Stacks Image 3627
Human biology is indebted to numerous animals. Equine roundworms and fruit flies instructed us on the mechanics of heredity. Bugs revealed us the secret of sex. Bats gave us information about insemination and the first hours of embryonic life. Rabbits taught us more about certain later stages. It's taken us an entire zoo to get to know ourselves. (Jean Rostand)
Stacks Image 3634
The nature of the beast

Presumably, these days, very few people know who
Jean Rostand was. That's how it goes. He was one of the most prominent French biologists, humanists and moral philosophers of the 20th century. While Sartre, Foucault, Deridda & Co were causing quite a stir with obscure scribblings that nobody truly understands and/or can explain to a simpleton like yours truly, Rostand expressed his thoughts and insights in proper, almost unfashionably clear and unambiguous French. His aphorisms often remind me of those of the Enlightenment philosophers. "Civilization expresses the human chromosomes; it does not impress itself on them." Yes, that makes sense to me. Jean Rostand wrote this aphorism at the beginning of the 1950s when, unlike today, bookstores did not have dozens of publications on Darwin, natural selection, genetics or evolutionary psychology.

Nothing animal is alien to me

In the 1950s, human individuals and society are still to a very high degree malleable, at least according to most psychologists, sociologists and educationalists. We are born blank slates, not inscribed by nature but by experience, upbringing, education and culture. The scales of the nature-nurture debate are so weighted in favour of nurture that many people honestly believe you can turn a man into a woman by treating him as a girl from the earliest age. Let a boy play only with dolls or skipping-ropes instead of Matchbox cars or toy guns, and the end result is a maiden with a prostate gland. Read the story of David Reimer and shudder. Well into the 1980s, every biologist that opposes the prevailing doctrine can count on being called a fascist, racist, sexist or – for crying out loud – crude materialist. "The more I learn about people, the more I love animals." How many times have I heard someone, usually a dog owner, say something to that effect? On lesser days, it often makes me want to toss him or her into a small lake teeming with starved piranhas. It's a good thing I hold the exact opposite view: The more I learn about other animals, the more sympathy, patience, compassion and affection I can muster for my fellow human beings. Even when they are plainly talking through their hats.


Stacks Image 3635
Encore l'animal

Humans are animals. It still amazes me so many of my fellow humans have such a hard time digesting this obvious fact. Deep down, we've always known it, haven't we? We did not need Darwin for that. The resemblances are so striking, especially with other mammals and certainly with our closest relatives, they are impossible to miss. We worship gods with the head of a hawk, a crocodile, a jackal or a baboon. We make up fables that project our weaknesses, vices and aspirations onto foxes, lions, badgers or cats. We recognize ourselves in the animals around us and impute their alleged peculiarities on other people. As sly as a snake, as cunning as a fox, as stubborn as a mule, as proud as a peacock, as quiet as a cat, as faithful as a dog, as timid as a rabbit and, well, as stoned as a shrimp*.

Dirty speciesist!

"It is, again, the animal in us that refuses to be just another animal." Jean Rostand is right. By nature, all animals are inveterate speciesists. Animal rights activists usually reserve the term for humans, a rather rashly attributed privilege that, in my opinion, every single species is entitled to. All animals behave as if they are the crown of creation, the ultimate goal of the universe and the pinnacle of superiority. At best, other species are enemies, prey or competitors. Most of the time they are simply ignored as part of the scenery. African buffalos, zebras, elephants, rhinos, wildebeests and other antelopes roam the savannah without so much as glancing at each other. Interaction between species is minimal. In the wild, very few animals take notice of other species that are neither possible prey nor enemies or rivals. Dolphins, for instance, appear to be genuinely interested in some other species, like humans dressed in neoprene. Donkeys are known to befriend horses, goats or dogs, but only when domesticated. Wild donkeys wouldn't dream of it. Dogs think they are humans – until they meet another dog – and cats look upon their owners as doorkeepers, ayurvedic masseurs and solar powered can openers. In general, only some pets and animals in captivity bond with other species. Humans are the exception that confirms the rule, unless you think of Homo sapiens as an outstanding example of a self-domesticated household pet. It's not as crazy as it sounds.

