BOOKS: Jim Mason on the nature of unnatural acts

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots
of Our Domination of Nature and Each
Other, by Jim Mason. Simon & Schuster
(Rockefeller Centre, 1230 Ave. of the Americas, New
York, NY 10020), 1993. 298 pages, $24 hardcover.
“The Slave,” a powerful sculpture by Michelangelo,
depicts a man struggling to break free of the stone from which
he is partially formed. This image is repeatedly brought to
mind by An Unnatural Order, for the heart of Jim Mason’s
argument is that humankind is a coldly perverse and destruc-
tively struggling entity as a result of a futile effort to distance
ourselves from the natural and animal world from which we

Mason contends that the first hunter-gatherer com-
munities––those closest to the animal world––while not per-
fect, had at least a respectful working relationship with
nature. In all probability these tribes felt a healthy guilt for
what few harms they inflicted on their kin, the animals, as is
deduced from atonement ceremonies, still practiced by some
societies. More importantly, in many tribal communities,
particularly those which had developed rudiments of crop
management, women were the sex more likely to be held in
high regard, partly because of their work with the crops but
mainly because they were the childbearers. As such, because
of their apparent ability to tap into the “magic” of nature,
women were regarded as having mystical powers, leading
even to the development of matriarchal societies.
Mason holds that two developments forever altered
this trend, leading inexorably to our present state of affairs.
One, men figured out that the penis was not just a joy-stick,
but was necessary to the act of procreation as the womb; and
two, people found they could domesticate animals. The larg-
er the animal that could be domesticated, the more humani-
ty’s vision quickened. What it quickened into was agri-cul-
ture, which Mason hyphenates to emphasize the implications
and burden of Culture. Mason argues that this change
required an abrupt reversal of humanity’s worldview, from
the belief in kinship with animals and nature to being able,
through denial and repression, to put aside kinship to control
and exploit nature as a commodity.
However far humanity came in terms of technology
and abstract thought, apparently it was never far eough to
escape fear of being reabsorbed into Nature. Mason theorizes
that because women were seen to be more associated with
nature, men completed the appropriation of power to them-
selves by assigning women to a status just a little above that
of cattle. Taboos arose concerning women, as men came to
hate and fear them because of their terror of falling back into
bestial Nature through sexual relations. On these terms agri-
culture swept the world. Many of the great applied philoso-
phers from whose ideas we have developed our present-day
social and cultural systems based their ideas upon agricultural
practices of subjugation, manipulation, and endless oppres-
Mason details the path of agricultural evolution
through the world and the ages in a fascinating, well-framed
linkage of cause and effect. Beyond the history, there is the
psychology of agriculture, which not only saw the natural
world as one big commodity to be exploited, but also went so
far as to consider unexploited Nature evil. Animals represent-
ing subsconscious natural aspects of ourselves, particularly
wolves, bears, and bulls, came to be particularly viciously
hunted and brutalized. Even our most prized pets, Mason
argues, are bred to appear less and less natural. Mason
believes we keep pets and prize their affection as at-hand
proof of the rightness of our dominion.
Religion has worked hand-in-glove with agri-cul-
ture. Much of the Old Testament chronicles the cattle-rich
but land-hungry Hebrews crushing the old pagan tribal reli-
gions. Laws and instructions on cattle breeding are included
in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. From such beginnings, reli-
gious leaders ran with the idea of conquering nature, culmi-
nating with pathological ascetics who to this day restrict any
activity that can be seen as “bestial,” sex being the target of
the most obsessive and crushing edicts.
Mason’s prescription for reversing the damage is
weak in contrast to the strength of his description of whence it
came. “My own view,” he writes, “is that the primal world-
view, updated by a scientific understanding of the living
world, offers the best hope for human spirituality…then,
once again, we could feel for the world…we could feel our
continuum with the living world.”
Had he gone into more detail about what he means
by “the primal worldview,” Mason’s notion might have more
impact. As it is, his prescription pales beside the image of
the conquering pioneers who opened up new vistas, not only
of real estate but of space. The favorable view of the aggres-
sive nature-hating conqueror runs too deep and too strong in
human mythology to be reversed by a few words promoting a
“primal worldview.” Every form of human communication
extols the conquering hero; there is no mythology to rival
that of the conqueror, whom other theorists see as the sym-
bolic or literal dominant male found and indeed required by
many animal societies including that of our cousins, the
gorillas. No amount of documentation of the horrific excess-
es of conquest will replace the glory of conquest in the human
As anthropologists once searched for a biological
“missing link,” so it appears there must have been at some
point a psychological “missing link,” the transition point
when the primitive human sense of kinship with nature shift-
ed toward alienation. Mason notes that when the North
American indigenous peoples discovered they could trade
animal pelts for even crude technology, they quickly
exchanged their own attitude of kinship with animals for
rationalized exploitation. What made this exchange possible?
Was it not the often shortsighted self-interest of any species
coming to the fore? It is true that with the burgeoning power
of abstract reasoning and recorded memory, humanity imag-
ined itself to be elevated, blessed, god-like and above
Nature. But it is not necessarily true that we escaped natural
motivations and thought-processes, no matter how far
removed from them we imagined ourselves to be.
Recognition of our retained animality may now be
in the collective cultural wind, and may be one genuinely
hopeful sign for the future. The paganism that the Hebrews
and their spiritual descendents tried to crush is not only still
alive but flourishing, however bogus and silly some of its
manifestations appear. Disillusionment with materialism and
the denial of nature has been a recurring theme in our cultural
life at least since Romanticism arose simultaneous with the
Industrial Revolution, which applied the organizational
approaches of animal husbandry to machines and the people
who ran them, then took mechanical methods back to agri-
culture––as Mason and Peter Singer discussed in A n i m a l
Factories (1980, updated 1990). The view that we must
somehow get back to nature is widespread; but until we
break the paradigm of dominionism, developed in the subju-
gation of livestock, the means of doing it short of sacrificing
all our civilized gains may continue to elude us.
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