Hannah Holmes is the author of Quirk: Science Explains Your Peculiar Personality. Her previous books include The Well-Dressed Ape, Suburban Safari and The Secret Life of Dust. She also writes for National Geographic and Discover Magazine.
Culture: Stories & Lit
January 26 2012
There is a tippy little table in the living room that terrifies the dog. On occasions too numerous to count, this table has lurched at him. He gives it a wide berth and a sideways eye. And when it goes for him, he tucks his tail and scrabbles for cover under the dinner table.
There is a malevolent lamp in the den. And a moment ago, there was a spoon on the edge of the counter that, at the brush of my sleeve, hit the floor with a clatter, sending the dog skittering across the hardwood.
“Dog, oh, dog,” I sigh as the woodchips settle. “What is it with you?”
He looks hurt. “I am a godfearing dog.”
At this I am taken aback. I know he’s a sensitive, even emotional, dog. He’s a Shepherd mix with a heart of gold and nerves of glass. But religious?
“Buddy, what do you mean?” I ask.
He sighs. “I’m an animist! An orthodox animist, really. I can’t believe you didn’t know this about me.” He drops his brown head on his paws and rolls his eyes. “This whole house is full of beings, beings with intentions. And most of the intentions are bad.”
Animist. I cast about for the tenets of that creed. Oh, yes: Everything has a spirit. Everything is part of the divine. That doesn’t sound so scary. Not like being a Scientologist. But I know nothing of orthodox animism.
“You wouldn’t,” the dog says. “You people were ruined by Socratic reasoning and the Scientific Revolution. And your gods were always fighting and killing each other off until you ended up with just one, who, frankly, is kind of vague. Really vague, actually. What does your god say about that vile little table? You look at it and all you see is a wood product. But you people used to be animists too, back when you were wild.”
The dog does this sometimes, harkens back to when humans did a lot more hunting and gathering. The subject tends to come up when I refuse to help him get the neighbor’s cat out of a tree. Or when I’m rubbing baking soda and peroxide into his skunked neck.
“You’ve all gone deaf,” he’ll growl. “Thunder once meant something to you people. It meant the sky was angry. You knew that when a tree fell on your hut, it didn’t just randomly tip over. It bashed in your hut because of something you did. And you used to eat cat.”
I hadn’t given his grumbling much thought, but now he has my interest. It is true that people who still hunt and gather for a living are usually animists. It seems to be the default philosophy of humans until we form permanent settlements and begin studying for the SATs. Why?
The dog flops onto his side. The spoon was a false alarm. Not like that foul little table.
“Same reason as me,” he says. His tongue unrolls to collect a corn flake on the floor. “The world is full of animals who want to eat you. Animals are all around you, waiting to pounce on you or sting you or poison you with their bite. Avalanches want to crush you. Lightning wants to burn you. Flash floods want to drown you. Anything that happens suddenly has a good chance of being bad. Maybe I sometimes run from a crackly paper bag, but it’s better to run from a paper bag 10 times than not to run the one time it’s actually a lion.”
I’m not going down that rabbit hole. I’ve tried talking sense to the dog about a number of scientific discoveries: People cannot just appear or vanish. A Jeep barreling down the street cannot stop in 18 inches. Lions live in Africa. My logic falls on velvety but deaf ears.
Besides, I still want to know how jumping away from a noisy spoon makes a person, or animal, religious. If it’s just an instinct, then running under the dinner table isn’t quite the same as saying the rosary, is it?
“No, it’s a much simpler system than that,” he retorts. “Even squirrels are animists. And crows. If something acts like it has a spirit, believe it. And assume that spirit is probably on the evil side. I mean, look at that nasty little table: why does it leap at me? If something wants to be friends, it comes up in plain sight, like a Jeep. It doesn’t wait, dead quiet, staring, and then JUMP! That’s what predators do. And if a spoon uses predator behavior, I’m not going to stand around wondering why. I’m going to assume the spoon intends to get me.”
I’m starting to understand. Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and intention. This makes sense, at least for living things. After all, every living thing—tree, mosquito, buffalo—does intend to eat, compete and reproduce. I suppose those plans could amount to a kind of spiritual life—a blind, biological faith.
But the dog’s animism is the belief that even rocks and furniture have plans.
He returns his head to his paws and studies me. “You think you’re so different, down under the scientific stuff? How come you jump and bark when somebody pops a balloon? Because the old part of your brain still works, that’s why. Your wild brain knows that noise could be lightning coming to get you. How come when I stare at the side of your head at dinner time, you look at me? Because your wild brain is always on the look-out for eyes, that’s why. Lion eyes. You people haven’t gone completely soft. Somewhere in there, you’re still godfearing.”
His lids are drooping and he yawns. “You knew other things too,” muses the pious beast. “When something runs away from you, it’s food. I’ve reminded you so many times. Even if it goes up a tree and stops running: still food.” He sighs. “You used to know that.” And then he’s asleep, his twitching legs carrying him back to a time when together we crossed entire, mystical continents, running from the lions and eating the cats.
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