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When Science Meets the Humanities or Why You Should Never Sing Wagner at the Zoo

The next time you are caught in a lull in a dinner party conversation, try throwing out this tidbit: “Hey, did you know that spiders masturbate?” You can be sure that once the dropped jaws recover, the conversation will be buzzing again. And, that sexy, spidery fact is just one of numerous startling parallels between human and non-human animal behaviors that cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, and her co-author, Kathryn Bowers, a staff editor at The Atlantic, draw out in their engaging book Zoobuiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, which formed the basis for their talk at the 2013 Chicago Humanities Festival.

So why would an esteemed human cardiologist care about animal health? Natterson-Horowitz opens her book with a tale of hubris—the presumption by (as she puts it) “snobbish” M.D.’s that what they do is real medicine and what veterinarians do is, well, second class, as are their four-legged, furry, scaly, or feathered patients. Called in to consult on a tamarin case at the Los Angeles zoo, Natterson-Horowitz stood by the bedside of the tiny primate patient and gazed directly into his enormous brown eyes, trying to convey a sense of deep connection that would reassure the patient.; Nervously standing by was a zoo veterinarian, who finally stepped in to say, in effect, “Please stop staring!! You will kill him!” 

At that moment, the human cardiologist realized that her knowledge of hearts and blood flow was inadequate to the task. For the tamarin, being stared at indicated the possibility of being eaten by a large strange predator, not a deeply assuring connection with the surgeon! If a huge surge of adrenalin overwhelmed his system, the tiny primate, unable to flee, could literally die from fright with cardiac arrest. At that moment, struck by her own ignorance, and the fact that she was potentially endangering the very patient she had been called in to assist, Natterson-Horowitz realized the limitations of human medicine, and opened her mind to a bio-philic approach that recognized and investigated the similarities and differences across species. She termed this approach Zoobiquity: “a new fusion of veterinary, human, and evolutionary medicine . . . a species-spanning approach to . . . clinical medicine.”

Illustration of monkeys performing human jobs
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

She soon discovered that not only are there physiological parallels between human and non-human animals, but that animals get the same diseases we humans do, like cancer. Maybe, she thought, veterinarians can give us new insights into how to treat human health issues. Finding out about contemporary treatments of cancer in dogs she realized that “cancer” or the wrong-headed growth of certain cells due to mutations, is not just a human problem but a species-spanning one. Cancer can grow in dogs, cats, sea lions, cattle, boa constrictors, and even cockroaches. Nor is it a contemporary disease. Even dinosaurs had cancer! The larger, longer view indicated an over-looked truth: “where cells divide, where DNA duplicates, and where growth occurs, there will be cancer.” This type of reframing might change how we understand this disease, and could lead to new treatments, including some pioneered in veterinary medicine. This is a key contribution of her approach and should be welcomed.

Enlarging the subject pool of those affected by a disease could only help us to understand the mechanism more precisely. But Natterson-Horowitz pushes the quest for knowledge further. Flirting with the “sociobiology” movement of the 1970s, which she suggests was too negatively characterized as deterministic and reductionist because of the political climate of social change at the time, she presses forward to offer biologically based explanations for complex human physical and emotional situations, like human sexual response.

For example, in chapter four of Zoobiquity, titled “Roargasm: An Animal Guide to Human Sexuality,” she examines a global phenomenon that, according to some estimates, affects up to one quarter of the world’s women: hyposexuality, or the condition of not being interested in nor taking pleasure in sexual relations. Looking to the animal kingdom, Natterson-Horowitz reassures those women that that disinterest is just fine, not a sign of their failing or cause for depression, but perhaps more akin to the “in heat” and “out of heat” status of so many animals during their yearly cycles. Hoping to take the “heat” off of women who may be made to feel somehow inadequate, she argues that this may just be a “natural” legacy of cyclical fertility experiences so widespread among non-human animals.

Sketch of nudes reclining
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

I certainly applaud an approach that frees women from a pressure to be always sexually interested, according them more psychic energy for other pursuits, but a caveat is in order here. Throughout Natterson-Horowitz’ book there is a spectre of what we might call a “biologism,” that is, a belief that the reasons for even very complex human behavior can be found in biological processes. We saw this in some extremes of sociobiology and we see it reemerging today in new guises in some work in genomics and neuroscience. Here the terrain gets very tricky, and can be fraught with fallacies.

It is absolutely essential to recognize that human biological processes unfold within the historical and cultural context of social life. “Facts” have little meaning unless they are located within a matrix of knowledge production, and those matrices of knowledge are not only historically derived, but also culturally specific. Without embracing this deep imperative for interpretation, “facts” appear to take on, or are awarded, a life of their own, as if information had a fixed meaning outside of any cultural context from which it arose. This, above all, is the potential pitfall of a “scientific fallacy,” and it is one that the humanities and social sciences are well equipped to engage.

This is why it is so important to encounter Natterson-Horowitz’s stimulating work within the context of the Chicago Humanities Festival. By re-contextualizing science in the broader field of human knowledge as evidenced by multiple disciplines, the Festival helps us grasp the presumptive conditions of belief that motivate Zoobiquity and that simultaneously call us to question some of its conclusions. Yet, if the strength of the Zoobiquity approach lies less in its assertions of similarities among human and non-human animals, it is surely a strong call for embracing the emergent “One Health” movement currently coming out of veterinary medicine and human medicine. Health issues cross species lines and our conceptions of public health must of necessity acknowledge the promiscuity of zoonotic diseases (those that can be spread from animals to humans and back again), and to guarantee the future health not only of humans but of animal populations, uniting the expertise of veterinarians and physicians.

But even if you are unconvinced about the “One Health” movement, you can always just enjoy the many intriguing tidbits of human/animal parallels that pop up in the book. While this approach might miss the larger implications of the book and its necessary critiques, it can still provide those jaw dropping dinner party conversation asides. Did you know, for example, that singing is enough to kill an okapi, a type of African antelope?

Okapi leaning head against gate
Image by Loren Javier

In the 1990s, Natterson-Horowitz reports, the Royal Danish Orchestra and Chorus was performing Wagner’s opera Tanhausser in a public park abutting the Copenhagen zoo. When the chorus reached a fever pitch, an okapi keeled over and died, apparently from “capture myopathy” or cardiac arrest in the face of imminent capture by a predator. The loud noises so stressed the quadruped, who couldn’t escape, that it died on the spot! The moral of this story could be—don’t sing Wagner next to a zoo, but more expansively we could interpret it to mean–don’t assume that human and non-human animals are the same, even when biology tells you so (humans can be adversely affected by sounds too). For the animal, the sound was a noisy predatory threat, for the humans, a glorious, epiphanic artwork. 

This example shows us again why cultural interpretation must trump biologism while still engaging biology. The sciences and humanities both fare best when confronted with the modes of knowledge production that the other presupposes, as is the case at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Jane Desmond is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with expertise in the political economy of human/animal relations.

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