Stacks Image 3636
Sic transit gloria mundi

"The truth always sounds unpleasant", the burying beetle said. "But when you give it some thought, you will have to admit the entire world is only there for us burying beetles."

In December 1971, at the age of 58, Godfried Bomans dies. At the time, he is the most popular and – the one does not necessarily imply the other – the most read author in the Netherlands. In fact, he is so popular that in literary circles it's absolutely not done to appreciate him. Now that hardly anybody reads him anymore, of course, those very same circles consider it a disgrace that in his lifetime Bomans never won the recognition he deserved, let alone a literary award. That's how it goes. One of his most famous novels is Erik (of het klein insectenboek)**, the story of a young boy that ends up in a painting where he's introduced to a menagerie of bullshitting insects and other small creatures. Most of them are self-important dickheads that despise all other animals. Spiders, wasps, butterflies or burying beetles: Every species is the measure of all things. The less legs, the better, according to the worm, but obviously no legs at all is the ultimate goal, a noble aspiration only worms can achieve. The novel is, of course, primarily a kind of fable that allows Bomans to masterly ridicule his own shortcomings and those of his fellow man. But whoever reads and understands it, will not fly a Boeing 767 into a skyscraper, will not spray napalm and Agent Orange over South-East Asian jungles, will not adhere to religions, ideologies and doctrines the followers of which consider themselves superior, and will not "concern himself too much with honey…"

* Stoont als een garnaal (as stoned as a shrimp) is a song by the Dutch comedy duo Van Kooten en De Bie, released in 1975. The expression stuck and is still commonly used.
** Published in English as
Eric in the Land of the Insects, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.


Stacks Image 3637
Talking about humans…

"Apes are too kind-hearted for humans to descend from them." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

"When Nietzsche wrote that the kind-heartedness of apes made him doubt that humans descended from them, he was harbouring illusions about the nature of these greedy, cruel and ferocious quadrumanes. They truly are the ancestors that suit us." (Jean Rostand)

Nietzsche is right: We do not descend from apes. But Rostand is right too: By nature, we are just as selfish, murderous and hot-blooded. The simple truth is we are apes. Tribal war, genocide, infanticide, parricide and all other forms of violence we usually – that's how vain we are – ascribe only to humans are also characteristic of our closest relatives. It came as an unpleasant surprise to Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, but the fieldwork of both admirable and courageous researchers leaves no room for doubt: Humans are not the barbaric relatives of the gentle gorillas and the charitable chimpanzees, perverted by civilization, but the intellectually gifted cousins of a far from peace-loving family. The universe is amoral, Beyond Good and Evil. But from a human perspective, we can nevertheless argue we are bad by nature. A horrible conclusion? Not really, because just like gorillas and chimps we are good by nature too.

Stacks Image 3638
Natura non facit saltus

"The fact that the human moral sense goes so far back in evolutionary history that other species show signs of it plants morality firmly near the centre of our much-maligned nature. It is neither a recent innovation nor a thin layer that covers a beastly and selfish makeup." (Frans de Waal)

