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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Mostly Utter Nonsense About Animals

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: wildlife, animals, nature, intelligences, emotion, language, environment, Aelian’s on the Nature of Animals, Keith Goetzman,

Aelian's On the Nature of AnimalsIf you know even a little bit about the natural world, you’ll find Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals quite ridiculous. Here are some of the “facts” presented in the newly released first English translation of this ancient bestiary, written by a Roman-empire scribe named Aelian in the first century C.E.:

At first, reading On the Nature of Animals provides a smug sense of amusement, like encountering a modern conservative fundamentalist tract on creationism or climate: utterly at odds with the findings of post-Enlightenment science, driven more by whimsy than logic, and with an occasionally breathtaking unbelievability.

But of course, it’s wholly unfair for me to toss a first-century author in with the anti-science leaders of the 21st century U.S. Republican Party: After all, Aelian “knew as much as any person of his day about animals,” writes the book’s translator Greg McNamee in his introduction, and likely relied on the best sources he could find. The anti-science modern conservative, on the other hand, deliberately overlooks centuries of established science in order to reach back to a simpler, more ignorant time for politically convenient “truths.”

Besides, even Aelian didn’t seem to believe all his own bullshit, to use a modern English colloquialism. He often took care to attribute his more outlandish “facts” to observers, and he sometime flat-out undercut them: “the Egyptians say—though I don’t believe them for a minute—that … .”

Ultimately, McNamee sees Aelian as being far before his time in crediting mere beasts with possessing qualities usually seen as human:

Source: On the Nature of Animals