Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Book Reviews

Waking From the Dream of Total Knowledge

Searching for the origins of a better posthumanism.

Daniel Kraft

The hedgehog from Buffon’s Natural History, 1775; public domain/Wikipedia.

In the third book of his thirty-six-volume magnum opus, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, first published in 1749, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, described the limits of human sovereignty over the nonhuman world:

Many species elude [man’s] power, by the rapidity of their flight, by the element which they inhabit…[and] by the minuteness of their bodies; and others, instead of acknowledging their sovereign, attack him with open hostility. He is likewise insulted with the stings of insects, and the poisonous bites of serpents; and he is often incommoded with impure and useless creatures, which seem to exist for no other good purpose but to form the shade between good and evil.

The human “empire over the animals,” Buffon said in summary, “is not absolute.” His diagnosis was at once a material and an epistemological claim: The physical attributes and behaviors of animals prevented them from being mastered, and their “impure” characteristics made them impossible to confine in taxonomic or moral categories. For Buffon, some animal bodies would always be able to hide in places inaccessible to humans, just as some animal identities would remain out of intellectual reach, ensconced within “the shade between” human classifications.

This idea that acquiring comprehensive knowledge of animals is impossible is absent from many of today’s histories of science, whose authors often assume that Enlightenment-era naturalists sought complete mastery of the nonhuman world. The “dream of total knowledge in Christian natural history,” writes historian James Delbourgo, was founded on the idea that “the universe had not changed since the creation so naturalists could aspire to assemble complete catalogues of natural kinds.” But for Buffon, as for many of his contemporaries, total knowledge was illusory because animals often refuse to cooperate with humans’ grand classificatory efforts. As demonstrated by two recent books—Curious Species: How Animals Made Natural History, by science writer and historian Whitney Barlow Robles, and The Tame and the Wild: People and Animals After 1492, by historian Marcy Norton—animals have always had agency, and they have used it to complicate, participate in, and resist human designs.

Over the last couple of decades, scholars studying the history of science have sought to amplify the category of the “knowledge producer” by giving attention, for example, not only to credentialed elites but also to marginalized groups and subjects. Both Robles and Norton expand this project further, beyond the horizons of humanity, to present animals themselves as “drivers of historical change.” They aim to bring nonhuman creatures in from the margins of history. For Robles, that history consists primarily in the development of natural science, beginning in eighteenth-century Europe and North America, while Norton’s subject is the colonization of the Americas.

The two books share a thesis: that human-animal relationships do not just describe or illuminate human self-understanding but in some sense contribute to the formation of human self-understanding. As Norton puts it, “the ways that people relate to other animals…are generative of how people understand themselves and others.”

Robles organizes Curious Species around four types of animals—coral polyps, rattlesnakes, stingrays, and raccoons—to examine how each has been “a formidable and frequently opposing force to human will and history,” both by declining to be assimilated into neat scientific categories and by disrupting human plans, as when the risk of rattlesnake attacks significantly delayed a 1728 British surveying expedition of what is now Virginia and North Carolina.

“Zoophytes,” the archaic term for the family of ambiguous creatures, neither plant nor animal, that included corals, “confounded those who studied them in the eighteenth century,” Robles writes. “Language broke down when trying to capture them in words or images.” For Buffon, corals were “the last of animals, and the first of plants,” while for a contemporary the British naturalist Henry Baker, corals prompted an almost mystical encounter with ineffable unknowability. As Baker wrote in 1743, “’Tis, methinks, a little presuming to restrain the Operations of Nature, or imagine that God has done nothing but according to certain Rules well known to us.” The attempt “to discover and describe the Machinery whereby, and the manner how these wonderful Effects are performed, which we neither have Senses to discern, nor Abilities to judge of,” creates a situation, he further observed, in which “all is Darkness and Uncertainty, [and] we plunge into an unfathomable Abyss without either Star or Compass to direct our Course.”

The question of coral’s identity, then, is not just about coral. For Baker and other Enlightenment-era thinkers, coral raised more pressing questions about humanity’s capabilities. Here, as throughout Curious Species, Robles is adept at identifying and explicating moments in natural history when a creature’s profound otherness, from the perspective of human scientists, forced those scientists to wonder about themselves. A coral, for example, can “split asunder and become two fully functional animals.” Since several prominent early modern thinkers, such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, held that animals had souls analogous to human souls, these facts of coral biology raised discomfiting theological questions. “Was the soul indivisible?” Robles asks. “Or could two souls be made from one? And if the latter proved true, what did that mean for identity, for individuals?”

