Animal Individualism in “The ‘Nature Faker’ Controversy”

I found the argument about animal individualism by William Long to be one of the most compelling. He states that “birds and animals (and even the insects, especially the solitary wasps and spiders) differ greatly among themselves in individual characteristics and habits…Every animal he studies closely is different from every other animal, for nature seems to abhor repetition as she abhors a vacuum. As among men, the differences, which lie deep, are much harder to detect than the resemblances, which are mostly on the surface (Mazel 127).

This argument correlates so much with the way in which people treat zoos, animals in the wild, and even pets. While usual pets like cats and dogs are frequently seen as having their own personalities, many other animals are thought of as being solely a member of whatever species, and not as an individual animal within that species. Particularly smaller animals, as Long mentions, liked wasps and spiders. Generally people are able to see that larger animals (tigers, deer, turkeys, etc.) do in fact have separate personalities if they consider it, but it is harder to imagine individual spiders and wasps having their own desires and goals.

As we discussed last week this applies easily to zoos as well. People visit zoos, moving from exhibit to exhibit, expecting animals to behave a certain way, and then when the animals don’t live up to their expectations they are disappointed. These animals are individual animals, so “[w]hat do you expect? It’s not a dead object you have come to look at, it’s alive. It’s leading it’s own life” (Berger 24). Although he was referring more so to how awful it is to keep animals on display like that, I think it could apply to individualism as well as he does touch on that a bit throughout his text. Those who visit zoos expect all lions. for instance, to act like their preconceived notion of what a lion should act like, and completely disregard that each lion they view is its own being that will not necessarily act like that.

There is a tendency for people to lump nature together as “all nature,” or even down to individual species, but individual beings are frequently overlooked. This absolutely makes it easier for humans to continue to dominate over them if we believe they are all the same and disregard the fact that like us, they are all different and varying and should be treated as such.


Berger, John. About Looking. International Ch./Art: Why Look at Animals? P. 3-28. pub. Vintage Sept 1991

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 26-47, 87-100, 113-147, 154-162. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001



6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bharta1 on November 30, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    I too agree that Long’s argument for individual animals is compelling, and if anything, a good move in producing his own animal/nature writing rhetoric. Burroughs, in his fervor, may have made himself look bad, but his demand for “truth” (I put this in quotes because everyone in these debates uses it but the word does not seem to have either value or direction) does not go unwarranted. However, Long had a good point, which is that all that he sees in his subjective is truth. A disclaimer he should put in his preface, introduction etc., and be explicit about that fact. Burroughs’ concern for a literal Literati beginning to turn “nature” into a commodity is a real, and present concern. But even now, people tend to (myself included) see animals that are larger as having more feelings or personality, more prone to suffering, indignities, love or simply being more like humans. What Long also confronts with his denial to ascribe concrete, immovable facts to animals is the seemingly effortless and compulsive desire to be sure that once a things has been seen or recorded, that is the standard, always. This also addresses the question of what is science, and how does it relate to us (a thing we made/created) and how is it used in literature? Also, it brings up the issue of what kind of animal is proper for knowing, or not knowing, because of its aesthetic properties. Long concentrates on everything and should be commended for it. The quote you used relating to nature’s abhorrence is both a great one and a problematic one for Long. He keeps himself outside of the factual realm of science, lending nature a powerful caprice, but also catches himself in what Burroughs might gobble up, being a false voice for nature. Indeed, that is the problem that everyone has, who can really speak for nature? Really, Burroughs was too hot and suffers from the same problem, basically saying, ‘You can’t talk like that’. But neither could he. Even now the issue rears its head, the use of the word “personality” is very slippery when applying it to animals. The word “entity” might be more applicable. Personalities still implies a likeness of human awareness that displaces animality.

  2. Posted by kbudd on November 30, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I am also a fan of the argument Long proposes: “I have gone into the outdoor world as a nature lover, not as a scientist,” (127). By separating science from nature I feel the animals are truly seen. He does not concern himself with the “generalizations” of animals (i.e. wasps and spiders), and this allows him the opportunity to truly research the animals. I feel society has become to reliant on the scientific findings, and when this comes to nature it mars the characteristics of individual animals, within individual species.

