GREENBERG (1998) The Beasts in the Brain (TVUUC Service)



I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men,

that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they  themselves are beasts.

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts;

even one thing befalleth them:

as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath;

so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

(Ecclesiastes: 3:18-19)





SUNDAY, JULY 28, 1998

PRELUDE . . . . . . . “Mussorgsky Meditation” . . . . . . . . Anne Snyder




Let people living in all lands

Declare that fear and hate are done.

Rise above differences and stand

In love and understanding, one.


WELCOME and ANNOUNCEMENTS . . . . . . . .Kathy Greenberg


Opening Prayer

(Adapted from Henry Beston, The Outermost House)


Lord, grant us “a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of  animals.

Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice,

we  in civilization survey the creatures through the glass of our knowledge

and see them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate

of having taken form  so far below ourselves.

And therein we err, and greatly err, for we shall not take measure of the animal.


In a world older and more complete then ours  they move finished and complete,

gifted with extensions of the senses we have  lost or never attained,

living by voices we shall never hear. 

They are not  brethren, they are not underlings, they are other nations,

caught with  ourselves in the net of life and time,

fellow prisoners of the splendour and  travail of the earth.”




*OPENING HYMN, # 175: “We Celebrate the Web of Life”




OFFERTORY . . . . . . Sheep my Safely Graze (Bach) . . . . . . . Anne Snyder




Responsive Reading #529 . . . . . . . .“The Stream of Life” . . . . . . . . Rabindranath Tagore



*Closing HYMN #15 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . “The Lone Wild Bird”






*the congregation standing as they are able







I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men,

that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they  themselves are beasts.

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts;

even one thing befalleth them:

as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath;

so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

(Ecclesiastes: 3:18-19)



In the very earliest time,

when both people and animals lived on the earth,

a person could become an animal if he wanted to

and an animal could become a human being.


Sometimes they were people

and sometimes animals

and there was no difference.


All spoke the same language.


That was the time when words were like magic.

The human mind had mysterious powers.


A word spoken by chance

might have strange consequences.


It would suddenly come alive

and what people wanted to happen could happen —

all you had to do was say it.


Nobody could explain this:

That’s the way it was.


Sometimes they were people

and sometimes animals

and there was no difference.[i]          (Read by Jessica)

It is not like that anymore!    We have left home, and we are lonely.


There is a phrase, nostalgia de le bouie (??), a nostalgia-like longing to return to a place we never really knew – at least not in our conscious minds!


How might this have come about? 

In the infancy of our species nature provided our predators as well as our prey.


The tiniest bits of information about the world might be crucial to our survival

or our ability to more fully express ourselves



So — we scrutinize these bits — bewildered by some,  comforted by others

– we were born natural scientists– observing, making predictions 

— cobbling our discoveries into the easily-remembered patterns we call “stories.”


We  found that the positions of the stars told us the seasons,

the texture, color, and smell of soil told us what might or might not grow,

the movements of birds told us what they saw or didn’t see. 

We were natural scientists and our lives depended on it.


But everything is in balance, has a cost: sometimes our companions are our competitors, shifting from one to the other because of a seemingly trivial change in climate, in resources.


So, Paranoia is sometimes a survival strategy.  When in doubt, be afraid!


Of course RESPECT would be better than fear – we NEED fire sometimes but it IS dangerous –

– but respect requires understanding –and it is hard work.  

the more we understand it, the more we can accommodate ourselves to those  non-negotiable aspects of nature  and just maybe we can learn to control the rest.


(Remember the old PRAYER? Made popular by Reinhold Niebuhr:


GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 

Courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.


Our lives are the pursuit of wisdom


Here is where RELIGION comes in – RE-LIGATE – to tie back together that which has been separated – in this case we have succumbed to ancient fears and so we are separated from all animals.