Nature does not make jumps. It really should not amaze us that other species show signs of human behaviour, human emotions or human affection. The opposite would truly be miraculous and seriously undermine evolution theory. Eminent Dutch ethologist and primatologist Frans de Waal is right when he says that "a great deal of the feelings and cognitive faculties which are fundamental to human morality were already present on this planet before humans came into being." Just like the study of other animals unveiled human biology, the observation of other species increasingly reveals the origin and evolution of our behaviour, our nature and our morals. Rules, laws or ways of cohabitation that blatantly go against human nature are not viable or result in misery and literally inhuman conditions. On the one hand, we are not 'good' enough for communism and every so-called Marxist experiment will soon degenerate into a kind of Orwellian Animal Farm where the fattest pigs call the shots, watchdogs patrol and everyone else is hoodwinked and exploited. On the other hand, we are not 'bad' enough for unmitigated capitalism that gravely underestimates or ignores our social instincts, sense of justice, need for security and capacity for empathy. We are not honeybees or African wild dogs. But we are not solitary wasps or tigers either. Flemish socialist Louis Tobback, former party leader and Belgian Minister of Home Affairs, mayor of the city of Leuven ever since 1995, claims he would stop for a red traffic light on a crossroads in the middle of the desert, even when there's not a car in sight and no red light camera present. "While I denounce the viciousness of man", Jean Rostand says, "it always amazes me it's not a lot worse." That does not amaze me at all. Tobback exaggerates, but happily the vast majority of people simply stick to the rules. Of course, those rules need to be reasonable – half an hour on, I imagine even Saint Tobback would finally ignore that desert traffic light – and there will always be cheats that exploit the obedience of the herd. Utopia must always remain a dream. Try to make it come true and you wake up in a nightmare.


Stacks Image 3639
Soulless automatons

It is easier to go through life without limbs than without prejudices. Earthworms prove the first can be done. Humans prove the second is next to impossible. Most people are quite happy with their prejudices and rarely or never stop to examine them. But some – they are often called intellectuals or, when things really get out of hand, philosophers – are not satisfied with that. They have the urge to present their prejudices as well-founded conclusions of a watertight argumentation. A good example is 17th century French philosopher René Descartes. He believes in an almighty God that created the universe and placed Man above all other species by gifting him and – be it perhaps to a lesser degree – her with a soul or spirit. That's pretty much what the Jesuits of the college of La Flèche fed him almost from the cradle. But Descartes just doesn't want to know. He pretends to question everything and investigates if that methodical doubt can lead to knowledge and insights that are just as irrefutable as a mathematical proof. The first thing he's absolutely certain of is that he must exist. He can doubt it, but he cannot doubt that he doubts it.
Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Descartes calls this principle "the solid ground on which my philosophy is founded". Personally, I consider the faeces I produce on an almost daily basis as equally strong evidence of my existence as my reflections on the balance of my diet. I crap, therefore I am. The second certainty Descartes' method provides him with is utterly harebrained: The fact that he exists logically implies that God exists too. To make this implication acceptable, Descartes refers to just about every argument for the existence of God hammered into him as a boy by his teachers. The most important one is a variation on good old Anselm of Canterbury's ontological argument: We can imagine a perfect Supreme Being; that Being must exist, because it wouldn't be perfect if it didn't. According to Descartes, based only on observations, we could never have come up with the idea of such a Supreme Being. Reason or spirit whispers the existence of God in our ears. Disguised as a Jesuit, I suppose. Or as dad, mom or the nanny. God is Santa Claus for adults.

Stacks Image 3640
I think, therefore I err

Now that he's absolutely certain that God exists, Descartes no longer doubts the existence of realty as it presents itself to us either. After all, a perfect Superior Being wouldn't dream of fooling his creatures by deluding them with an entirely fictional, imaginary world. But what, if anything, can we know with absolute certainty about this reality? For starters, that it is made up of two rigorously separated substances, Descartes claims: Matter, which takes up space, and spirit. Body and soul. By some (even to Descartes) wholly mysterious miracle, humans are a combination of both substances. We think and we crap. Animals just crap. They don't think. If they did, they'd surely share their thoughts with one another and maybe even with us. But they don't. Parrots and magpies are anatomically capable of speech, but nothing meaningful ever leaves their beaks. They have nothing to say, or no more than a doll that says mama or wee wee when you pull its string. To Descartes, it's clear: Animals are nothing but extremely complex machines, perfectly assembled automatons without spirit, soul or consciousness. It often seems like they think, communicate and consciously experience emotions like pain, fear, sorrow or joy, but that's only in appearance. All sensory observations are muddled by matter, so we should never trust our ears and eyes. A mathematician and rationalist, Descartes gives precedence to insights acquired using only his mind and reasoning skills. Reason is the only source of true knowledge. Of course, not everyone interprets or understands everything exactly as everyone else. That's because the Creator in his magnanimity gifted us with the freedom to err, make mistakes and sin. This freedom is the source of all evil, but it is also our greatest asset and the only thing that really sets us apart from all other creatures. Your mortal body is a machine, but your immortal soul allows you to run that machine more or less as you please. At any moment, you even have the freedom to decide to switch yourself off. If you do, of course, you go straight to hell. Can't have everything.


