Monster of God: The Man-eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind by David Quammen
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003
Borrowed from my local library.
A wonderful book by one of my favorite science science writers. Quammen has given us an in-depth report on a great struggle in human history. What do humans do when they find themselves becoming prey and how do we learn to live with those animals who, like us, find themselves at the top of the food web?
…For as long as Homo Sapiens has been sentient-for much longer if you count the evolutionary wisdom stored in our genes-alpha predators have kept us acutely aware of our membership within the natural world. They’ve done it by reminding us that to them we’re just another flavor of meat…
…While we humans may be the most reflective members of the natural world, we’re not (in my view, anyway) its divinely appointed proprietors. Nor are we the culmination of evolution, except in the sense that there has never been another species so bizarrely ingenious that it could create both iambic pentameter and plutonium. (from page 13)
By focusing on four top predators, visiting their home territory and interviewing local scientists, hunters and others about human contact with those predators, the author reminds us of things we may have forgotten. What it is like to live in a place where we fear being attacked, injured and possible eaten by the animals that live around us. How have people managed to live in balance with those animals? How can we insure their survival as more and more of their territory is destroyed by our need for control?
Asiatic Lions that manage to survive in a tiny area of Western India, Salt water crocodiles in Australia, Brown Bears in Romania and the Amur Tiger in the wilds of Eastern Russia are featured in a book that blends the history, biology, politics and culture of human-big predator interaction. One of my favorite parts is Quamman’s explanation of human exploration and colonization, the “taming of the wilderness”.
Achieving military victory over the indigenous tribes, whoever they are, is sometimes the easiest part of the whole process. The land itself, the ecosystem, must be defeated too – or so the invaders think. The foreign wilderness must be mastered, made tractable, if not utterly subdued and transformed. That requires, at the lower end of the size scale, coping with pestiferous local microbes and parasites, which sometimes present the fiercest resistance of all. Malaria certainly slowed the white conquest of Africa. At the upper end of the scale it means rooting out those big flesh-eating beasts that rule the woods and the rivers and the swamps, that offer moral peril to the unwary, and that hold pivotal significance within the belief systems of the natives. Kill off the sacred bear. Kill off the ancestral crocodile. Kill off the myth-wrapped tiger. Kill off the lion. You haven’t conquered a people and their place, until you’ve exterminated their resident monsters. (From page 254)
Another thing I enjoyed about Monster of God was the author’s inclusion of religion and mythology. All of those monster stories, all of the tales of heroes conquering ravenous beasts and fire-breathing serpents came from somewhere.
Anzu, as know from Babylonian poetry, was a furious lion-headed eagle. Polyphemus, son of sea god Poseidon, was the cyclops who ate several of Odysseus’ men, scarfed them like shucked crawfish, before Odysseus paid him back with that archetypical affliction, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. The Chimera was a fire-snorting goat-lion-snake. The Sphinx was a sadistic woman-faced lion, who devoured people after teasing them with her stupid riddle. The Labbu, another formidable Babylonian monster, was 630 miles long, with huge eyelids. It’s high protein diet included fish, wild asses, birds and people, until Tishpak or some other heroic intervener (the sources are patchy) vanquished it. The original meaning of the word labbu, by the way, was lion. (from page 262)
I love this stuff. And I appreciate the author’s sense of humor when dealing with an issue that have terrified humans since before we stood upright. Monster of God is a joy to read and a sobering reminder of our place in the world.