We may love the occasionally cuddly kitten, or stout-hearted companion dog,

or seemingly wise owl or whale or elephant 


– but largely to the extent they resemble us


or represent something we admire or may be attracted to.


UT ethologists Gordon Burghardt and Hal Herzog once asked “Is Bre’r Rabbit our Brother?


Their research showed that we sense a moral or ethical obligation to critters we share the world with in proportion to their resemblance to us:  


furry like a koala?  Little hands like a tiny lizard? 

Big eyes, baby-like whimpers?  Gorgeous song like a bird? 


Our decisions seem more aesthetic than moral


SO, some animals are cute –remind us of ourselves, But it is much deeper than that Animals also represent our ancestors


And our family relations are a mixture of love and fear


This is another reason we often avoid thinking of animals as brethren  (like embarrassing relatives)

they remind us we could regress ! 


We could fall back to those amoral, self-destructive ways.  In fact, we do! 

We have built –perhaps a house of cards– on the foundations they provided



And in our neuro-archeological investigations, digging into the deepest interstices of our minds we find — too often — There is the soul of an animal ancestor, curled up, sleeping fitfully : The Beast in the Brain!

The vast part of our brain serves the basic needs we have in common with ALL animals – our bodily functions, safety, reproduction . . .


But we have –like a blanket tossed lightly over this seething neuronal ecosystem, an innovation.


We do not know why it developed — but it gives us a sense of time – and helps us look ahead  – It gives a sense of the future (and maybe thereby the consequences of our actions)


Other creatures do not have this gift – it has become our proudest possession –   we call it . . . “consciousness.”  


A cerebral machine which, when invoked, can OVER-RIDE those deeper animal impulses.   Still, like a serpent in a thin cotton sack, we can see its rippling potential –

it is, in fact, the power source for all we are and will be–


 –we will never supplant this force BUT we can CHANNEL its course — here a dam, there a canal: the TVA project of the soul!   


It is the charioteer that Plato spoke of someplace, trying to guide two powerful but barely disciplined horses.



What makes us human?  This thin crust on our brains?  The less than 3% of our genes?  – and then only a few of the genes at that — and those are engaged in an impossible juggling act — and sometimes the juggler drops a ball.


Take chromosome-7 –a certain defect here will result in children that manifest many of the most valued attributes of humans: they are extremely sensitive to other’s feelings. They have the most engaging and charming habits  -wholly loveable; and seemingly attributable to a rare birth disorder called Williams syndrome. People so afflicted seek out companionship, converse easily, and  grow up with an enthusiastic friendliness and warmth towards strangers as well as friends.  They remember you (an amazing auditory-verbal memory and recall for names and faces). 


They are also tragically afflicted with heart and blood vessel defects, elevated blood calcium during childhood associated with mild to moderate mental retardation.[i]


Perhaps every aspect of consciousness has its special price:


And the big one, it seems is that we know we are different from ALL other nature



and, strangely from ourselves because we carry our natural heritage within us.


And that story-telling ability?  It can be almost as bad, we are so compelled to weave stories to pretend the incomprehensible makes sense, we end up ALIENATED FROM MYSTERY 

–why should this or that wonder be? 

No problem?  That’s the way god wanted it and who are we to question him?


We often watch animals at the zoo — but down deep they are reminders that someplace such animals live free   — A great depth of feeling comes with just knowing that there are wild grizzlies in the North country, herds of unfettered bison or elk, red pandas in northern China.



This is a new argument for the preservation of biodiversity: Of course it is important to the stability of the web of life – but recently, Stephen Kellert argues that the affinity we feel for animals – “Biophilia” E.O. Wilson recently called it—  is an important part of our spiritual lives which would be devastated by a loss of biodiversity: 

“Far more may be at stake than just the diminution of peoples material options.  The degradation of life on earth might also signify the possibility of diminished emotional and intellectual well-being and capacity,”[ii] in part attributable to the loss of crucial symbols.[iii]


In our fear we have tried to destroy what we cannot know (and thus control) – like the once starving child that  must now eat itself into insensibility whenever it sees food, or the pauper that becomes the wealthy miser. 