Stacks Image 3641
From daddy to baddy

Descartes is often called the father of modern philosophy. In that case, some apples obviously fell very far from the tree. Be that is it may, if young Descartes had been raised in a Zen Buddhist monastery instead of a Jesuit college, I think it very unlikely his radical doubt would have provided him with the same certainties and conclusions. In my opinion, the odds notorious atheist Richard Dawkins is elected the next Pope are far better. Nevertheless, Descartes deserves our admiration for insisting on using his brain instead of unthinkingly swallowing just about anything. The Vatican – like any other institution based on falsehoods – is not amused. Pretty soon Descartes' books are placed on the infamous Index. After all, the minute people start thinking for themselves and ignore the twaddle of theologians, Church Fathers and other so-called authorities, faith in God, the soul, the hereafter and the superiority of the human species starts to crumble. In spite of being highly indoctrinated, Descartes is still a free thinker and his standing as the father of modern philosophy is not entirely unjustified. But daddy soon becomes a baddy.

Does Max go to heaven too?

When granddad dies of lung cancer, you can tell his grandchildren he's gone to heaven, watches over them and smokes four Havana cigars a day. But what about Max, the arthritic golden retriever that is put to sleep after a debilitating stroke? Is Max in heaven too now? Not according to Descartes, for dogs are animals and animals don't have souls. Dead is dead. But Max was so sweet, so loyal and so clever! Only in your imagination, Descartes claims. Anyway, if Max had a soul, Molly must have one too. And if Molly has a soul, why wouldn't mice, frogs, insects, bacteria, plants, moulds or even minerals have one? Where do you draw the line? No, Max is not with grandpa in heaven. Grandpa will have to fetch his slippers and newspaper himself.

Stacks Image 3642

In a letter to the English philosopher Henry More, Descartes writes that his opinion that animals are machines "is not so much cruel to animals as indulgent to men (…) since it absolves them from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals." This line is often quoted in polemic articles by militant vegans. Usually, they forget to mention that, for a large part of his life, Descartes was a vegetarian. They also tend to leave out these two preceding sentences: "Please note that I am speaking of thought, and not of life or sensation. I do not deny life to animals, since I regard it as consisting simply in the heat of the heart; and I do not deny sensation, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ." Other texts also show that Descartes makes a distinction between feeling and recognizing that you feel, between having pain and being aware of having pain, between experiencing joy and knowing that you are having a good time. The distinction is lost on me, but then I am not a dualist. The fact remains that most opponents of Descartes, the earliest ones as well as those of today, aim their arrows at a caricature and that their straw man arguments mainly reveal their own prejudices. But even most of Descartes' adherents, with illustrious priest-philosopher Malebranche leading the way, tend to present an oversimplified version of his view: Animals are soulless automatons
ergo they are stupid, insensible creatures. The premise is truly Cartesian, but the all but logical conclusion is definitely not.

