August 3, 2011

The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

The Philosopher and the Wolf

Mark Rowlands

Grade: B


The eleven years philosophy professor Mark Rowlands spent with Brenin the wolf at his side profoundly impacted his life. He came to see himself less as an owner or guardian to the animal than as his brother—generally older, but sometimes younger, depending on the lesson learned, and which of them learned it.

The author immediately learned, for instance, that he could not leave Brenin alone or within moments the wolf would make his displeasure known in severley destructive ways. An adjunct to that lesson: If you keep a wolf, you must add $50k onto the price of your home, to cover the damage. Lesson number two? Well, as a result of lesson number one, Brenin accompanied the professor to class. Over time that required him to adjust the class syllabus with a warning that unless students kept foodstuffs in their backpacks thoroughly locked up, they could expect a visit from a foraging wolf. A third lesson: Brenin’s natural, ahem, exuberence could only be overcome by fatigue, so Rowlands learned to tire him out each day through long, long runs. And a fourth: It’s possible to teach a wolf to heel, but you must out-alpha a wolf, and vigilantly maintain that stance throughout the relationship.

The most important lesson learned, though, was one Brenin taught Rowlands while still a pup. It’s predicated on the author’s thesis that as a result of evolution, the worldview of man is simian in origin. As such we rely on social intelligence, so that our subsequent civilization is built upon scheming, plotting, and lying. That's a condensed, bald description, but I think it's an accurate one. After all, in the review of the book by O, the Oprah Magazine, Rowlands is referred to as misanthropic. Which, frankly, is what drew me into requesting the book from @NetGalley for review.

Rowlands proves his point, at least to a degree. Think about it: We are here as a result of natural selection...survival of the fittest. Our ancestors didn’t stand in line for this or that—they made sure they went to the head of the line, or were the ones to create the line. They weren’t the nice ones or the meek, and the author describes in detail how a congregation of apes maintain their cohesion—through intimidation, side-deals, lying, and covering up—all of which makes his point rather nicely. His discussion of sex in the simian world versus the canine and lupine world fascinated me, and helped prove his point as well.

If apes rely on social intelligence, wolves rely on mechanical intelligence, and in ways that didn’t entirely carry through the process of domestication to dogs—did you know a wolf will learn how to open a door more quickly than a dog? Wolves are big on mechanical thinking while dogs accept a more magical form of thought, which he describes in a funny vingette about telephones.

There’s no subterfuge or grudge-holding in the wolf world; I kind of imagine, in reverse anthropomorphous, that Denis Leary would be a wolf. You see what you get, without any bullshit or sugar-coating.

When Brenin was around two months old...Rugger [a pit bull] lost his temper, grabbed Brenin by the neck and pinned him to the ground. Most puppies would have screeched out in shock and fear. Brenin growled. This was not the growl of a puppy, but a deep and calmn and sonorous growl that belied his tender age. That is strength. And that is what I have always tried to carry around with me, and I hope I always will. as an ape, I will fall short of this; but I have an obligation, a moral obligation, never to forget it and to emulate it as far as I can.If I can only be as strong as a two-month-old wolf cub, then I am a soil where moral evil will not grow.

An ape would have scurried away to darkly plot his revenge; to work out ways of manufacturing weakness in those who are stronger than him and who have humiliated him. And when that work is complete, then evil can be done. I am an ape through accident of birth. But in my best moments I am a wolf cub snarling out my defiance as a pit bull has smashed me into the ground. My growl is a recognition that pain is coming, for pain is the nature of life. It is the recognition that I am nothing more than a cub and, at any time, the pit bull of life can snap my neck like a twig. But it is also the will that I won’t back down, no matter what.

When the shit hits the fan, you will believe. When the shit hits the fan, people look for God. When the shit hits the fan, I remember a little wolf cub.

The Philosopher and the Wolf is filled with wonderful vingettes of Rowlands’ years with Brenin, interspersed with various philosophies, among them Sartre and Nietzche, to explain or justify various aspects of taking a wild animal and domesticating him. I’m not entirely sure his justification is 100% solid, but there’s no way I’m taking on a philosopher, who could talk a ring around me and lock me in within five minutes. In the end I'm satisfied Brenin's life was a happy one.

The book comes alive during those remembrances of Brenin, and occasionally falters when the philosophical or scientific sections seem to prattle on. It’s worth the prattling, because at the end the author does reach his point.

I love wolves and the idea of wolves, but this book is not solely for the wolf-obsessed. For the most part it's well-written, although the author's prose during the preface tended toward the purple. But as soon as Chapter One begins, with his bookending of Brenin's death and their first meeting and first hours together, I realized I was crying and laughing almost simultaneously. The lessons Rowlands imparts engross the reader because as all good teachers do, he provides vivid examples to accompany them. Because in the end what leaves the biggest impression for those who cherish animals, whether wild or domesticated, is the impact Brenin left on his brother.



Debbie said...

Thanks for the review, Laurie. I just placed the book on hold at the library

Laurie Gold said...

Debbie, let me know what you think after you read it.