But free, wild animals –and their abode – the Unknown Places keep the sense of mystery alive – wellspring of spirituality and religion . . . . still  alive




The great naturalist, Aldo Leopold wrote:  “Ever since paleolithic man became conscious that his own home hunting ground was only part of a greater world, Unknown Places have been a seemingly fixed fact in human environment, and usually a major influence in human lives.  Sumerian tribes, venturing the Unknown Places, found the valley of the Euphrates and an imperial destiny.  Phoenician sailors, venturing the unknown sea, found Carthage and Cornwall and established commerce upon the earth.  Hanno, Ulysses, Eric, Columbus — history is but a succession of adventures into the Unknown.   For unnumbered centuries the test of men and nations has been whether they ‘chose rather to live miserably in this realm, pestered with inhabitants, or to venture forth, as becometh men, into those remote lands.’  And now, speaking geographically, the end of the Unknown is at hand. . . . . Is it to be expected that it shall be lost from human experience without something likewise being lost from human character?”[iv]


Diary  February 4, 1996.   I just read John Hay’s reflection on how technology contributes to our alienation from place and nature, and then Aldo Leopold’s thoughts on how the existence of Unknown Places may be integral to the human character. 


BUT surely there are other Unknown Places closer to home —

not just a great beyond, but a  great within  — the are Mysteries we live with daily — and we could disappear into them with just a few steps.  


You know about these places. 

And most of us fear them as much as any seething jungle or arid desert.

The Beast in our Brain used to live there !


IN ANY EVENT, we are, as Paul Shepherd said, a product of the animals –

they “made” us, he said-


WE EVOLVED in an environment in which they were a critical concern


–so it is reasonable that we should today possess feelings that were forged within us

–even before we were fully human –  


And it is also reasonable that we have little idea where these feelings came from


These animals are not just animals  — they seem to be the key to something

Perhaps in  knowing them, might we better know ourselves


– if only we could talk to them – they could teach us so much . . .



Talking to the Animals


IF ONLY these creatures could talk to us, all mysteries would become transparent, we could NEGOTIATE, the fear of the beast within would be less terrible –BUT they don’t speak to us — at least not in words

(indeed we often do not speak to each other in words!)


 — AND to the extent that what is MOST IMPORTANT cannot be uttered, we KNOW we have not yet left the beast behind):


The best things cannot be told, the second best are  misunderstood.  After that comes civilized conversation;  after that, mass indoctrination; after that,  intercultural exchange.   And so, proceeding, we come to  the problem of communication: the opening, that is to  say, of one’s own truth and depth to the depth and truth  of another in such a way as to establish an authentic  community of existence.[i] (Joseph Campbell)[ii]


Could we not have such a community with the beasts ??  We don’t need words for that!


To humans (with their sense of time and change and the capacity for symbolism) nothing can simply be what it is –anything can be the nexus of everything  –everything is connected by more-or-less threads of causation and consequences, resemblances and associations; in our depths, things can be transmuted to metaphors depending on our prevailing or momentary need.  Scientists can enumerate, categorize, and search for patterns in the relationships of humans with other animals, or animals can be elaborate tropes or embodiments of a particular ensemble of attributes.  Historically, animals are mediators for idealized traits.


Ralph Waldo Emerson[iii]  said that  “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.”


Somehow, we know there is something to be learned from animals.[iv],[v]  The connections are obvious, particular with those of survival/economic interest.  What we know of animals helps us predict their actions and thereby guides us in protecting ourselves from them or exploiting them.  Domesticated animals work with us, for us, or feed us.  As companion animals are they simple surrogates or are they links –if only symbolic– between ourselves and a deeper level of being.