Robles recounts the ways the naturalists of early modernity “feverishly quantified and described every facet of the animal specimens they collected. This was especially true,” she writes, “when it came to matters reproductive. In possession of a dead rattlesnake, they would count the number of joints in its rattle, measure the snake’s length and girth, tally up its total number of scales, and, were it a gravid female, slice its abdomen to unearth and account for the offspring inside.”

Robles notes how, in the name of research, natural scientists decimated the rattlesnake population in northeastern North America. “Allow for a moment of alterity,” she writes. “What might these scenes of destruction have looked like from a rattlesnake’s perspective?” What follows is a harrowing and fascinating passage, based on the science of snake perception, that offers one possible version of a snake’s point of view when humans invade its hibernaculum.

For Marcy Norton, in The Tame and the Wild, this blending of human and animal consciousness was an essential aspect of both European and American indigenous relationships with animals in the early modern period. Describing aristocratic European hunting practices, Norton writes, “The intensity of the collaboration between hunters and [animals] was such that their attunement could lead to a temporary sense of porous boundaries and a merger of subjectivities similar to what humans might experience during collective rites, sexual intimacy, and meditation.” As John Astley, whose equestrian skill is memorialized in a portrait in the British Museum, wrote in a 1584 manual, “in everie act that you shall doo, [the horse] will accompanie you, and you shall accompanie him in time and measure, so as to the beholders it shall appear, that he and you be one bodie, of one mind, and of one will.” “Hunting,” Norton writes, “required human participants to recognize canine, equine, and avian vassals and prey…as fellow subjects with desires, emotions, and even reason.”

European practices of hunting, livestock husbandry, and warfare, Norton argues, were inseparable from the subjectivity of the animals these practices relied on. Because these practices were also the central means of European colonization of the Americas, that process of colonization was driven, in part and inextricably, by animals. But just as important for Norton as the role of animals in European designs is the role of animals in indigenous influence on Europe. Through historical and anthropological scholarship, including close readings of indigenous American art and writing, Norton demonstrates that indigenous modes of relating to animals, including taming wild creatures and thereby transforming them into kin, had profound ramifications for European culture. Among other things, these transformations made domesticated animals into hunting partners and household pets, but they also created the foundations for many of the practical and epistemological aspects of Enlightenment-era natural science that Robles discusses.

In some cases, these indigenous and European modes of interacting with animals collided with each other and with the agency of the animals themselves. Norton describes the Castilian mastiff Becerrillo, a dog trained for war, who became known for his exceptional ferocity and intelligence during the Spanish campaigns to colonize Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. For instance, after the Spanish subdued an anticolonial uprising, a Spanish military captain gave an elderly female captive a letter to deliver to Ponce de León, and then—after fooling the woman into thinking she would be liberated for her service—commanded Becerrillo to maul her to death.

Norton quotes the writer and conquistador Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s description of what happened next: “When the woman saw [Becerrillo] going aggressively for her, she sat on the ground and in her language started to speak and said to him, ‘Dog, Sir Dog, I am going to bring this letter to the Lord governor’ and she showed him the letter…and said to him, ‘Do not do me any harm, Sir Dog.’ And indeed the dog stopped as if he had heard her speaking, and arrived very tamely to her.” Surprised and inspired by “the clemency” Becerrillo showed this woman, the captain had the dog confined and ordered the woman set free. As Norton comments, “Although this episode may have been unusual…the mode of interaction that underlay it was not.”

For Norton and Robles, such a mode of interaction is relevant not only to the past but to the present and future. In Norton’s words, a history that sees animals as central, rather than marginal, players in human processes can show us that “our current ideas and practices around objectifying nonhuman beings are a historical and, therefore, contingent development; we can see that it is our choice to end that practice.” Both writers speculate on the kinds of ethical responses and ecological mindsets the idea of animal agency might enable or demand. Consequently, despite the often brutal histories of ecological destruction and colonial violence Norton and Robles explore, they are ultimately hopeful, and encourage us to consider how relationships of cooperation and perhaps even solidarity might be forged between human beings and animals.

Both Norton and Robles, then, offer a historical grounding for a theoretical framework that science and technology studies scholar Donna Haraway advanced in her 2003 book, The Companion Species Manifesto, according to which “an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness” can emerge from “a story of co-habitation, co-evolution, and embodied cross-species sociality” between humans and animals. Unlike many posthumanist thinkers, Haraway, Norton, and Robles reject facile technological teleologies (found in, for example, the transhumanism of futurist Ray Kurzweil), but they nevertheless insist that there are ethical resources to be gained in overcoming narrow ideas of human agency. The research of Norton and Robles demonstrates that such an approach to posthumanism has a rich prehistory and that, even in the midst of Enlightenment-era humanism, the boundaries of the human were never understood to be as stable as many posthumanist thinkers often assume.