Stacks Image 3643
It's a dog's life

"In the ordinary sense of the word, animals possess neither intelligence nor a soul. They eat without joy, cry without pain, grow without being aware of it. They require nothing, fear nothing and know nothing. When they behave in a manner that seems intelligent, that is only because God, who wants them to survive, moulded their bodies in such a manner that they automatically and without fear avoid anything that is capable of destroying them." (Nicolas Malebranche)

Stacks Image 3644

Paris, about 1700. Rue Saint-Jacques. On a stroll with some friends, amongst which is the famous writer of fables, Jean de La Fontaine, Malebranche tenderly strokes a stray pregnant bitch. The next minute, he kicks the animal in the stomach. The bitch bolts, yelping. His friends are shocked. The priest-philosopher gets all worked up and tells them to reserve their pity for humans. Animals, after all, are nothing but soulless automatons without feelings. Though anything but a fan of Malebranche, I have just about as little faith in this story as I have in the one about the Chinese restaurant that serves its customers canned cat food. The version of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, author of the tearjerker
Paul et Virginie, makes me even more sceptical. This time, the dog is Malebranche's own bitch. She's not pregnant, but has pups. One day, in the heat of a discussion, Malebranche kills her with a single, well-aimed kick. Just to make a point. De Saint-Pierre, born over twenty years after Malebranche's death, relates the hair-raising anecdote as if he witnessed it. True or not, it shows that emotions run high. Voltaire, Diderot and most other Enlightenment philosophers ride roughshod over the views of both Descartes and Malebranche, who they conveniently lump together. "When you start reasoning, you stop feeling", Rousseau allegedly tells de Saint-Pierre in this context. Reason versus sentiment. Cold science versus warm feelings. Hard facts versus pious meditations. Formulas and numbers versus more or less hollow phrases and poetry. Materialism versus spiritualism. Mechanism versus vitalism. Genetically modified organisms versus organically grown crops. Pills versus herbal concoctions. For over three centuries Malebranche's dog divides the minds. Contemporary animal rights advocates, such as Peter Singer, charge Descartes and his followers with all the sins of Israel. Vivisection? Neither Descartes nor Malebranche is averse to it. To both of them, dissecting a living animal is like disassembling a ticking clock. Malebranche's dog is to the 18th century what Frankenstein's monster is to the 19th, the patented OncoMouse to the 20th and – coming soon! – the transgenic Olympic athlete to the 21st century: The emblem of insane science that produces ever more nutty professors. The Vatican protests. Philosophers organise seminars. Doomsayers announce the end of time. Journalists, as usual, muck things up. Politicians swing with the wind. Fanatics burn down branches of fast food chains or 'liberate' lab animals. Joe and Jill Average haven't got a clue but agree that something must be done. In the next election, Joe gives his vote to the Animal's Party. Jill adopts an ill-treated Spanish greyhound and has her depression holistically treated by a pendulum dowsing homoeopath with Tibetan roots. There's always someone that benefits.


Stacks Image 3645
L'Homme Machine

"It is true that this celebrated philosopher (Descartes) was often wrong and nobody denies it. But he at least understood the nature of animals; he was the first to prove beyond any doubt that animals are pure machines. After such an important discovery, manifesting such sagacity, we should be very ungrateful not to forgive him all his mistakes!" (Julien Offray de La Mettrie)

Leiden, 1748. Almost a century after Descartes' death, a book is published that causes outrage and forces the author, who's already fled France, to leave the Netherlands and seek refuge in Berlin. His name is Julien Offray de La Mettrie and the title of his book speaks for itself:
L'Homme Machine (Man-Machine). A full-blooded atheist and materialist, La Mettrie banishes God, the spirit and the soul to the realm of fairytales. He rejects Descartes' dualism and declares that humans, just like all other animals, are nothing but extremely complex automatons. It's a small step for a man, but a giant leap for the animal kingdom.

Stacks Image 3646

All power to the imagination!

