This story of the relationship between Dr of Philosophy Mark Rowlands, and a wolf he bought as a cub, whilst a very young lecturer in Arizona in the 1990s, is fascinating, touching, meditative, troubled, thought provoking and as heartbreaking at times as it is amusing at others.
Rowlands was, as he admits, on one level quite a troubled individual – misanthropic, intensely reflective but not particularly comfortable with himself or other members of his own species, and veering into a relationship, far less instructive and elevating than his relationship with a wolf or part wolf part dog – with the bottle. The ability to drink a couple of litres of spirit in agonised despair on one particular, heartbreaking night, as he recounts, is clear evidence of hardened heavy drinking.
This book is part a loving recount of an 11 year relationship with Brenin, but, as importantly, a reflection on what it is to be human – or, as Rowlands, in disgust puts it ‘ape’ or ‘simian’, by contrast with what it means to be a lupine, vulpine or canine animal.
There is much which fascinatingly turns our own perception of ourselves as fine and advanced, on its head – Rowlands marks all our achievements down, from the highest to the lowest, as based on the evolutionary road which started in other primates, before homo sapiens, namely, the ability to work an advantage in deceiving each other, carried forward in speech, to grandiose mendacity, to ourselves as well as others, and, in order that the deceived do not lose evolutionary advantages, the development of the ability to read each other, see through lies and deceptions, and the never ending content between deceivers and deceived which then goes on permanently. And of course, the fact that each of us is both, simultaneously.
He contrasts the colder, cleaner concept of relationships built on loyalty within the pack of non-primate social species, with the sort of tricky behaviour (so similar to our own) which can be observed by animal behaviourists who study primate tribes over years in the wild.
I very much appreciated the debunking of arrogant superiority which we are prone to, as a species, but, increasingly, as I read, I could not help but be reminded, again and again, that the insistance, almost, on our innate debased nature, in comparison to a more noble non-human animal nature, seemed as flawed as those who believe we are the pinnacle, and the rest, dumb beasts.
Much of the book seemed to inhabit a place of self-loathing – and that loathing was projected outwards to the species as a whole of which the author seemed to be a reluctant and repulsed member.
Man, like wolf, is neither wholly flawed nor wholly perfect and part of our ape-ish evolution also leads to that very ability to self-reflect, even at times to be brutally honest in our self-reflection and attempt to see the world through another’s eyes.
Yes, for all I know non-primates may indeed be able to try and empathise with what it might mean to be lupine or avian, or even to try to perceive the world through cockroach or evergreen tree perspective, but I think this is definitely a pronounced human characteristic – and one which, if developed, can work to overturn the undoubtedly also present duplicity of simian development.
At times I very much was in 5 star territory with this book, as it made me think and ponder deeply, but I got pulled back to 4 star because some of the arguments really felt due to the fact Rowlands’ own nature made him often peer at the world through ordure-tinted spectacles. Which, in the end may be just as partial in view as rose-tinted ones
The Philosopher and The Wolf Amazon UK
The Philosopher and The Wolf Amazon USA