NPR science reporter David Baron has a new book out, called The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature. Baron's book is about the return of cougars to the
But, in light of the book's subtitle, I don't think it will be terribly unfair if I use this story as a, er, parable. For the story it tells is, at core, an old one: Monsters are loose, and some people know it, while others pretend not to.
It's a standard theme, from old tales to modern stories like Harry Potter and Buffy. The modern twist is that some people see it as moral to take the side of the people-eaters. One suspects that this isn't so much in spite of the people-eating, but because of it.
Cougars were once regarded as timid, fearful of humans, and far more likely to flee at the sight of people than to regard us as food. Of course, there was a reason for that: for millennia, humans had attacked Cougars whenever possible, regarding them as a menace to safety and as competitors for valuable game. Showing one's face around Indians produced arrows, spears, and torches; later on, appearing around European settlers produced a faceful of lead. Aggressive cougars tended to die young, or to receive sufficient aversive conditioning to learn to leave humans alone.
on, a generalized revulsion against predators set in. As Baron notes
(it's the source of his title, in fact), meat-eating was supposed by
some to have begun with Original Sin -- "carnivores" in the Garden of
Eden were said to have eaten fruits. In the post-lapsarian world,
however, hunting was long seen as something manly, championed by those,
like Teddy Roosevelt, who feared that excessive urbanization and
industrialization would cause Americans to become too distanced from
the reality of nature. But as that distancing took place in spite of
then "fluffy bunny" syndrome extended itself to become "fluffy mountain
lion syndrome." Government-sponsored cougar hunting ended, bounties
were removed, and cougars started to make a comeback.
at this point that Baron's book -- which is very much nonfiction --
starts to read like a thriller novel. Scientists and outdoorsmen began
to warn of danger, but they were ignored by both the
In the end, of course, people started to be eaten, and the bureaucracy woke up to a degree. There's lots of interesting stuff in Baron's book about ecological change, and the folly of seeking "wilderness" without recognizing humanity's role in nature, but to me the most interesting behavior isn't the predatory nature of the cougars -- which are, after all, predators -- but the willful ignorance of human beings. So many were so invested in the notion that by thinking peaceful thoughts they could will into existence a state of peaceful affairs that they ignored the evidence right in front of them, which tended to suggest that cougars were quite happy to eat anything that was juicy, delicious, and unlikely to fight back.
is, as Baron notes, something of a parable -- and not merely a parable
of man and "nature." One need only look at the treatment of such other
topics as crime, terrorism, and warfare to see examples of the same
sort of misplaced sentimentality and willful ignorance. Tolerance of
criminality leads to more crime; tolerance of terrorism leads to more
terrorism; efforts to appear defenseless lead to war.
Nonetheless, the same strand of wishful thinking appears: perhaps this time, the cougars won't want to eat us. Some people, apparently, would rather be dinner than face up to the fact that nature is red in tooth and claw, and that -- in this fallen world, at least -- the lion lies down with the lamb only after the lamb's neck is broken. (Worse yet is the noxious strand of liberalism that suggests we somehow deserve to be dinner.)
effort to remake the world so that it is safe for predators seems
rather odd to me. What sort of person would rather be prey? The sort
who lives in upscale neighborhoods, and campaigns against hunting,
apparently. I suspect that over the long term this isn't a viable
evolutionary strategy in a world where predators abound.