Today, the idea that animals, plants, fungi and all other living creatures are basically solar powered organic automatons is far less hard to grasp than three centuries ago. After all, what kind of machines was Descartes familiar with? Water and windmills, of course, but then only a few rudimentary clocks, music boxes and toys powered by weights, pendulums and springs. A century on, these automatons are not only highly perfected but also tremendously popular. Meanwhile, Newton's mechanics have reduced the entire universe to a gigantic, eternally ticking clock and the first fully functional large steam engines herald the Industrial Revolution. To nearly all of his contemporaries, however, La Mettrie's man-machine is still a preposterously absurd, daft and above all blasphemous concept. It's way over their heads. Even today, in the age of molecular biology, gene technology, production robots, pacemakers, artificial intelligence, speech technology and ever more convincing androids, most people lack the imaginative power to appreciate La Mettrie's visionary view. He's so far ahead of his time that almost three centuries later the vast majority of the world's population still haven't caught up. Sometimes, it even looks like his lead is growing again. Though still only a minority, many of us are quite happy with the idea that we are animals. But machines? Automatons? That's just adding insult to injury. A slap in the face!

Stacks Image 3647
Love in the time of DNA

"And God said: This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth." (Genesis 9: 12-13)

According to the English poet John Keats, by scientifically explaining the rainbow, Newton's optics ruined the poetry of this awe-inspiring natural phenomenon. In
Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins explains why he finds the scientific explanation far more interesting, creative and even more poetic than the old mythical accounts and other fabrications. Half a century before that, Jean Rostand already states that biochemistry does not take the poetry out of love, but simply adds more poetry to chemistry. I suppose it's a matter of perspective. Both Rostand and Dawkins are convinced humanity would be better off without religions, superstitions and mindless devotion. Perhaps they are right, but we'll probably never know. Many people are simply too thick or too dumbed down to understand scientific explanations, let alone appreciate their beauty. Or they just don't give a damn. They have better things to do. Surviving, for instance, or deciding whether or not to buy the outrageously expensive new anti-wrinkle face cream of their favourite high-end brand. Inspired by gene therapy! I admire Dawkins, but lately he too often reminds me of the free-jazz lover that seizes every opportunity to win people over. Tiresome, irritating and anything but effective. No matter how lucid, smart and brilliantly he states his message, most people simply don't care or find it indigestible. Here's La Mettrie in 1751, the year he dies, on the subject of the immortal soul of mankind, created in the image of God: "It's a no-brainer to make people believe what they want to believe. You can effortlessly convince them of anything that flatters their vanity." In other words: It is far easier to make people believe in the hereafter or the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost than to make them seriously consider the concepts of man-animal or man-machine.


Stacks Image 3648
There is grandeur in this view…

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." (Charles Darwin)

Darwin knows all too well his theory of evolution is both terribly exciting and hard to digest. It doesn't exactly make you want to jump with joy. If that's true for us today, it certainly was for people in Darwin's time. That's probably why he tries to give his view of evolution, powered by a combination of pure chance and natural selection, a poetic twist. Just like Rostand, Dawkins and numerous biologists after him. The very last sentence of the very last paragraph of
The Origin of Species is undoubtedly the most quoted of his entire oeuvre. In the second edition, even the Creator creeps in, a concession to the prevailing Victorian worldview that Darwin, as an atheist, lives to regret. But his view on the origin and evolution of our planet's biodiversity is indeed infinitely more exciting, interesting and grand than Genesis and all other creation myths. It is, as Dawkins calls it, The Greatest Show on Earth. What really sets it apart, of course, is that it's true. For all epistemological hair-splitting, to me that's rather important. From the start, La Mettrie's view that humans and all other living creatures are machines, gains far less support than Darwin's theory of evolution. But it is, basically, just as fascinating and grand. Put your vanity aside, give it some thought and you'll soon come to the conclusion that La Mettrie's hypothesis is anything but ridiculous, revolting or dehumanizing. To paraphrase Rostand: The 'machinism' of La Mettrie does not take the poetry out of life, but only adds poetry to machines. Darwinism starts off as a hypothesis confirmed by ever more discoveries and observations. But it isn't until well into the 20th century that it becomes a well-established scientific theory, confirmed by genetics, geology, chemistry and every other science you can name. Could 'lamettrism' be facing the same scenario? The fact is that every progress made in every life science – from embryology and physiology to pathology and psychology – seems to confirm La Mettrie's 18th century hypothesis, while not a single scientific experiment or discovery invalidates it. Looks promising, doesn't it?