Like messengers between ourselves and an otherwise unknowable nature.  Snakes, particularly those that seemed to appear from and return to the earth with magical rapidity[vi], are like messengers from earth-bound deities, just as some birds could communicate with heavenly gods.


Communications from animals has a certain authenticity.  They are innocent, free of deceit and the perversities of civility (Man, Moliere said, I can assure you, is a nasty creature[vii] ).  Free from the perversities of civilization, they are relatively happy[viii] and perhaps we may be as well if we could be more like them.[ix]


They are often seen to live in a state of grace, perhaps because they possess secrets we covet.  It appears that “All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it” Samuel Butler[x] tells us.


And animals manifest traits we admire or can learn from:   Machiavelli’s Prince must be both a fox and a lion[xi] while Huey Newton’s black panther is a fierce animal that attacks when cornered[xii]


It is said that humans are the story-telling animals. 



Did you know that there is a module in our minds – an agglomeration of neurons that will not rest until it has provided the most plausible possible explanation of a phenomenon – and failing any reasonable facts it will –as they say– confabulate them.




Here are, for example, a few Animal Stories (note, in particular, the QUALITY of the evidence on which these stories are based — recalling here –and hopefully in the future — Sir Francis Bacon’s caution: “If a man shall begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”[xiii]



“But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee;

and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee:

Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee;

and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.”

(Job 12:7‑8)



The emperor accepted the gift graciously – a long –about 3 feet– tapered ivory horn.  His expert confirmed that it grew this way, it was not carved from an elephant tusk.  In all the accumulated wisdom of his great library, only one source seemed possible, a unicorn – so!  The myths were true!    There were lots of authoritative sightings by travelers to unknown lands, and The Bestiary was clear: “. . . a very small animal like a kid, excessively swift, with one horn in the middle of his forehead, and no hunter can catch him . . . often fights with elephants, and conquers them by wounding them in the belly” (Bestiary p21).


Finally – one was captured and put on display – only problems were that it was much larger than previously believed, rather squat, had the horn (or sometimes two) on the tip of its nose rather than the forehead, and was rather smelly – there are four in the Knoxville zoo.



“The fact that it has just one horn on its head means what he [Jesus] himself said: ‘I and the Father are One’.  Also, according to the apostle, ‘The head of the Christ is the Lord’.”



The scientists who study nature say that the lion has three main characteristics. The first is that it loves to roam amid  mountain peaks.  If it happens that the lion is pursued by hunters, it picks up their scent and obliterates the traces behind it with its tail. As a result, they cannot track it.



Thus  our Saviour, a spiritual lion, of the tribe of Judah, the root of Jesse, the son of David, concealed the traces of his love in  heaven until, sent by his father, he descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary and redeemed mankind, which  was lost.[i]



THE TREE SHREW, Tupaia , is a squirrel size mammal that lives in Asia which signals its distress by bristling a tuft of hair at the tip of its tails (this tail bristling was determined to be a good indication of physiological stress)


Tree shrews families are close and loving – at least mutually caring–  Parents cuddle their young and rub their fur with secretions from a gland beneath their chin.


As young enter adolescence you won’t be surprised to learn that their parents’ tails begin to bristle!  Eventually the parents attack their young, causing them to leave the nest.

The same stress that causes tail bristling causes the chin glands to dry up 


–chinning of the young is cute, tender, affecting –and important.

Whosoever approaches without the protective scent is attacked. 

–The chin gland secretion is the way that the parent recognizes the other critter!



change your parents’ chemistry and they might cannibalize you (one way or another)



prairie voles pair-bond for life and cuddle in their burrows, but the closely related mountain voles or meadow voles mate indiscriminately.


A hormone, called vasopressin, was found to induce pair-bonding in these prairie voles and also to stimulates child-caring behavior.  The parts of the brains of mountain voles responsible for this behavior apparently did not recognize this hormone.  If you gave a blocking drug to a prairie vole it would act like a mountain vole.


