(Featured image: domestic camels at the ancient Nabataean city of Petra in Jordan. Credit Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.)
The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History, by Brian Fagan
2015, Bloomsbury Press
In The Intimate Bond, Anthropologist Brian Fagan thoroughly chronicles the role of animals in human societies throughout history. This books is largely a synthesis of scientific knowledge about the history of human relationships with eight specific species – the dog, goat, sheep, pig, cow, donkey, horse, and camel – packaged in a way that is accessible for the average person. On this front, Fagan excels, as The Intimate Bond has clearly been exhaustively researched, and it never ventures into the overly dry or dense territory many scientific writers occupy. Particularly impressive is Fagan’s ability to draw from knowledge in multiple disciplines, including cultural anthropology, archaeology, biology, and ethology. In utilizing these varied bodies of knowledge he is able to describe the history of human/animal relationships in a more holistic way than most.
Despite this strength, I found myself consistently wanting more from Fagan, particularly when it came to his framing. I will admit that, as is true with any book, what The Intimate Bond is able to offer depends largely on the specific reader. I am sure that for those who have perhaps not considered this topic, this book could serve as an enlightening lesson on the importance of animals in human history, and perhaps an introduction, even, into considering the ethics of our relationships with non-human animals. For the more initiated reader, particularly those already concerned with animal liberation, it still has much to offer in terms of hard facts and timelines, but the half-formed ethical and philosophical ideas Fagan puts forth leave much to be desired.
In this way Fagan toes a confusing line. The Intimate Bond, is, on the one hand, as its title suggests, a celebration of a deep, important bond between humans and animals. And its tone is far from neutral in terms of describing particularly unethical forms of animal exploitation, such as in factory farming; Fagan does not shy away from condemning a complete disregard for the interests of animals. However, he is also not particularly critical of many of the underlying assumptions which allow humans to justify the exploitation of animals, and he does not offer any alternatives to the more unethical ways humans relate to animals. This is, in short, not an activist’s book, and neither does it claim to be. However, because it purports to be a sort of paradigm-shifting recognition of the importance of animals in human lives and history, Fagan’s moderate stance on ethical issues ends up leaving some big gaps in his reasoning.
For example, the book’s preface opens with a grand appraisal of just how special and different humans are from other animals. For me, and for other readers from similar backgrounds, this immediate embrace of human exceptionalism sets the book off to a disappointing start. Of course, I do not disagree that there are ways that humans differ from other animals. However, this concept must be handled carefully and questioned constantly, as it serves as justification for many forms of animal exploitation and abuse. For Fagan to have spent so much time researching the role of animals in human history without realizing this leaves me with questions about his ability, or willingness, to fully engage with this topic.
Fagan’s lack of deep engagement with the ethics of the topics he covers runs throughout the book. Perhaps the most obvious example, and most constant, is a fixation on human/animal relationships as mutually beneficial partnerships. This is, on the one hand, an exciting framework because it introduces animal interests and agency into a conversation which often ignores those things completely. However, this partnership framework is consistently applied to situations which are decidedly more one-sided and skewed toward human benefit, such as the hunting of game and keeping of livestock. The romanticization of hunting is particularly heavy-handed and is put forth as the source of our bond to other animals, and the template upon which all human/animal relationships were developed after our time as hunter/gatherers. The many portions of the book in which Fagan attempted to force exploitative arrangements into this partnership framework often had me rolling my eyes and wishing he would stick to the facts.
There are, of course, many examples of human/animal relationships which do fit into this idea of a mutually beneficial partnership. Interestingly, Fagan doesn’t spend much time discussing them, and they are often only briefly explored as tangents. One of my favorites in the book is the example of the honeyguide bird, and its symbiotic relationship with the Buron people of Northern Kenya. In this relationship, the wild birds are able to find and digest beeswax and honey, but unable to penetrate nests, so through a system of communication they help Buron people find bees’ nests. When the people break open nests and retrieve the honey, they are sure to always leave some for the bird. This is so clearly an example of mutual benefit (though certainly not for the bees), and I love the way it offers an alternative to exploitative relationships, especially as the honeyguides are not kept captive and instead repeatedly choose to work together with humans.
What I find most perplexing about The Intimate Bond, and what kept me from fully enjoying it, was the combination of two choices: The choice to use this bond and partnership between humans and animals as a guiding theme of the book, combined with the choice to focus on these eight specific species (dog, goat, sheep, pig, cow, donkey, horse, and camel). While of course these eight species are arguably the ones that have altered human history the most, they have also been some of the most egregiously abused and exploited species, particularly the farmed animals. I would not expect a book on this subject to gloss over the more negative, harmful aspects of our relationships with other animals, nor would I want it to. However, to cast these relationships as beautiful, mutually beneficial, and rooted in an intrinsic human/animal bond, is misguided and confusing at best, and misleading and detrimental at worst.