    The evidence scientists release about a given species comes only from a sample, not the entire population. When we accept these generalizations, problems do arise, and this is especially seen in zoos (as you mention).

    Even Thoreau explored the possibility of knowledge outside of scientific findings: “Which is the best man to deal with,–he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all,” (282)? I have to side with Long in this argument because I am not a scientist, and I do not view nature under a microscope. I liked how you finished your post, “they are all different and varying and should be treated as such” because I share your view.

  3. I think the objectivism that Burroughs is calling for is indicative of a very specific western/American perspective of the environment. Nature is an object in so far as it is objectified by the field of science. In this way it is arguably being instrumentalized in an effort towards building this entity of scientific knowledge. But this process inevitably has its own flaws. There is and always will be information which, not amendable to the rigid scientific system, is disregarded or swept away. This is how it has been since the establishment of the scientific community. Perhaps this can be connected with its European, imperialist roots, where in science was in service of empire and its exploits. However, It is impossible to irrefutably trace the purpose or beginnings of either the cartesian perspective or predisposition towards closed-mindedness in science.

  4. Posted by christys21 on December 1, 2011 at 1:20 am

    I find Long’s claim of humans having a lack of ability to give animals individual characteristics, an intriguing thought that tells a lot about human mentality.
    This idea brings me back to a day in lecture where we discussed how we tend to feel disconnected with an animal labeled as “roadkill” because it has become a piece of meat in the way of industrialization.

    The way that humans are able to overlook natures power and ability is scary in that it makes humans seem ignorant and extremly disconnected from nature. If humans are aware that they have emotions, characteristics specific to themselves, and preferences, what makes them think that the creatures in nature don’t have that as well? Animals labeled “roadkill” were once walking, breathing and eating; yet humans only see that dead animal as one in a million still left roaming.

    I really like that you brought up the zoo. It seems rather ignorant of humans to expect a very narrow and specific reaction from a caged animal. Not all lions may like to “roar” at large crowds; some may be shy.

  5. Posted by bhough on December 1, 2011 at 11:48 am

    I think all of the above comments are very true regarding Long’s statements. Another interesting route that I started to think about with the individualization of animals was tribal narratives. In many of these ancient pieces (which were often seen in some way as religious), native americans credited different animals with specific aspects of creating the universe. The humanization of these animals stemmed from specific traits or qualities that the animals had. While reading the Burroughs-Long arguments I was actually quite surprised this was not broiught up by either side, as I think it adds an interesting twist into the argument itself. How does the religious aspect of such writing affect its ability to accurately depict animals? Does the fact that it is coming from a Native American perspective make the authors see it as an unimportant or irrelevant source?

  6. William Long’s views wild animals as “individuals with unique behaviors and personalities. I must be completely honest because until I took this class, I viewed nature and wild animals in all the same manner. I only saw domesticated animals to have personalities. Long’s interpretation of nature is very interesting. Long says ” interpretation is a favorite word with some recent nature writers. Now, by interpretation we mean an answer to the question, what does this mean? Or, what is the exact truth about it? then there is one interpretation of nature, and that is scientific. But if we mean by interpretation an answer to the inquiry, what does this scene or incident suggest to you? How do you feel about it? Then we come to what is called the literary or poetic interpretation of nature, which, strictly speaking, is no interpretation of nature at all, but an interpretation of the writer or the poet himself” (Long 508). One can not tell a person how she or he feels or what they interpret. Every interpretation is unique like every person is different. Facts are facts and we can not interpret them. We can only interpret the behavior of these animals. Yes, it is true however, that many tend to use animals so that they can express in these animals their own characteristics. This theory may go back to the use of language. Our English language is very basic and trying to explain so many behaviors without personifying animals it might be very difficult. All in all, Long had very interesting stories and simply by adding such creativity when describing animal behavior made it more enjoyable to read. Burrough needs to be more open-minded!

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