BOOKS: The Emperor’s Embrace

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1999:

The Emperor’s Embrace:
Reflection on Animal Families and Fatherhood
by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Pocketbooks (c/o Simon & Schuster, 1230 Ave. of the Americas,
New York, NY 10020), 1999. 253 pages, hardcover. $24.00.

At the recent No Kill Conference in
Chicago, I told seven fellow participants in a
round-table discussion group about an extraordinary
old feral tomcat named Bull, whom we
sheltered for the last two years of his life.
Bull, immensely popular with almost all other
cats but deeply mistrustful of humans, came
to our notice because he fed and looked after
two kittens through a Connecticut winter in
the wrecked car that was his former home.
Three of the seven No Kill conferees,
all of them veteran feral cat rescuers, had
also encountered cases of tomcats feeding and
protecting kittens––exactly opposite to the
stereotype of tomcats as kitten-killers.

To be sure, marauding toms do kill
kittens, and all of us had seen that, too. But
resident boss toms generally do not, and in an
emergency certain toms evidently become
quite active nurturing fathers.
This repeated field observation
directly contradicts “the book” on cat behavior.
But as Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson points
out, “the book” on male animal behavior has
been upside down and backward for centuries.
A growing body of ethological data suggests
that while in certain species the old stereotypes
of terrifying, tyranical, or mostly absent
fathers seem to hold up most of the time,
fatherhood roles are far more complex and
more varied among most mammals and birds,
and even among some fish and reptiles.
Immense behavioral variations are becoming
evident not only from species to species, but
also within species. In general, the more
intelligent the animal, the more variation in
behavior which may be attributed to upbringing,
acculturation, and individual character.
Plainly put, some male animals
seem to choose to be good fathers, influenced
largely but not exclusively by the fathering or
other male mentoring they received.
Regardless of their own upbringing, Masson
explains, good fathers seem to be those who
show the most insight and consideration about
what they are doing. Other fathers, whose
own fathers tend to have been abusive or
absent, seem to perpetuate negative patterns
with relative thoughtlessness.
Most of The Emperor’s Embrace
describes animal behavior, reviewing the scientific
literature and folklore on topics including
paternity, monogamy, nurturing, defending,
teaching, and infanticide. The specific
information is interesting enough, but most
revealing are Masson’s accounts of how and
why behavior has been misunderstood and
misrepresented, and what the errors reveal
about ourselves.
Masson outlines one focal point in
his introduction.
“While we do not resemble wolves
genetically as much as we resemble chimpanzees,”
he writes, “from the point of view
of our behavior we are much more like wolves
than chimps––in the way we parent, for
example. I think this is why we domesticated
the wolf into the dog, but have never domesticated
any of the great apes.
“There is another way in which we
are perhaps closer to wolves than to practically
any other species,” Masson continues. “With
the exception of the cat, no other animal has
chosen to live with us on intimate terms. It is
possible that we selected the wolf, but it is
also possible that the wolf selected us. And
the reason may be this: To some extent, we
are a self-domesticating species. We are the
only species to have neotenized ourselves, to
have attempted (successfully or not) to domesticate
ourselves. What I mean is that we have
gradually become more like our own juveniles,
or at least that seems to be our goal.
Neoteny refers to the love of juvenile characteristics.
It is what makes us find small children
delightful, worthy of care and protection.
I think wolves appreciate this quality in
humans…It seems we are slowly evolving
(even if it is not genetic) away from an earlier
model. We seem not to want to be killing
machines. Moreover, we admire neotony
when we see it in another species. We may be
the only species that reacts to the babies of
another species exactly as do its own parents:
with a deep desire to protect and take care of
the helpless creature in front of us. We are
certainly the only species that [ r o u t i n e l y ] brings another species into our den to feed it
and have it live with us. But the very fact that
we ascribe this ability to wolves, as we see in
our legends of wolf children, demonstrates
once again the similarity that we believe exists
between the two species.”
Masson notes that parallels in the
behavior of wolf families and human families
made it relatively easy for wolves to find
familiar roles among us. But Masson neglects
to consider that many other quasi-wild species,
from mice to mongooses, will readily become
members of a human household if allowed to
do so. A common ancestor of the wolf and
domestic dog applied for residence privileges
among us, and was accepted, as were ancestors
of our cats, but other species’ applications
tend to be declined, not because our
family structures are incompatible but because
these species have less evident utility to us.
Masson later considers how the
domestic dog came to lose the strong sense of
paternal and even avuncular duty characterizing
male wolves, foxes, coyotes, and jackals.
He oddly overlooks the history which might
best make his point: to subordinate canine
families to our own, humans have for thousands
of years deliberately broken the canine
family structure by killing many pronouncedly
“alpha” dogs, and also often killing whole litters,
chiefly for population control but with
the net effect of suppressing behavior oriented
toward protecting a litter. An alpha dog who
is too paternal––or maternal, a.k.a. “bitchy”
––is a potential threat to humans. Therefore,
we have neotenized dogs to the point that most
retain much puppy-like behavior throughout
their lives, and assume adult roles only to
approximately the extent that non-breeding
aunt and uncle wolves do.
In an epilogue, Masson draws from
his observations of how evolution and fatherhood
roles shaped each other within animal
species a series of points about human evolution.
“We evolved,” Masson argues, “to feed
our infants whenever they are hungry; we
evolved to respond quickly to the cries of a
baby; fathers evolved to stay with their children
throughout their entire childhoods, eighteen
years or longer; we evolved (especially
fathers!) to play with our children on a daily
basis; we evolved to travel with our children;
we evolved to be in the natural environment.”
Acculturation frequently contradicts
these natural imperatives, as Masson points
out, with predictably negative consequences.

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