Stacks Image 3649
Be nice to other machines

If Descartes is the father of modern philosophy, then La Mettrie is the father of modern biosciences or at least of bioengineering. Organisms are machines you can tinker with, like a mechanic with a car. Descartes is a mathematician. He distrusts his senses and emotions and is the prototype of the armchair philosopher, ideologist or moralist. La Mettrie is a physician. To him, reason is a less reliable source of true knowledge than his senses and feelings. When an animal squirms, flounders, yelps, cries or howls as if it is in pain, he infers it probably really is suffering. But can machines suffer? Not according to Descartes, or at least not consciously. But according to La Mettrie, they certainly can. In his view, humans are machines too and nobody doubts that humans can suffer. Strangely enough, vegetarians, vegans, animal lovers and environmentalists are often amongst the most vehement opponents of La Mettrie's view. They refuse to be machines or automatons. They want a soul, a spirit and free will. But what is wrong with being a machine? What prevents an automaton from being a person, a unique emotional and sentient creature that deserves to be treated with respect? Descartes and Malebranche put Man on a pedestal and demote all other animals to intricate clocks assembled by God. La Mettrie knocks Man off his pedestal and elevates all living creatures to awe-inspiring automatons assembled by nature. The other animals don't mind. Plants are quite happy with it. Fungi couldn't care less and all other organisms accept it without so much as a whimper. Only humans grumble and sputter, obviously terrified of ending up in the recycling park, right next to the waste electrical and electronic equipment. Yet the only moral rule La Mettrie's hypothesis seems to imply is that we should probably treat man-made machines with a little more care and respect. After all, we are all automatons. Remember A.I., WALL·E, Terminator 2 or RoboCop? A recurring theme of these and dozens of other sci-fi films and stories is the moral and legal status of advanced robots, androids or cyborgs. Do you treat them with respect or like Malebranche's dog? La Mettrie's hypothesis effectively neutralizes this dilemma. It becomes meaningless. I won't live to see the day, so I'm not losing any sleep over it. If we ever manage to produce robots like that, for the sake of mankind, we can only hope they are not Cartesians. But what about free will? Don't get me started on that! "Man is condemned to be free", Sartre writes in L'être et le néant. Very clever and for once even almost intelligible. But it's still poppycock, an unfounded statement by a poorly camouflaged armchair dualist. Freedom and free will are two entirely different and unrelated concepts. Freedom is a lot like money: You can win or lose it and have more or less of it. "I am free", says the ex-convict. But in reality, he is just as unfree as when he was in jail. He simply possesses a higher amount of freedom. Free will, our God-given greatest asset, is an illusion. We are not free. We are automatons, apparently condemned to think we are free and to act as if we are. But that's another story…


A survey of the animal kingdom

Animals are multicellular organisms, composed of cells that have only living membranes and no rigid, dead walls. They are more closely related to
fungi than to plants and need oxygen to burn their food. In a way, all animals are parasites: They get most of their energy from other organisms. If all animals disappeared, Earth would still be a living, green planet. If all plants disappeared, the planet would die.

The animated garden

Unlike plants and fungi, all species of the animal kingdom (Animalia) are motile, be it sometimes only in certain stages of their development. Barnacles, for instance, begin their life as free-swimming larvae, but eventually cement themselves permanently to a substrate. Animals literally animate the garden. They run, crawl, weave, climb, hop, swim, dig, drill, jump, hover, glide, skate, dive, fly or flutter like their lives depended on it. More often than not, that truly is the case. They search for food or do their utmost not to end up as food themselves. They graze, peck, maul, munch, suck, bite, snap, gnaw, sting, chew or nibble to keep their metabolisms going. Many animals are also blatant sex maniacs. No matter how well they normally manage their energy consumption, whenever they feel the urge, all caution is thrown to the wind. They go bonkers, absolutely wild. Inevitably, this obsessive-compulsive disorder often proves fatal. Barking mad, but as long as genes are transferred to the next generation, who cares? And talking about barking: poplars rustle, reed fields whisper and broom pods pop, but animals are by far the noisiest bunch. They crow, whistle, bray, bellow, bleat, warble, howl, buzz, coo, yelp, growl, squeak, croak, quack, roar, drum, cackle or miaow without the slightest consideration for noise levels, neighbours or even the most basic rules of harmony. Shut up!

