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September 1998
On Restoring Evolution

Book Review by Jim Mason


Coming Home to the Pleistocene by Paul Shepard (Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington DC/Covello, CA, 1998). $24.95 hardcover. 240 pages

This book is the last and, in terms of readability, the best of the late Paul Shepard's unique work of examining our primal relationship with the living world, how we ruined that relationship, and why we must revive the Pleistocene sense of membership with life on earth.

Shepard introduced readers to his provocative ideas in Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Thinking Animals, and Nature and Madness, books now regarded as classics. In this book, completed weeks before his death in July 1997, Shepard offers the best presentation yet of his life-long case: That human bodies, minds and essential nature are the product of thousands of years of evolution during the Pleistocene epoch (from about two million to 10,000 years ago). This time around, Shepard is more forthcoming about how we might resurrect some of the ways of living that made us human.

As usual, however, Shepard's progressive and insightful ideas about humanity are blotched by his nearly pedantic praise of hunting and meat-eating. Like so many others before him, Shepard enshrines hunting and meat-eating as sacred. In his view, these activities were so central to human life during our evolution that they made us human. The zeal with which he argues this case over and over makes one wonder if perhaps it is coming more from the inner turmoil of a guilty meat-eater than from objective scholarship.

And then there is the evidence that hunting is not as old as Shepard thinks. He says that we have been hunters for two million years. The other view, best expressed in The Evolution of Human Hunting from the 1986 symposium of the same title, is that humans have been scavengers for a few million years, but that true hunting began as recently as about 25,000 years ago-well within our last phase of our evolution into fully modern, cultural humans (Homo sapiens sapiens). And, as I suggested in my book, An Unnatural Order, men might have taken up hunting more for power than protein. Animals, in those days, were thought to embody the powers and spirits of the world, and men may have hunted them to gain status in an essentially female-centered family group.

Shepard glorifies meat-eating and vilifies vegetarianism, which, he says, "like creationism, simply reinvents human biology to suit an ideology." Did he know that approximately one-fourth of the world's population is vegetarian? What would he say to the evidence amassed by T. Colin Campbell, the Cornell University nutritionist, which shows that human health is highest in populations where diets are lowest in animal-based foods? If meat is so important to human life, then why is the meat-based diet killing so many people?

But one must not dismiss all of Paul Shepard's ideas just because he worships hunting and meat eating. One must get beyond these penchants and understand what he has to say about the evolution of humanity and the importance of animals in that evolution, about our long-lost sense of kinship with the living world, the destructive efforts of domestication, the madness of modern life, and other serious matters. Here is the real "meat" of Shepard's thinking, and his greatest contribution.

Read, for example, his chapter, "The Cowboy Alternative," in which he explains how domestication, and herding in particular, contributed to human culture "a sense of domination and mastery inured by centuries of rational animal slavery: castration, driving, rustling and butchering." The herding societies of the ancient Western world, particularly the herders of cattle and horses, gave us "militant monotheism" and this "drained sacredness from other forms of life and diminished the spirituality of lower beings, human or nonhuman." Paul Shepard, more than any other thinker I know, understands how much the subjugation of animals contributed to hatred of nature, militarism, male supremacy, misogyny, subjugation of women, fear and hatred of the "Other," racism, destruction of the environment, social violence, power-mania, militant religious fundamentalism, greed, and many of the other symptoms of the madness known as "modern life.

Read the many brilliant passages about our very old connections with the living world: "Our eyes and ears, noses, brains, and bodies have all been shaped by nature. Would it not then be incredible indeed, if savannas and forest groves, flowers and animals...were not, at the very least, still important to us?" And we must have wilderness, Shepard argues, not so much for picnics and pretty scenes pleasing to the human eye, but so that life in the world can go on about its billion-year-old business.

There are so many muscular, motivating lines in here. I loved especially Shepard's protest against the corporate takeover of everything: "The corporate enterprise in the use of the earth is not interested in either human or natural well-being. Its claims of altruism are made by hired publicists and its sole purpose is to convert the 'resources' of the earth into money for its investors. The 'trickle-down' benefit for the mass of humanity and for the order of nature is one of the great lies of our time."

You may enjoy, too, Paul Shepard's prescriptions for a better way of human life: smaller social groups, food sharing, fire circles, closer child care, fewer toys, extended families, story-telling, dancing, running, closer contact with plants and animals, less work, more play, ceremonies, attunement to seasonal cycles, and the rest of the spectrum of Pleistocene human lifeways.

Jim Mason is co-author (with Peter Singer) of Animal Factories. His latest book, An Unnatural Order: Why We Are Destroying the Planet and Each Other is available in paperback from Continuum Publishing Company.




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