With respect to FATHERHOOD –this is the week after Father’s Day–  Monogamous males usually share parenting with females: prairie voles huddle and groom each other and the children in the nest.  (Also,  incest is rare– children do not enter puberty as long as they remain in the nest.)         BUT ONLY if this hormone is released (or injected) in their brains — then they cuddle and care for their offspring with rapt attention.


THEIR MEANING: Fatherhood is the result of the right chemical in the right place at the right time



And thus all the things in the world have an explanation and all observations have a meaning


– in any particular time and place we do the best we can  – why is that so?  A deep place within us asks: and another place answers.


We extract every last measure of relevance from our experiences – we ask, “what can this mean” OR “WHAT CAN THAT MEAN?”  – and a convenient social myth can always be found to put our busy confabulating brain to rest


All things were placed on earth by God for our edification –what could be simpler?  By studying nature we learn about God’s design


– even Cambridge cosmo-guru Stephen Hawking says he scrutinizes, contemplates  the heavens to better know the mind of God!


I am served well for the moment by scrutinizing the behavior of beasts, to better know my own mind


We might all profit by getting to know, perhaps even making friends with the beast in the brain

Please rise as you are able for a hymn and remain standing for the closing benediction





 (adapted from an old Hebrew prayer)


The vast forces of nature can nurture as easily as deny us –

in his essay[i], Thoreau said “In wildness is the preservation of the world”


 From the cowardice that shrinks from the natural world


From the laziness that is content to neglect the natural world


 From the arrogance that thinks it does not need the natural world


  Oh GOD OF ALL NATURE, Deliver us!


[i].  “Walking” 1862


[i]. Aberdeen Bestiary (

[i]. Joseph Campbell 1968 The  Masks of God: Creative Mythology p.84

[ii]. Language and thought.  Many people (particularly animal lovers, watchers of their speechless companions) assume there is a kind of neurological language that enables thought –if only we could understand it!  Derek Bickerton (in “Language and human Behavior” is convinced that to think deep thoughts we must be able to organize sentences, language empowers abstract thought.  At one time, the relatively crude language of children or that which we can train monkeys to utilize might have sufficed for quite a bit, elementary problem solving.  But what Bickerton calls “off-line thinking” –reflecting on past events emerged out of this protolanguage.  As words other than nouns emerged –words about words (words like “that” and  “why” and “because” and  “for” and “but” and “like” and  “and”)– This must have emerged, in Bickerton’s view as the result of a reorganization of the brain that led to connections between places remote from each other but which allowed syntax, consistent rules for organizing sentences –and ideas.   Interestingly, for hundreds of thousands of years, hominid brains grew steadily larger (in, e.g., the Northern Chinese caves of Zhoukoudian) while artifacts (and presumably culture) stagnated.  But then that enlarged brain –developed for one reason– was harnessed for other uses: syntax.  Bickerton develops a case for innate syntactical ability out of circumstantial evidence such as his studies on how pidgin languages emerges more-or-less spontaneously (and is converted to Creole in a generation or two) (Language and Thought, 96notes, May 14, 1996)

[iii]. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, in “Nature” Chapter IV. Language,  was reflecting The influence of Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondence between inner and outer worlds.)  – adjacent to the quote: [“The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” and as for spirit, “The world proceeds from the same spirit as the body of man.  It is a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God into the unconscious.. . . “

[iv].  Examples of our communication with animals:  What they tell us, what we can tell them.

  • “Solomon’s Ring”
  • “The Conference of the Birds” (summoned by the Persian Poet Attar to discuss the nature of God)
  • The Nun’s priest Chaucer had invited the barnyard to examine the faults of women
  • “Penguin Island” (Anatole France had penguins consider the follies of religion)
  • “Animal Farm” (George Orwell had the barnyard consider the cruelties of totalitarianism)
  • “Animal Planet” (Scott Bradfield has an animal revolution quelled by seductions of media attention)

[v]. “…. Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there floats a sort of dust‑cloud of  exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and  irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to.” (Wm James 1909)

[vi].  Remember the serpents that afflicted the Hebrew slaves escaping Egypt through the Sinai — Moses erected a staff with a brazen serpent atop to “protect us” — at least calm our fears.

