious a heart that she not only adopted young monkeys of other species, but stole young dogs and cats, which she continually carried about...An adopted kitten scratched this affectionate baboon, who certainly had a fine intellect, for she was much astonished at being scratched, and immediately examined the kitten's feet, and without more ado bit off the claws.
This anecdote has a footnote, which reads:

A critic, without any grounds...disputes the possibility of this act as described by Brehm, for the sake of discrediting my work. Therefore I tried, and found that I could readily seize with my own teeth the sharp little claws of a kitten nearly five weeks old.
I don't think I'll ever be able to look at a picture of Darwin again without imagining him nibbling at a kitten.


Blogger ranjit said...

For SCIENCE, I bit one of Samson's claws. I can attest that it's possible, though it probably helped that he's logy with cookies right now.

5:55 p.m., January 30, 2006  
Blogger Nadia said...

Why bite your own nails, when you have pets? :)

10:32 p.m., January 31, 2006  
Blogger JuliaMazal said...

My friend's cat bites it's own nails. It's the funniest thing.

1:54 a.m., February 03, 2006  
Blogger lumpkin said...

I had a rabbit who trimmed her own toe-nails, it was much easier for me!

7:43 p.m., February 10, 2006  

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