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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

What is it like to be a bat?


One of the more famous questions in contemporary philosophy was first posed in the 1970s by Thomas Nagel: what is it like to be a bat? Nagel’s answer, to put it as briefly as possible, is that we cannot know. We can know what a human imagines a bat’s perspective and experience might be like, but the experience of being a bat, from a bat’s point of view, is inaccessible to us. Human beings have consciousness, intentions, the ability to abstract and to introspect. Bats, and animals in general (at least as far as we can tell), do not. We are simply too different from beasts to understand them on their own terms; we will never know what it is like to be a bat. We do know what it is like to be a human being thinking about bats. (For Jaspreet Singh Boparai’s essay of Robert Burton, who numbered bats among “those creatures which are saturnine, melancholy by nature,” see page 46.)

The inexhaustibility, or indeed for Nagel the impenetrability, of animal wisdom and experience is an old wheeze of practically all humanity’s. Saint Thomas Aquinas held that “our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly,” and in his prologue to the Apostles’ Creed he recounted the tale of a philosopher who “spent thirty years in solitude in order to know the nature of the bee.”

Still, while we cannot know the inner experience of the animal kingdom, we also cannot help but learn about it and even borrow from it. In English we adopt fauna’s perspective for some of our most common idioms: to view something from above is to take the “bird’s-eye view,” while traveling in a straight line from point to point is moving “as the crow flies” or even “making a beeline.” Attempting to change someone who is set in his ways is “teaching an old dog new tricks,” while looking at something is (as a goose cranes his neck) to “take a gander.” (For a lovely essay on drawing things worth looking at, see Sister Carino Hodder’s piece on page 28.)

The notion of a “bird’s-eye view” in particular has changed more than just our language. In the story of Icarus and Daedalus, the father and son fashion wings for themselves and fly like birds. The same spirit motivated Leonardo da Vinci’s attempt in the fifteenth century to devise a flying machine with massive flapping wings called an ornithopter, whose very name comes from the Ancient Greek roots ὄρνιθ- (órnith-, “birds”) + πτερόν (pterón, “wing”). (For Jude Russo’s piece on the decline of classical education, see page 42.) Even the Wright Brothers, the inventors of modern aviation, spent a great deal of time observing birds in flight to model their airplane’s wings on those of sparrows and buzzards. (For Robert McLeod’s essay on another modern mechanical marvel, N.A.S.C.A.R, see page 35.)

Other, albeit less famous, examples of our technological indebtedness to brute animals make up the modern field of “biomimicry.” Velcro, for instance, is a universal technology that was directly borrowed from burrs, whose tiny hooks latch on to passersby and hitch a ride to plant their seeds in new soil. Beavers build dams at which even modern engineers can marvel. Mussels provided a model for scientists who wanted to create a water-resistant adhesive. And Isaac Newton, the legend goes, theorized the nature of gravity after watching an apple fall from a tree. (For a survey of Newton’s baptismal faith, see Andrew Petiprin on page 51.)

Of course, in some cases, we are content to simply take what we cannot improve: leather, wool, and silk are gifts from animals whose organic qualities cannot be mimicked adequately or exactly by synthetic materials. (For Monica Costa’s piece on cardigans and tweed, see page 64.) The warmth, durability, stretch, and water-resistance of wool has few man-made competitors; polyester and acrylic materials are substituted because they are cheaper, not better. PVC and vegan leather substitutes are only too easy to identify, and deteriorate significantly with age; leather, properly cared for, gets even better. (C.J. Ciaramella draws our attention to the horrible mistreatment of the elderly on page 12.) And of course the product of the silk-worm remains as valuable and prized for its appearance as for its strength, warmth, and softness on one’s skin.

It is no surprise then that we borrow animals’ voices, too, to tell our stories and share our thoughts. Beatrix Potter’s characters—Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, Jeremy Fisher, Jemima Puddleduck and the rest—are to many children as important as any story’s human protagonist. The animals in the Winnie the Pooh stories are in many ways even more sympathetic to readers than Christopher Robin is. We have no trouble at all adding the very human qualities of naughtiness to a rabbit, or forgetfulness to a duck, or nervousness to a hedgehog; in fact we almost feel that these animals make more sense as animals once they are anthropomorphized with human motives and weaknesses. (For Declan Leary’s view of Canada, the Catholic Church, and man’s failures and shortcomings, see page 15.)

Even morality seems to make better sense many times when we allow animals to teach it to us: this is the power of Aesop and his Fables. The textual history of the animal stories is spotty and dependent in turn on even spottier oral traditions, but it hardly matters whether any given tale was truly written by a Greek slave in the sixth or seventh century B.C. The stories of the Tortoise and the Hare, or the Dog and Its Reflection, or the Lion and the Mouse teach us lessons which we accept so readily that authorship is of little concern. The importance of continuous dogged effort, or the false temptations of greed, or of the interdependence of living things could all be taught and memorized in textbook form, no doubt. But we prefer to hear them told by woodland creatures and frogs and turtles. (For the importance of the Church’s canon law to our understanding of morality, see Gregory Caridi on page 31.)

Perhaps this is because we have not lost sight of the fact that we are part of creation ourselves. Mankind was given dominion over every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air, but still formed of the dust of the ground, and given by God the breath of life. We are still animals too, made in God’s image, with rational, eternal souls, of eternal importance. The Lord is our shepherd, and we are His sheep, whom He pursues into the mountains when we go astray:

And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

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