From mouth to bottom

All animals in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat belong to the subkingdom Eumetazoa and are bilaterally symmetrical: There's only one way to divide them into two (nearly) equal halves. Their left side mirrors their right side. Most of them are protostomes (Protostomia), while the superphylum of deuterostomes (Deuterostomia) is represented by only a few dozen species from four classes in the subphylum of vertebrates (Vertebrata): Amphibians, fish, birds and mammals. Protostomes evolved much earlier. The first body cavity formed in the embryonic stage of these species, eventually becomes the mouth. In deuterostomes, this 'proto-mouth' becomes the anus, while the oral cavity is formed later on. Worldwide, only some 60,000 species of deuterostomes are known today, while over a million species of protostomes have been discovered and described. Small wonder protostomes rule the roost in the garden and on this site too. Most are insects, though spiders are also well represented.

Where are the reptiles?

Good question! Today, Flanders has five indigenous reptiles: The smooth snake, the grass snake, the adder, the slow worm and the viviparous lizard. Since 1995, only the last two species have been observed in the vicinity of Geraardsbergen. They are also the only indigenous reptiles I have ever seen in the wild. Not in Geraardsbergen, though, but in Beernem, the village in the province of West Flanders where I grew up. There are no reptiles in my garden. One day, one of the two local species may turn up, with the odds in favour of the slow worm. It's unlikely to happen, but if it does and I manage to photograph the animal, I'll add it to the Other animals section. Currently, this section presents only invertebrates that are neither insects nor spiders or harvestmen.


Stacks Image 3656
Stacks Image 3657

Sources and links to more information

  • Godfried Bomans, Erik, of het klein insectenboek, Prisma-Boeken (Het Spectrum), 1980.
  • John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: the Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, Harper Perennial, 2006.
  • Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Penguin Classics, 1987.
  • Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth – The Evidence for Evolution, Bantam Press, 2009.
  • Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin Books, 1999.
  • Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Oeuvres complètes, Google books.
  • René Descartes, Animals are Machines, three fragments, including the letter to Henry More (PDF).
  • René Descartes, Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa Raison et chercher la Vérité dans les Sciences, mozambook, 2001.
  • Frans de Waal, Van nature goed – Over de oorsprong van goed en kwaad in mensen en andere dieren, Olympus, 1996.
  • Dian Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist, Penguin Books, 1985.
  • Jane Goodall, Through a Window – Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, Penguin Books, 1991.
  • Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder – How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Harper Press, 2009.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche Werke – Kritische Gesamtausgabe – Herausgegeben von Giorgio Colli und Mazzino Montinari – VII2 – Nachgelassene Fragmente Frühjahr-Herbst 1884, Walter de Gruyter & Co, 1973.
  • Julien Offray de La Mettrie, L’Homme Machine, Wikisource.
  • Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Oeuvres Philosophiques I, II, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1987.
  • Nicolas Malebranche, Oeuvres complètes de Malebranche I, Google books.
  • George Orwell, Animal Farm, Penguin Books, 1951.
  • Jean Rostand, Pensées d'un biologiste, Éditions Stock, 1954.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, L'être et le néant – Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique, Éditions Gallimard, 1943.
  • Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, Ecco Press, 2001.
  • Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique, Éditions Garnier, 1967.
  • Richard Watson, Cogito Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes, David R Godine, 2007.


Geraardsbergen, 24 June 2011.
Latest revision: 24 June 2011.