BOOKS: Humane education classic

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  April 2013:

Humane education classic The Universal Natural History:  Natural History in Anecdote by Alfred H. Miles,  Profusely Illustrated With Colored Plates Dodd Mead & Co.,  New York.  1895.  385 pages.

Clinton,  Washington,  where ANIMAL PEOPLE receives mail,  was named in 1883 by Civil War veteran Edward C. Hinman,  who came from Eagle Township in Clinton County,  Michigan.  Hinman “built a hotel and a dock, supplying steamships with wood and water,”  local histories recount.  From 1885 to 1896,  Hinman ran the local post office from a general store located kitty-corner from the present post office.   The building still exists,  but has long been vacant. Turning the store and post office  over to his brother Henry,  12 years younger,  Edward C. Hinman joined the Alaska Gold Rush in 1899,  but died aboard ship and was buried at sea. Henry and Emma Hinman,  who already had three daughters,  52 days later named their first and only son Edward E. Hinman.  Emma,  on an unknown occasion,  gave Edward E. a copy of The Universal Natural History,  by Alfred H. Miles,  inscribed “be brave,  be true,  be kind,  be industrious,  but above all don’t be imposed upon.”  Edward E. treasured the book to the end of his life.  He died in 1996,  three months before ANIMAL PEOPLE relocated to Clinton from Shushan,  New York.  The Hinman copy of The Universal Natural History then passed to a local antiquarian bookseller.  Wolf Clifton at Christmas 2012 presented it to me. The Universal Natural History was perhaps the most enduringly read of the many works compiled by Alfred Henry Miles, 1848-1929. Often confused with Alfred Hart Miles,  author of the 1906 naval anthem “Anchors Aweigh,”  Alfred Henry Miles is remembered by Wikipedia as “a prolific Victorian-age author, editor,  anthologist,  journalist,  composer and lecturer who published hundreds of works on a wide range of topics,  ranging from poetry to household encyclopedias.” Except for The Universal Natural History. Miles wrote relatively little about animals.  Miles almost certainly never actually saw most of the creatures he described in The Universal Natural History.  Instead, he strung together the observations of countless other authors and correspondents,  from antiquity to contemporaries,  organized according to the precepts of Linnaean taxonomy. “The most perfect of all animals is man,”  Miles opened,  but that was the full extent of his rumination about human perfection.  Typically Miles offered a few facts about each animal,  then quoted others describing encounters with the animal.  The encounters so often ended badly for the animals that much of The Universal Natural History is grim reading. But Miles rarely appears to have approved of the mayhem.  Three of his consistent themes are that animals are far more intelligent than most humans suppose;  animals who are treated kindly will seldom harm humans;  and humans who needlessly harm animals often feel enduring remorse.  While the latter might be debated,  Miles quoted at length many people,  including hunters,  trappers,  and collectors of scientific specimens,  who admitted regret for killing particular animals both large and small,  brave and timid. Miles’ favorite phrase appears to have been “The sagacity of,”  usually used as a subheading above stories about the problem-solving abilities of animals. By the time Edward E. Hinman was old enough to read The Universal Natural History, hunter/conservationists John Burroughs and Theodore Roosevelt,  joined by prominent vivisectors,  were vehemently denouncing as “nature-fakers” those authors who emphasized animal intelligence.  Their targets included Ernest Seton Thompson,  founder of the scouting movement;  Jack London;  and especially William J. Long,  whose 1919 opus How Animals Talk  is now known to have been decades ahead of formal scientific recognition of much that he described. Partly as result of the “nature-faker” denunciations,  the term “anecdote,”  which Miles used as shorthand for “observation,”  fell into disrepute among writers about animal behavior until ethologist Marc Bekoff recently began pointing out that,  “The plural of anecdote is data.” Miles’ sources of anecdotes included Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hamiliton Smith,  author of The Natural History of Dogs,  published in 1839-1840 by W.H. Lizars of Edinburgh,  Scotland.  Influential in establishing breed standards for most common dog varieties,  The Natural History of Dogs inspired Miles to give each popular dog breed more pages in  The Universal Natural History than he gave to most entire animal orders.  As with other species,  Miles’ accounts of dogs were largely complimentary. But there was one exception.  Describing the dog now most often called a pit bull,  Miles quoted Smith verbatim:   “The bull-dog differs from all others,  even from the mastiff,  in giving no warning of his attack by his barking.  He grapples his opponents without in the least estimating their comparative weight and powers.  The bull-dog is possessed of less sagacity and less attachment than any of the hound tribe; he is therefore less favored,  and more rarely bred with care,  excepting by professed amateurs of sports and feelings little commendable to humanity.  He never leaves his hold,  when once he has got it,  while life lasts.” This passage may have been of concern to the Hinman family.  They lived five miles from a saloon called The Dog House,  which in Edward E. Hinman’s youth was reputedly the last openly operated dogfighting club on the west coast.  Prohibition shut it down in 1919.  It has reopened several times since, under a variety of owners,  but not with dogfighting as part of the entertainment.   ––Merritt Clifton

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