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
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
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
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.