Mostly Utter Nonsense About Animals

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If 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.:

When cranes squawk, they bring on rain showers. So it is said–and also, that cranes have some sort of power which arouses women and causes them to dispense sexual favors. I take this at the word of those who have seen it happen.

The horned ray is born in mud. It is very small at birth, but it grows to a huge size. Its belly is white; its back, head, and sides are inky black. Its mouth, though, is small, and you cannot see its teeth. It is very long and flat. It eats great quantities of fish, but its favorite food is human flesh. It has little strength, but its size gives it courage. When it sees a man swimming or diving, it rises to the surface, arches its back, and slams down on him with all its might, extending its length over the unfortunate man like a roof and keeping him from rising to breathe. The man dies, and the ray greedily enjoys its feast.

Boeotia has no moles. They do not enter from the neighboring province of Leabadeia, and if one arrives by accident it dies.

The octopus is greedy, sneaky, and voracious, and it will eat anything. It is probably the most omnivorous creature in the sea. Here is the proof: in times of hunger, it will eat one of its own tentacles, thus making up for a lack of prey. When better times come, it grows back the missing limb. Nature thus gives it a ready meal in moments of want.

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:

Often we find these entries amusing, and rightly so. Often we find them outlandish, foolish, primitive. Yet I suspect that not so long from now–if there is a not so long from now for us busily habitat-devouring humans–scientists will wonder at our own naivete and arrogance, at the thought that language, emotion, and even reason are gifts of humans alone.

Source: On the Nature of Animals

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