[vii]. L’homme est, je vous l’avoue, un méchant animal. (Molière (Jean‑Baptiste Poquelin) 1622–73,  French comic playwright  in  Le Tartuffe (1669) act 5, sc. 6).

[viii]. I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self‑contained,

        I stand and look at them long and long.

        They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

        They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

        They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

        Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

        Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

        Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

(Walt Whitman (1819–92) American Poet, ‘Song of Myself’ (written 1855) pt. 32)

[ix]. “Be a good animal, true to your instincts,” says D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930, English novelist and poet) in The White Peacock (1911, pt. 2, Ch. 2). The English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) tells us that “People are beginning to see that the first requisite to success in life is to be a good animal” (in Education (1861) Ch. 2)

[x].  “All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.” (Samuel Butler (1835–1902) English novelist and sometime sheep farmer, in The Way of All Flesh (1903) Ch. 19)

[xi].  “Since, then, a prince is necessitated to play the animal well, he chooses among the beasts the fox and the lion, because the lion does not protect himself from traps; the fox does not protect himself from wolves. The prince must be a fox, therefore, to recognize the traps and a lion to frighten the wolves.”  (Uno principe necessitato sapere bene usare la bestia, debbe di quelle pigliare la golpe e il lione; perchè il lione non si defende da’lupi. Bisogna, adunque, essere golpe a conoscere e’ lacci, e lione a sbigottire e’ lupi.  — Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) (Florentine statesman and political philosopher, in: Il Principe (1513) ch.18, translated by Allan Gilbert).

[xii]. Huey Newton (1942– ), American political activist, suggested  [in 1966] “that we use the panther as our symbol and call our political vehicle the Black Panther Party. The panther is a fierce animal, but he will not attack until he is backed into a corner; then he will strike out.”  (in Revolutionary Suicide (1973) Ch. 16)

[xiii]. Francis Bacon Adv Learning, I,8 1605


[i]. Williams Syndrome also involves distinctive facial appearance you might call elfin.  There are also visuo-spatial problems: if asked to assemble a model or a simple piece of furniture, the person is helpless. (In my Ethology/lecture/notes/pleiotropy)

[ii]. Kellert’s argument (in The Value of Life, Island Press) is employed to disarm critics of efforts to preserve biodiversity by labeling them insensitive to the many “implications [that] stem from the notion that people have a fundamental physical, emotional, and intellectual dependence on nature and living diversity.”   But in his critique, Stephen Budiansky reminds us that It is not so easy to be sure that various sociological subgroups view nature with an innate affinity and historically there is considerable evidence that nature was often viewed less sentimentally with (for example) fear and loathing (in New Scientist 23/30 December 1995 pp. 66-67).  I don’t see this as a devastating counter argument because many natural phenomena or forces of nature are ambivalent:  our love or need for god is not lessened by our fear or awe.

[iii]. “The human need for metaphoric expression finds its greatest fulfillment through reference to the animal kingdom. . . . if we continue our destructiveness toward nature, does this mean that human language will contain fewer and fewer symbolic references to animals– with consequent impoverishment of thought and expression?” (“Well,” Stephen Budiansky tells us, “we will always have the word ‘bullshit’ to fall back on.”)

[iv]. Aldo Leopold in The River of the Mother of God: And Other Essays (Univ Wisc; edited by Susan L Flader and J. Baird Callicott) cited in ATC, NYTBR 6/16/91 p. 31.


[i]. The Inuit woman Nalungiaq told the ethnologist Knud Rasmussen (early 20th century; Trans Edw Field in Jerome & Diane Rothenberg (eds.) Symposium of the Whole, Berkeley, UC Press 1983)