Beasts by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

In Beasts, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson strives to link our moral shortcomings as humans to our subpar treatment of animals. Masson includes various instances of anecdotal evidence as support for his claims, but by the end, his overly-preachy tone tends to nullify his argument.

Not that Beasts isn’t interesting – there are many intriguing aspects about it. Murder is something strictly unique to humans. Chimps can be pretty nasty, but their behavior pales in comparison to the misdeeds of man. Masson repeatedly points to the domestication of certain animal species as a turning point in our evilness. Because we no longer had to hunt animals in their native environment, we lost respect for those creatures and developed increasingly cruel ways to destroy them. It seems that Masson is a vegetarian, so he is quite vocal that we would be better off without domestication. However, Masson really likes dogs, so dogs don’t count. He goes out of his way to explain that dogs “chose” to be domesticated because they just really liked people, so it’s okay to have these animals as pets.

It was really his long-winded justification of dogs that turned me off to this book. To demonize one form of domestication while embracing another is pretty hypocritical, and Masson is completely blind to it. Plus, it’s a reasonably well-accepted fact that domestication was a huge and beneficial step for us as a species. Yes, we do some terrible things to animals when preparing them to become the next Big Mac, but I’m not entirely convinced that my love of Chick-fil-a’s superb nuggets makes me evil, as Masson consistently suggests.

The discussions of orca intelligence and elephant compassion are neat, but they are all anecdotal and there is little scientific evidence presented. Plus Masson’s holier-than-though voice quickly becomes nauseating. I don’t know that he intended this, but the overriding message of Beasts is that we are all evil because of our collective treatment of animals, but that Masson himself is considerably less evil because dogs wanted to be domesticated anyway.

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